Bun Cha Marinated Pork Sirloin Chop

Please enjoy your favorite cuts of meat to stay healthy and keep our robust livestock industries going! Pictured here is a Vietnamese pork dish called Bun Cha Marinated Pork Sirloin Chops. Photo courtesy of the Pork Checkoff.

Across Minnesota, meat lockers are very busy. Customers want to be sure they have enough meat in their freezers given the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.

In addition, some large processors are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks among their employees, and rural customers are looking for alternative sources of high quality meat.

“Most of our slaughter plants have reported they are booked out. That would be somewhat normal for this time of year, but we’ve queried many of them, and they are reporting they are at full capacity for the most part,” said Dr. Nicole Neeser, DVM, director of Dairy and Meat Inspections at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Small, local meat plants are seeing brisk business from old or new customers that purchased a live steer or hog for slaughter and are custom processing. Most plants are booked out at least into May or June, Neeser said.

Strong business for busy small meat plants, though, was overshadowed by Minnesota’s many pork producers who saw a major packing plant closed.

Smithfield in Sioux Falls, S.D., was closed indefinitely in mid-April after more than 300 employees tested positive for COVID-19. The processing facility harvests up to 20,000 finished hogs per day. While Smithfield officials were trucking the Sioux Falls-bound hogs to their other plants, there was great concern among producers if another hog processing facility were closed.

“Farming exists where the cropland is, and the packers exist where the farming is,” said Jen Sorenson, Iowa Select Farms, speaking at a National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) press conference on April 14. “We strive for an efficiency standpoint, so those farmers in northwest Iowa are the most impacted by the Sioux Falls shutdown. You tend to see that from a regional impact.”

Local meat plants didn’t have the ability to pick up the slack.

So, MDA is working on speeding up its process for licensing new plants under inspection, said Neeser. The department was also looking for ways to help existing plants expand operations.

She asks that anyone with livestock that need immediate slaughtering please visit the Dairy and Meat Inspection Division page on the MDA website at mda.state.mn.us. The MDA marketing division can help procure local meat plants to slaughter “fattened” livestock, if needed. Please contact one of the following individuals for more help: Jim Ostlie at 320-842-6910 or Courtney VanderMey at 651-201-6135.

In Minnesota, farmers can also make requests from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to exceed normally-permitted animal units for up to 45 days.

Federal and state governments worked toward the right balance of opening businesses and the economy, as of April 14, while sequestering vulnerable and naive populations not yet exposed to COVID-19.

Minnesota restaurant and foodservice closings on March 16 were the first victims of shelter-in-place mandates, even as grocery store meat shelves emptied, and patrons turned to custom processing. Processing plant closings, lower prices for farm commodities, and higher prices in the grocery stores followed in less than a month.

We haven’t seen the total reaction yet, said Ben Swanson, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute food and nutrition scientist.

“You cut off a Smithfield, and there are still reserves in the supply chain that you can sell, but then you’ll see a hitch,” he said. “Consumers are going to see a more delayed reaction in the supply chain than producers.”

He thinks hog producers will quickly reduce farrowings, and poultry producers will slow new hatchings of poultry.

“I don’t believe that farmers are just going to keep breeding sows, raising piglets if there is nowhere to take them,” Swanson said. “Farmers are smart about that, it’s all about the bottom line. If there is no place to sell the pigs, I can’t see them continuing to do that if they have nowhere to get them processed.”

The reverberation from COVID-19 isn’t expected to stop there, he said. If there are fewer head listed in the next U.S. Hog and Pigs report, that could have a negative effect on feed prices as well.

Without government intervention, the NPPC expects farmers will have to consider euthanizing pigs on farms.

“As a pork producer, we care about our animals,” said Howard “A.V.” Roth, president of the NPPC. “The last thing we would ever want to do is euthanize one, and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure we don’t do that, so that you can have pork on your plate tonight.”