041911 Bane Pork 2 lacn Pat Bane

Pat Bane, who owns Bane Family Pork Farm in Arrowsmith, Ill., recently made the decision to depopulate.

America’s 2018 Pig Farmer of the Year has no pigs in his barns today.

Central Illinois pig farmer Pat Bane was struck by adversity twice this spring — first by respiratory syndrome (PRRS), then COVID-19 affecting meat processing plant employees. The opportunities for processing plummeted.

“It’s a gut-wrenching situation. We are depopulating our farm,” Bane said on May 27.

It’s unclear if packers will ever return to pre-pandemic slaughter levels because of worker safety and other issues in processors, he said. That, combined with a sick herd, a long road to recovery and loss of opportunity to make money in the industry, led to him to the decision to clear out the barns.

“It went relatively quickly,” he said of the transformation from a farm of lively pigs to one with empty barns.

The pigs are destined for the cull market, instead of being market hogs. There is always a market for culled hogs, but it is also flooded right now as producers depopulate, he said.

Bane was named America’s Pig Farmer through a National Pork Board competition two years ago. The award recognizes someone who has achieved excellence in all aspects of pig farming, including animal care, environmental stewardship, employee work environment and community service. Bane traveled the U.S. as an ambassador and voice for the pork industry.

He said he still feels an obligation to continue to talk about his industry with the public, even when times are tough.

“The industry is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” he said, and he experienced struggles in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Bane’s breed-to-wean pig farm raises 74,000 pigs each year. But in late May, it was a flurry of activity as 3,000 sows left in a couple of weeks.

The first hit this year came in mid-April when Bane discovered PRRS, a viral disease infecting sows and pigs leading to reproductive failure and respiratory issues at his farm.

“We lost some of the mothers,” Bane said.

He has heard of other breakouts of PRRS this spring, but was still surprised and disappointed when it appeared on his farm.

The circumstances this spring were devastating because he prides himself on his top-notch biosecurity practices and being able to fill contracts no matter market challenges, he said.

“It’s a collision of two things,” he said of the disease outbreak at Easter followed by the impact of COVID-19.

Bane, who has been a pig farmer for 25 years, had planned to replace the animals after the disease was cleared and continue producing for his contractor. But at that point in time the contractor was having trouble getting processors to take pigs.

Some contractors find themselves in situations where the processors do not have to take the product.

“There is so much uncertainty,” Bane said.

In the industry today, most large-scale pig farms use contracts as risk protection. The pandemic caused unforeseen changes and disruptions in the industry, putting the validity of those contracts into question and therefore throwing everyone into uncertainty.

“Without that certainty, we are all left hanging,” he said.

This isn’t the first challenging time. Fourteen years ago, the farm depopulated and fumigated and started over.

Currently his staff is busy cleaning the barns.

“Good labor is hard to come by,” he said.

He said he has received some of the federal funding to help pay employees temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We can get by a month or two,” he said of retaining employees.

Even once he gets pigs back in the barn, it will be about six months without revenue while the pigs mature

Bane is still hopeful.

“People want to work with us. We have a good name,” he said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.