Pigs finishing building

The USDA finalized a new rule for most U.S. pork processing plants Sept. 17 that allows meatpackers to remove limits on the speed of production lines and place more animal inspection and food safety tasks with company employees.

The impact of COVID-19 on processing livestock and the trickle-down effect to farms is hitting the tipping point. More farmers are worried about the need to euthanize animals in the next few weeks.

The Iowa and Illinois departments of agriculture are working with their state university experts and commodity groups to provide producers with resources to survive the coming weeks when processing capacity won’t match the number of market-ready animals.

Producers will have no place to send animals that surpass the size processors can handle.

“Euthanizing hogs on the farm is a real issue of concern in the next few weeks in Illinois,” said Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

“We have not had to euthanize any animals at this point,” said Josh Flint, company spokesman for The Maschhoffs, the fourth largest hog production company in North America. The family-owned company has not had to abort litters either, he said on May 1.

To date, the company has not laid off any of its 1,100 employees. All are still getting paid, as are the company’s 500 production partners raising pigs, Flint said.

The company has been able sell its hogs within acceptable size ranges by changing feeding practices and formulas to slow growth. At the same time, The Maschhoffs feel the pinch of low livestock prices just like all producers, he said.

Producers are hoping for the best, taking as many options as possible to ensure it, but at the same time preparing for the worst.

“The Illinois Pork Producers Association, stakeholders and representatives at the Illinois Department of Agriculture are doing our best to prepare for the situation and do everything we can to hold animals on farm as long as we can and get packers up to full capacity again with the safety of those employees as a top priority,” Tirey said.

The association issued a letter to pork producers April 30 with tips for managing pigs at a time of “limited or no market outlets.” It addresses pig grading, stocking rates, feeder adjustments, diet content, adjusting temperatures and feed additives to control the weight gain of pigs while processing capacity is low — everything from mild interventions to recommendations “as a last step to avoid euthanasia.”

In an email response, Illinois Department of Agriculture public information officer Krista Lisser said the agency continues to work with agricultural associations, industry, producers and veterinarians “to plan and prepare through this unprecedented and dynamic situation.”

Some of the work includes talking to companies that could provide equipment if euthanizing livestock is required.

“There has been quite a lot of discussion of what might take place regarding the overcrowding situations the last two or three days,” said Bill Bruer, co-owner of Riverode Sales Inc. in Pontiac, Illinois, which provides cattle chutes and customized penning, often used for show animals.

“We have been in discussions. Nobody has ordered anything,” he said on May 1. “It’s on a day by day basis, I don’t know how things will evolve.”

Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said producers in many states are feeling the impact of the processing plant slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

IPPA is among several partners in a new effort supporting Iowa livestock producers affected by COVID-19 supply chain disruptions, she said. On April 30, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced the creation of the Resource Coordination Center, which also includes resources from Iowa State University Extension.

“We want producers to know they’re not alone. We have assembled a team of people who are here to connect producers with information and resources as they work through this difficult time,” Naig said in announcing the new resource center.

Iowa livestock producers can contact the Resource Coordination Center at 515-725-1005, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., or at iowafarmerhelp.com anytime.

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