University meat lab

The SDSU Meat Lab is harvesting animals at its state-inspected facility in Brookings, S.D.

When agriculture is in trouble, partnerships help out in a big way, and that’s been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. pork industry was hit especially hard as major packaging plants including Smithfield in Sioux Falls shut their doors. Farmers with hogs ready to harvest were left with nowhere to bring their animals.

During the worst of it, the governor’s office, the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, and South Dakota State University got together to come up with a way to help. They started with opening the SDSU meat lab for as much pork processing as it could handle.

While the capacity was modest, Joe Cassidy, professor and head of the animal science department at SDSU, said that SDSU was interested in doing its part to help provide a solution at a time when stress was high.

“(We’re) not in this to make money, we just want to help where we can,” Cassidy said.

One benefits of SDSU’s involvement stems from its unique position as a state-inspected plant. That allows producers who are lucky enough to get on the waiting list to sell their packaged meat anywhere in the state.

In an effort to stay unbiased and impartial from the selecting process, South Dakota Pork worked closely with its producers to get carcasses in and out of the facility. Through the end of August, the SDSU facility will be at max capacity.

The pork council has been working to secure other sites for its producers, too. Executive director Glenn Muller said the council initially began working with Dr. Dustin Odekoven and the state veterinarian’s office to minimize the number of pigs that would need to be euthanized.

“He’s been very helpful in helping us obtain that goal,” Muller said.

While the SDSU meat lab has a modest capacity of roughly 60 head per week compared to Smithfield’s max capacity of nearly 20,000 per day, Muller said it wasn’t about the numbers as much as providing another outlet.

“It’s all about space in a barn,” Muller said. “Anything we can do to provide more space for the remaining animals has been helpful.”

Part of the process to alleviate some pressure has been through donations. Many producers have donated carcasses and pigs to local food banks and food giveaways. The first giveaway South Dakota Pork organized took place in Aberdeen May 22. Tentatively, the next giveaway is scheduled to take place in Yankton.

“Meat has been somewhat difficult to find, so we had a giveaway that was very successful,” Muller said, noting the panic buying and supply chain issues that left grocery shelves sparsely stocked with meat.

“We felt we could assist in matching producers with the consumer that is having a difficult time acquiring the product,” he said.

South Dakota isn’t the only state helping its producers. Many of the land grant universities across the U.S. have stepped up to help those in agriculture through the unexpected pandemic downturn.

At the University of Nebraska, the meat processing facility was opened to harvest just a few animals a week. It sent all of its processed meat to food banks.

“The producers are donating the pigs and collecting some of the processing cost,” said Gary Sullivan, an associate professor for meat science at the University of Nebraska.

While Nebraska’s facility isn’t set up for the same level of capacity SDSU has been operating at, Sullivan said that they too are trying to alleviate pressure at the barns.

“It’s not a large number, but it’s a good cause and much better than euthanization of the animals,” he said.

While meat labs across the country will stay open through the end of summer to help backlogs of orders, SDSU and Nebraska professors have been brainstorming the key lessons to take away from this pandemic and teach up and coming producers.

Sullivan said the Nebraska Beef Youth Leadership Symposium can help young producers understand the value of their product from beginning to end. At SDSU, Cassidy said it’s more about how to remain there for the producers who need them most.

“We can connect stakeholders with services they might need,” he said. “We try to help in everything from alternative marketing programs to nutrition adjusting rations for pigs.”

It’s important to place coronavirus in context, Cassidy said: “You want to plan your operation to be robust to get through good and bad times, but you have to be careful,” he said. “If you build your business model around a pandemic, you may struggle to be successful.”

Cassidy urges a continued focus on the behavioral health and a better approach to handling stress overall.

For Muller and his team at South Dakota Pork, he hopes consumers and producers have gotten a new appreciation for the food chain, from start to finish.

“Food safety has never been a concern in the U.S, but food security was a concern,” he said. “I hope the general public realizes how important every individual is in the food chain.”

With the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls having ramped up to roughly 90% capacity, the worst of the pandemic may be behind producers. But there’s still a question of whether the industry needs to rely less on big packaging plants and more on local lockers.

Such facilities require a substantial capital investment and a concrete marketing plan. Sullivan said he believes that consumers are coming out of the pandemic with a greater appreciation for what local meat lockers have to offer.

Muller estimated that nearly every meat locker in South Dakota is booked possibly through 2021. Some with the right tools on hand turned to at-home harvesting.

Whether the solution is through education, appreciation or expansion, Cassidy said that he has never seen a year quite like 2020 in his time as an educator.

“These are very interesting times,” he said. “I’m coming up on my seven year anniversary as a department head and 19 years in the department and this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”