While all livestock industries are taking a hit amid closed or slowed processing plants and booked lockers, perhaps none has been as affected as the pork business. That includes large producers like Iowa Falls-based Iowa Select Farms, as well as smaller independent farmers.
According to the National Pork Producers Council, an estimated 10 million hogs will need to be euthanized by this fall. That’s 10 million pigs that have been cared for countless hours by producers big and small. Even should plants, which have been idled or slowed by employee illness, have a fast recovery, millions of hogs will still need to be disposed of. Even if plants were to get back up to speed now, its estimated that in Iowa there are 500,000-plus hogs with no place to go.
“It’s hard to speculate because each plant measures its capacity,” said Iowa Select Farms Communications Director Jen Sorenson. “Right now, we believe the industry average for capacity is 77 percent. That means one-third of the hogs farmers anticipated to market, back when those animals were bred, don’t have a place to go.”
In the meantime, hog producers – including Iowa Select Farms – have begun culling their herds, euthanizing hogs that should be headed for the processing plants.
“Every U.S. pork producer has been forced to make difficult decisions on how to manage this backlog’s impact on their operation,” Sorenson wrote in a press release distributed last week. “The thought of euthanizing entire herds is devastating since a farmer is dedicated to feeding families around the world. Sadly, Iowa Select has been forced to make this heartbreaking decision for some of its herd.”
Veterinarians and production well-being professionals are overseeing the process to ensure accordance with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and American Veterinary Medical Association when it comes to euthanization of pigs. For ISF, that falls on Cassandra Jass - who serves as a staff veterinarian and director of production well-being for Iowa Select.
ISF uses "ventilation shutdown" to cull a portion of its herd. The method includes closing off facility opening, shutting inlet and turning off ventilation fans. This causes the build-up of temperature and and moisture from body heat and respiration of the animals and results in death by hyperthermia. The carcasses are then sent to rendering plants.
“Pork production is a delicately balanced process,” Jass said. “Planning for the pigs that are market-ready today started 10 months ago. Sadly, nobody could foresee the hurdle that we now have to overcome. And, sadly, nobody knows what’s going to happen 10 months from now.”
Jass said the industry as a whole relies on a set amount of pigs to be marketed each week to ensure that there’s more space for weened pigs coming into the growing phase of production. When there’s a market disruption like what’s happening now, it throws the equation off balance and forces producers to face harsh decisions.
In the end, there is little recourse but to euthanize pigs. And that’s been an emotional decision.
“There’s definitely an emotional piece to it because everybody that goes to our farms and has a hand in production, their ultimate goal is to provide for that pig and do what’s best for that pig,” Jass said. “Everything we are doing seems so counter-intuitive to what we strive for every day. But we know at the end of the day, if we don’t do this, it will create more well-being problems than if we do.”
Even when there is a place for producers to deliver their hogs, it’s not nearly enough. Hubbard veterinarian Dr. Doug Quam has been the go-to for smaller producers in the area. One of them approached him as plants began closing in March. With those closures, the Hardin County farmer started losing delivery contracts. Now that plants have opened, he’s gotten some back. But with 4,000 market-ready hogs, it still falls short.
“He has been able to market nine or 10 loads of butchers to packers he has been working with in the past, but this is about half of the loads that should have been marketed at this point,” Quam said. “He has received notice from two of the three packers that he had contracts with that they will no longer be taking his hogs. His plans for the remaining half of his herd is uncertain at this point.”
Sorenson said it’s unrealistic to expect those plants to operate quickly enough to fix the growing backlog. ISF sends hogs to six plants for processing. All have been affected by closing entirely or by the intermittent closure of lines within them.
“Next week the capacity could move up to 80-percent which would be a good indicator for us, but we really need it to get to 100-percent, or 120-percent to start digging ourselves out of the hole,” Sorenson said. “And neither of those numbers are realistic, in my opinion.”