Just hours before news broke Tuesday that President Trump signed an executive order to halt meat processing plant closures, Smithfield in Crete, Nebraska took action to stop aggressively spreading COVID-19 cases among its employees.
While Smithfield may have reversed its original course and decided not to close down its pork processing plant, they will be running at a reduced capacity.
This on top of the reductions at the Tyson plants across the state have definitely put a crimp in the pork pipeline, according to Nebraska Pork Producers Association Executive Director Al Juhnke.
“I do not have exact numbers as they are literally changing by the day,” Juhnke said. “I can affirm our processor capacity nationwide is about 25% below normal.”
That number is going up, he said. There are three main plants in Nebraska, according to Juhnke — located in Crete, Madison and Fremont — each accounting for about a third of the state’s capacity. This translates into about 600,000-700,000 market hogs per week with no place to go.
“Farmers will have to hold these pigs (if they can) for as long as they can hoping plants that are closed will be re-opening soon,” Juhnke said. “There will also be market hogs that will have to be euthanized, but this is a last resort.”
He said food security-wise, he believes there is enough pork in cold storage to keep things balanced for now.
As for the cattle sector, Nebraska’s beef processing plants have remained open despite mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases among their employees.
JBS in Grand Island has reported more than 200 COVID-19 cases, but has been instituting safety measures to keep production lines moving. Tyson Foods processing plants in Lexington and Dakota City have also reported an unidentified number of recent cases of COVID-19 among employees.
Other beef processing plants scattered throughout the state, such as Cargill in Schuyler and Nebraska City, have not reported whether they have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak as of yet.
According to the Defense Production Act now invoked, meat processors are classified as critical infrastructure and should remain open regardless of any coronavirus spread among employees. This executive measure aims to keep the meat and poultry supply chain intact and functional during the national emergency.
Nebraska Cattlemen Executive Vice President Pete McClymont attributed the endurance of meat processors in Nebraska the past two months largely to efforts by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has been vocal in recent weeks about avoiding shutdown measures for meat plants.
“Gov. Ricketts has been very active in working with all of these plants, knowing that they’re essential for food,” McClymont began, “and also for keeping people working and businesses going.
“This isn’t like a bushel of corn or wheat that you can put into a bin. There is a life cycle that, once an animals starts — especially in the feeding process — you’re on a path for that animal to go into the food chain supply.”
McClymont also applauded U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s efforts toward creating a fair market for beef producers, citing an announcement that the federal investigation on cattle prices following the Holcomb, Kansas packing plant fire has been expanded to include prices during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, McClymont said it’s important for producers to stay informed on the most current developments in order to take advantage of opportunities to get their cattle to market.
“Usually, we sell cattle on Thursday and Friday, but it’s pretty typical now that we’re selling on Monday or Tuesday,” he explained. “Producers are selling whenever they can.
“You don’t want to say ‘remain calm’, because these are people who want to make sure their cattle are harvested and still want to be paid a fair price.”
Adding that organizations such as Nebraska Cattlemen’s are continuously sharing all available information to their members in order to help them make the best possible decisions for their operations, he said the situation as it currently stands is “pretty desperate”.
As for assistance for pork producers, there are limited dollars in the USDA-NRCS EQIP program to help with disposal if it comes to that, Juhnke said. The national pork producer organizations are working with USDA and others for additional assistance, he said.
“I believe this is an evolving situation and more news (somewhat positive) will be coming out soon,” Juhnke said.