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‘An absolute tragedy’: COVID-19-related plant shutdowns could force hog farmers to kill and dispose of 200,000 pigs

In Minnesota, droves of hog farmers have nowhere left to sell their pigs as plants shutter, forcing some farmers to consider an unfortunate last resort to ease their backlog of hogs: putting them down.

Plant shutdowns are forcing some farmers to consider an unfortunate last resort to ease their backlog of hogs: putting them down.
REUTERS/Daniel Acker

Mike Patterson’s hog farm near Kenyon typically sends animals to the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls. But he can’t now, after the plant shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

With his usual buyer off the market, Patterson’s cooperative has shipped some pigs to an Illinois plant and found local butchers willing to take a small number of hogs. But thousands others are still at his farm, outgrowing barns and occupying space needed by younger pigs. “It really gets to the point where there’s only so much physical space we can have to house the hogs,” Patterson said.

The predicament is becoming increasingly common across Minnesota, where droves of hog farmers have nowhere left to sell their pigs as plants shutter during the pandemic. Along with Smithfield, a JBS pork plant in Worthington closed Monday after 26 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Comfrey Farm’s Prime Pork plant in Windom was temporarily shuttered Tuesday after one employee tested positive. And Tyson Foods also idled a massive Iowa plant Wednesday.

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The result: a national processing capacity that’s been diminished by more than 100,000 pigs per day, said David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board. The crunch is felt acutely in Minnesota, the country’s second-highest pork producing state, where farmers are taking a financial hit. 

Yet beyond the money, plant shutdowns are forcing some farmers to consider an unfortunate last resort to ease their backlog of hogs: putting them down. Preisler said farmers may have to kill and dispose of 200,000 pigs in the state that can’t reach the market over the next few weeks. “You reach a point where you have to make a decision on things,” Preisler said. “And that’s unfortunately where we’re at right now.”

A backup builds

About half of pigs raised in Minnesota are processed in Minnesota, and the other half go to packing plants in neighboring states — primarily Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri. The average farm has about 2,400 hogs, Preisler said.

While Preisler said the industry has planned for disease outbreaks in animals, the coronavirus pandemic case is different: it’s affecting only humans and causing a severe disruption to processing facilities. For several weeks, farmers have been slowing down pig growth to conserve space. Patterson said he’s been feeding hogs a high fiber diet that has less calories, which he called “salad for pigs.”

But the diet only works for so long. Patterson is part of a cooperative of 12 farmers that raises piglets in jointly-owned nursery facilities. Those young pigs are getting too big for the nursery, while the pigs still on Patterson’s farm are gaining weight and taking up more and more existing space. Eventually, he said, there is no way to ethically house all the pigs in such tight quarters.

Processing plants take older and heavier hogs, but at a discount since machinery is not designed for them, and they don’t match what people typically buy. (“Big hams don’t sell,” Patterson said.) So even if there was space to keep pigs longer, it might not be financially worth it for some farmers to cover the cost of food and transportation to the plant once they reopen. 

Patterson’s pigs aren’t currently facing euthanasia, thanks to a few lucky breaks, he said. Smithfield was able to take a few shipments of hogs from the cooperative to a processing plant in Illinois — about 25 percent of what the cooperative would normally send off — and Patterson said that may be an occasional option. He has also been able to find local butchers to process about 40 hogs per week for a month and a half.

Typically those shops are full with other orders already, as are large nearby processing plants, Patterson said. “Me getting 10 percent of my hogs into local butcher shops is very fortunate and I would say pretty rare,” he said.

Farmers say they have no choice

Other farmers won’t be so lucky. Besides slowing growth or finding local butchers, hog farmers can give some pigs away to be rendered and made into pet food. The last option is to start putting them down without any use.

Pork farmers aren’t the first industry in agriculture to face brutal choices during the COVID-19 pandemic. As demand for eggs has dropped farmers are euthanizing chickens, the Star Tribune reported. And farmers throwing away milk and plowing under crops around the country have garnered national headlines.

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Preisler said the Pork Board is working to figure out how to help farmers humanely kill animals and properly dispose of them. Pigs are slaughtered at processing facilities, so farmers don’t have experience with wide-scale “depopulation,” as Preisler put it.

As for disposal, one common technique is composting. Patterson said he already composts pigs that die on his farm during normal operations, though expanding it to handle necessary volume would be difficult and labor-intensive, he said.

The sudden need for composting help has given state government another new and strange role during the pandemic: mulch wranglers.

Michael Crusan, a spokesman for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said composting allows farmers to spread remains as fertilizer back onto land. But it needs massive quantities of materials like wood chips, corn stalks, sawdust or straw.

The state has been trying to find large quantities of the stuff to help farmers. The state can’t buy it, since COVID-19 is not known to affect livestock, but the Animal Health board can play the role of middleman to connect farmers to materials. A state survey already has dozens of responses from companies with wood chips, “raw tree material,” sawdust, leaf compost and more to offer. It’s also legal to incinerate, bury pigs in certain soils or send pigs to landfills, though Preisler said Minnesota doesn’t have incinerators that could handle large numbers of hogs.

“It’s an absolute tragedy this has to happen,” Crusan said. “We don’t want to get rid of these animals in this way.”

Preisler said it’s possible farmers could avoid putting down some pigs if either JBS or Smithfield reopen soon. But even if they did, backed up demand and other hurdles mean a “large number” of animals will still be killed without being eaten, Preisler said.