Hog producers were already hurting from trade wars and tariffs that slowed pork exports and depressed prices. Then coronavirus hit.
Hundreds of workers at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls tested positive for the disease, prompting the plant to close indefinitely. That leaves farmers from more than 550 operations that supply the plant scrambling to find other places to take their hogs.
Smithfield announced the closure Sunday, April 12.
“It’s devastating,” said Delmer Scholten, who raises pigs on a farrow to finish operation with his wife Paula in Inwood, Iowa.
The couple typically takes six to 10 semi loads a week to the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, about 30 miles away. Since the announcement, they had been on the phone trying to find a packing plant with capacity for their finished hogs.
It wasn’t going well.
Tuesday morning, Scholten was waiting for direction from Smithfield as to if they could send hogs to other Smithfield plants. He was still shocked that the company would close the plant for so long.
“That processing plant is just as essential as a hospital,” he said.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, packing plants were booked solid. More recently, Smithfield had reportedly cut production from its nearly 20,000 hogs per day to closer to 15,000 because workers were out sick. Other packing plants had shut down due to the virus, including one a Tyson Foods pork plant at Columbus Junction in eastern Iowa.
Hogs are raised on a precise schedule that has hogs leaving for market with just enough time to clean the barn and prepare it for the next group of weaned pigs to fill the barn. It’s a process that can’t be backed up at all, said Bob Thaler, swine specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.
“When a sow is bred, the market date is set for those pigs,” Thaler said. “The pig flow is so fine-tuned.”
Producers plan their production nearly a year ahead of time. They are breeding for a market 10 months in advance.
Down the line, the closure is also a major disruption to the food supply chain. The Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 18 million servings of food per day. Smithfield Foods president and CEO Ken Sullivan noted those challenges in a press release April 12. He said shuttering packing plants makes it impossible to keep grocery stores stocked with meat.
“We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19,” Sullivan said.
At first, Smithfield announced a three-day closure for cleaning over Easter weekend. News that the plant would close “until further notice” came after a push from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken for the plant to close for two weeks.
Thaler said the packing industry has been doing a good job of stepping up where it can to take additional hogs. Producers who normally deliver hogs to Smithfield in Sioux Falls were turning to other area plants, including Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, Triumph Foods in Sioux City and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Tyson Foods in Madison, Nebraska.
While they wait for space at the packing plants, pig farmers have some options if they get creative.
Russ Daly is the SDSU Extension veterinarian. He said those with pigs waiting to go to market could overstock their barns for a short time. Pigs’ diets can be adjusted so growth is slowed and the animals don’t put on too much more fat before slaughter.
“It’s not ideal for swine health, but we’re in an emergency situation,” he said.
The Scholtens in northwestern Iowa have changed their pig’s diets, but they say this will buy only one or two more weeks of time.
Daly urges producers to reach out to use the resources available to them. Contact nutritionists and veterinarians for guidance, he said. There is an abundance of technical information for the swine industry. Extension and state pork councils are good resources as well, Thaler added.
While many are doing their best to help, Thaler worries about the long-term impacts on an industry that was already losing money.
“This is a huge additional blow on them,” he said. “Long term, we’re going to get through this, but it will have an impact.”
Farmers are exiting the business, and it will worsen without government assistance, said Howard A.V. Roth, a pork producers from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, who serves as president of the National Pork Producers Council.
The council held a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, April 14, in which leadership called on the government to help pork producers by buying $1 billion worth of pork, making pork farmers eligible for small business loans, and to remove tariffs on exports to China.
Exports to China would more than double without tariffs, according to Roth. There’s demand for pork in China as African swine fever continues to spread. As COVID-19 hits the U.S., however, retail demand for pork remains strong, but stay-at-home orders and restaurant closures have taken a toll on the industry. The food service industry makes up for about a quarter of all pork consumed, pork council CEO Neil Dirks said, making up for major purchases of ribs and bacon. Now, idling packing plants is another blow to a time-constrained business, he added.
Roth cited projections from Iowa State University economists that indicate farmers will lose $37 per hog marketed due to the effects of COVID-19.
“We are now a farm sector in dire crisis,” he said.
Janelle Atyeo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.