Healthy pigs being killed as meatpacking backlog hits farms

FILE - This April 18, 2020, file photo, shows the JBS USA Pork Plant in Worthington, Minn. Officials estimate that about 700,000 pigs across the nation can't be processed each week and must euthanized. AP photo

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to force the closure of meatpacking plants across the country, hog farmers have had to respond quickly to a rapidly growing backlog of animals in their barns by killing and disposing of pigs.

Posted: May 1, 2020 9:42 AM
Updated: May 1, 2020 9:47 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — After spending two decades raising pigs to send to slaughterhouses, Dean Meyer now faces the mentally draining, physically difficult task of killing them even before they leave his northwest Iowa farm.

Meyer said he and other farmers across the Midwest have been devastated by the prospect of euthanizing hundreds of thousands of hogs after the temporary closure of giant pork production plants due to the coronavirus.

The unprecedented dilemma for the U.S. pork industry has forced farmers to figure out how to kill healthy hogs and dispose of carcasses weighing up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) in landfills, or by composting them on farms for fertilizer.

Meyer, who has already killed baby pigs to reduce his herd size, said it’s awful but necessary.

“Believe me, we’re double-stocking barns. We’re putting pigs in pens that we never had pigs in before just trying to hold them. We’re feeding them diets that have low energy just to try to stall their growth and just to maintain,” said Meyer, who also grows corn and soybeans on his family’s farm near Rock Rapids.

It’s all a result of colliding forces as plants that normally process up to 20,000 hogs a day are closing because of ill workers, leaving few options for farmers raising millions of hogs. Experts describe the pork industry as similar to an escalator that efficiently supplies the nation with food only as long as it never stops.

More than 60,000 farmers normally send about 115 million pigs a year to slaughter in the U.S. A little less than a quarter of those hogs are raised in Iowa, by far the biggest pork-producing state.

Officials estimate that about 700,000 pigs across the nation can't be processed each week and must euthanized. Most of the hogs are being killed at farms, but up to 13,000 a day also may be euthanized at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, went to the plant Wednesday, in part to thank JBS officials for agreeing to kill the hogs at his request.

“The only thing they wanted out of me was for me to come down here and say I’m the one who asked for this, not them. ... Blame me if you don’t like it," he said.

To help farmers, the USDA already has set up a center that can supply the tools needed to euthanize hogs. That includes captive bolt guns and cartridges that can be shot into the heads of larger animals as well as chutes, trailers and personal protective equipment.

Iowa officials have asked that federal aid include funding for mental health services available to farmers and the veterinarians who help them.

Meyer said euthanizing healthy animals is a difficult decision for a farmer.

“It is a tough one," he said. “We got keep our heads up and try to be resourceful and if we can make it through this cloud, I think there will be good opportunities if we’re left standing yet.”

The USDA has a program designed to connect farmers with local meat lockers and small processors that can slaughter some hogs and donate the meat to food banks. However, that effort has been hindered by the fact that small processors already were overwhelmed with customers who have turned away from mass-produced meat and instead bought a hog or cow to be processed locally.

Chuck Ryherd, owner of State Center Locker in State Center, Iowa, said he's almost completely booked through the end of the year and has been turning away customers.

Chris Young, the executive director for the American Association of Meat Processors, a trade group for about 1,500 smaller meat lockers, said that while some local processors in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin have been able to take a few extra hogs, the shortage is being felt nationwide.

“When the pandemic started, all across the country, a lot of these small processing plants with a retail store in the front were just overrun,” he said. “They’re still crazy busy. It hasn’t really backed off.”

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to order that large meat processors remain open, giving hog farmers hope the situation could improve.

However, Howard Roth, a Wisconsin farmer and president of the National Pork Producers Council, said farmers will need to keep euthanizing pigs as the slaughterhouses struggle to resume their full production. Farmers will definitely need federal help to keep them afloat.

“We are going to need indemnity money for these farmers," he said. “This situation is unprecedented."

Peterson also said he’ll seek a change in the law so that the USDA can retroactively compensate farmers for euthanizing healthy animals in such emergencies. He said the USDA told him it doesn’t have the authority at the moment to do that for healthy animals, just diseased animals, as it did during for chickens and turkeys in the bird flu outbreak.

“It’s going to be in there, I’ll guarantee you,” he said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 448268

Reported Deaths: 6013
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin931011480
Ramsey40016739
Dakota33072340
Anoka30999364
Washington20164228
Stearns17871187
St. Louis13690241
Scott1195496
Wright11614104
Olmsted1048475
Sherburne821365
Carver694836
Clay653280
Rice606868
Kandiyohi554371
Blue Earth541033
Crow Wing482774
Otter Tail457167
Chisago452732
Benton420186
Winona389646
Douglas374166
Nobles370846
Mower365529
Goodhue347958
Polk328658
McLeod325345
Morrison311744
Beltrami310347
Lyon302236
Becker284939
Itasca284543
Isanti282841
Carlton280043
Steele27379
Pine266713
Freeborn245321
Todd231730
Nicollet224636
Brown215134
Mille Lacs214246
Le Sueur210015
Cass207623
Meeker199733
Waseca189316
Wabasha17083
Martin170026
Roseau165416
Hubbard149338
Redwood139727
Renville137539
Houston135913
Dodge13474
Chippewa131332
Cottonwood127218
Fillmore12355
Wadena120116
Rock110212
Sibley10857
Aitkin108433
Watonwan10668
Faribault105916
Pennington99215
Kanabec97818
Pipestone94423
Yellow Medicine93714
Murray8815
Jackson85610
Swift83418
Pope7385
Marshall70215
Stevens7018
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65716
Lake63715
Wilkin6259
Koochiching59610
Lincoln4841
Big Stone4573
Unassigned43768
Grant4298
Norman4248
Mahnomen4107
Kittson37219
Red Lake3174
Traverse2503
Lake of the Woods1951
Cook1140

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 305606

Reported Deaths: 4278
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45754449
Linn17795275
Scott15444163
Black Hawk13773236
Woodbury13016175
Johnson1211749
Dubuque11387150
Pottawattamie8992112
Dallas888671
Story869434
Webster469771
Cerro Gordo466768
Sioux455157
Clinton450361
Warren443938
Marshall427761
Buena Vista393429
Muscatine390477
Des Moines381841
Plymouth350368
Wapello344198
Jasper321959
Lee317130
Marion304952
Jones271349
Henry264330
Carroll255434
Bremer245048
Crawford231022
Boone218417
Washington217632
Benton209444
Mahaska193136
Jackson192031
Tama187757
Dickinson186026
Delaware173736
Kossuth173644
Clay168820
Wright164824
Fayette162322
Hamilton160029
Buchanan159923
Winneshiek155719
Harrison155162
Hardin154729
Cedar153219
Clayton151448
Butler148224
Page144715
Floyd139636
Cherokee139027
Mills136416
Lyon135332
Poweshiek132724
Hancock130224
Allamakee127928
Iowa125422
Calhoun12279
Grundy121226
Jefferson120724
Madison12039
Winnebago119429
Mitchell116234
Louisa115030
Cass113341
Chickasaw111612
Sac111215
Emmet110831
Appanoose110538
Union108822
Humboldt105519
Guthrie103024
Shelby102926
Franklin102418
Unassigned9310
Palo Alto9079
Montgomery85622
Keokuk85026
Howard84219
Monroe81218
Clarke7957
Pocahontas77611
Ida74630
Greene6927
Davis69121
Adair68820
Lucas6508
Monona64016
Osceola6409
Worth6113
Taylor5949
Fremont5126
Van Buren49712
Decatur4894
Ringgold4389
Audubon4158
Wayne41421
Adams2963
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: -1°
Feels Like: 27°
Mason City
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 1°
Feels Like: 28°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
37° wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: 0°
Feels Like: 29°
Austin
Partly Cloudy
37° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: -1°
Feels Like: 30°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
36° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 1°
Feels Like: 26°
A roller coaster of temperatures
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

First round of vaccine completed at Good Shepard

Image

City Council discusses future of Legends property

Image

Catholic Presidency

Image

Bringing Urban Agriculture To DMC

Image

First Facility In Mower County To Receive Vaccine

Image

Inauguration Day In Class

Image

Iowa Lawmakers working together

Image

Olmsted County Covid Relief Funds

Image

DMC Diverse workforce

Image

Cerro Gordo County Democrats Zoom Inauguration

Community Events