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

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

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.

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.

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.

Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 04/23/2020 - 11:50 am.

    Depopulating. What a sanitary word. If this doesn’t make you want to be a vegetarian I don’t know what will. How horrible. Please follow up and let us know what means they choose to “depopulate”. Makes me furious. All these farmers just put them in a truck and off they go. I’m kinda of glad they now have to know the pain and suffering these pigs go through. In case you didn’t know, they all stand there and watch each other get slaughtered. Pigs are very intelligent animals. Unlike human beings.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 04/23/2020 - 12:44 pm.

      If I had room in my freezer I’d take one off their hands. Mmmm bacon… one of the healthiest foods you can eat.

      This is just life. If you want food you need to kill animals. Humans are omnivores meaning we eat both meats and plants.

    • Submitted by James Jarby on 04/23/2020 - 02:33 pm.

      Thank you for your humane comments, Betsy. Our family has been vegetarian for years for reasons just like this. We find suffering and cruelty towards our fellow creatures, like pigs, to be intolerable to stomach – literally. If only everyone thought like you, instead of trying to justify themselves for what is truly murder.

      • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 01:25 pm.

        James by vegetarian do you still consume dairy and eggs? You may want to look into how dairy is produced if you’re worried about animal cruelty. Those cows go through more than even beef cattle, since they require their calf being removed so we can have their milk, then repeatedly impregnated when they run dry until finally being sent to be “processed,” as the author puts it. Same for egg laying chickens. There’s a free documentary on YouTube called Called To Rescue, that goes into all of this without showing all of the actual slaughterhouse footage. But if you’re actually willing to see how your “meat” is made, check out Earthlings or Dominion on Youtube. And for those thinking you need some sort of animal products, there is plenty of information out there now that disputes that point. There was a really good documentary made recently called The Game Changers on Netflix. There are also many free ones available on YouTube, like PlantPure Nation. Also some free on Tubi, like Planeat.

    • Submitted by Kelly George on 04/24/2020 - 03:09 pm.

      I agree with Betsy Larey. People need to stop eating so much meat. It’s disgusting. Do you know what all that meat does to your insides. Become a vegetarian people. It’s time! It’s healthier and kinder.

      • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 01:35 pm.

        Yeah exactly. Or they can go one step further and go vegan. There are even professional athletes doing it now, showing you don’t need animal products at all for optimal health

    • Submitted by vic heller on 04/26/2020 - 09:38 am.

      Yes it’s a cruel world I have been doing swine for 42 years it’s the same thing that happened when the so called swine flue came about we as producer keep our swine as healthy and disease free as possible no one wants to destroy these beautiful animals this came about so fast there’s a lot of farms closed and probably won’t reopen this is there life as producers just pray the packers reopened soon so there won’t be a waste of meat ever body has a opinion on this problem if you don’t like it don’t read about it there’s a lot of broken people and 💕

      • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 01:39 pm.

        VIC I think we can find alternatives for our farmers. There is great short documentary called 73 Cows. It shows a cattle farmer who is looking to switch his profession. We need to give these farmers a way out and options for transitioning to a profession that doesn’t involve taking so many lives. It’s also very unsustainable to put all of our resources such as food and water to growing these animals, when we could consume the water and food directly. It’s also been shown that we function optimally with less meat in our diet. If you check out the documentary, The Game Changers you can even see professional athletes who realized they perform better without it.

    • Submitted by Jen Austin McGrath on 04/27/2020 - 08:33 am.

      So very TRUE, Betsy. Thank you for your post! Factory farming needs to stop.

    • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 01:49 pm.

      Thank you Betsy! There were a lot of euphemisms used instead of kill; process, depopulate, euthanize. The only time kill was mentioned was in the context of killing the animals without being able to make a profit. I wonder how many are outraged, but overlook the fact that these animals are being bred, caged, and killed regardless of the current situation because of our demand for their bodies in the form of meat. So either these farmers kill them because they can’t afford to “ethically” house them, or they kill them so we can eat them. We can always give them a third option by consuming plant based foods, giving farmers the financial incentive to eliminate these practices and transition to more humane ones.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 04/28/2020 - 05:31 pm.

        The only problem is that we simply don’t have enough room to grow enough plant based food to feed the entire human population. We need to have animal protein if the human species is going to survive. With the current world population we have, the position that you advocate would lead to the direct starvation of many tens if not hundreds of millions of people.

        • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 09:41 pm.

          We don’t have enough room to grow other forms of plant based protein? Beans, lentils. quinoa, etc? I’m pretty sure they require a lot less land and resources than animal protein. We don’t require animal protein to live. In fact we function better without it. This can be seen in documentaries like Forks Over Knives, where patients were able to reverse their heart disease on plant based diets. Or looking at the documentary The Game Changers, where professional athletes improved their performance and extended their careers on a plant based diet. A majority of the land being used presently is to graze and house animals or to grow feed to feed to those animals. It is extremely inefficient. We could take all of those grains alone that we give to pigs, cows, and chickens and feed the whole world. We would only need a fraction of the land devoted to animal agriculture in order grow plants to feed the world. What we do now with animals is unsustainable and unethical. It’s laid out pretty well in the documentary Cowspiracy.

  2. Submitted by Mike Hindin on 04/23/2020 - 11:56 am.

    Consider giving hogs to poor communities. Second Harvest and other organizations may be able to coordinate efforts. Plenty of hunters etc can butcher them. Ship them to Cuba and other neighboring developing countries.Ill I’ll contribute to shipping costs.

    • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 04/23/2020 - 12:08 pm.

      Organizations like Second Harvest and food shelves can only accept meat that has been processed in state and federally licensed processing plants or butchers. The same goes for exporting meat to other countries

  3. Submitted by Mike Hindin on 04/23/2020 - 01:26 pm.

    Donate to zoos for animal feed?

  4. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 04/23/2020 - 03:48 pm.

    Too bad the processing plant operators didn’t take the virus seriously (I wonder why?) and create a safe work environment for their workers. They might have saved themselves a ton of money, but no. So they are where they are.

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 04/24/2020 - 09:37 am.

      Unfortunately it sounds like the relatively blameless hog farmers are the ones paying the bigger price, while the large-scale pork plants have likely applied for the “small business” lifeline…

  5. Submitted by Richard Johnson on 04/23/2020 - 06:24 pm.

    Could you sell some as pets?

    • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 06:16 pm.

      I doubt there will be many takers, especially when they learn how much the food and water bill would be, as well as their local home owner restrictions, and the space they would need to devote. There is a lot of insecurity right now with jobs, housing, and income. I don’t see this being an option for people right now. Maybe a small dog, but not a pig that has been bred to grow to an unnaturally large size.

  6. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 04/23/2020 - 08:58 pm.

    Farmers?…Or factory farmers? I don’t care about factory farmers.

  7. Submitted by BK Anderson on 04/24/2020 - 09:33 am.

    This is the price that is paid for the ridiculous oversupply of pork (and meat in general) that we have in this country. Unfortunately the animals are the ones who must pay it. And those underpaid scut workers who are ordered to perform it.

    Of course those of the “conservative” mindset are also the ones most callous to the situation. (“This is just life”: how wonderful for the supposedly civilized creature who wound up at the top of the food chain…)

    And there is no good way to “euthanize” the hogs, either. The big Ag interests have seen to that.

  8. Submitted by Stephany Suydam on 04/26/2020 - 01:29 am.

    Give the pigs away. Many know how to butcher out animals. Let people feed their families.

  9. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 04/26/2020 - 08:31 am.

    This isn’t just a disaster for the farmers. In a couple of months, what are we going to eat? The same problem is spreading the the poultry and beef Industries. We need to have a different Covid-19 strategy than just shutting everything down.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/27/2020 - 12:01 am.

      We did have a different strategy. It was called global health monitoring, pandemic preparation and federal coordination and response using science and expertise. The Trump administration didn’t care for that strategy, preferring instead the strategy of letting public health and the economy collide at full speed.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 04/28/2020 - 05:34 pm.

        The other failed strategy was relying on what we were expecting to be the truth from the Chinese Government and the WHO. But that was the wrong strategy because of the deliberate and continuing lying by the Chinese Government. We should have recognized that the WHO was going to be unreliable in this situation.

    • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/28/2020 - 01:52 pm.

      We can eat plants. We don’t need animal products to live. And we have plenty of people now who thrive off of just plants. Even professional athletes are switching their diets since its been shown to greatly benefit their performance and longevity in the sport. Check out The Game Changers on Netflix.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 04/28/2020 - 05:36 pm.

        While it sounds good to have all humans live only on plants….sadly that’s not going to work to feed the entire planet’s population. A good percentage of humans simply must eat animal protein because if we depended solely on plants to survive, many, many people would starve to death. Like probably hundreds of millions.

        • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/29/2020 - 08:12 am.

          How do you figure that? It requires so much food and water to grow these animals. It’s inefficient, impractical, unsustainable, and inhumane. We could consume those foods ourselves and feed a lot less people. Another issue is monocropping, where we grow huge areas full of one crop, mostly to feed to these animals. If we stopped eating animals and instead ate plants, it would require much less water and land usage and we could go back to diversified crop rotation. We would be able to supply much more food on probably not even half the land. Meat was traditionally for the affluent, because of how much it costs to create. It has lost that title because they have been heavily subsidized, hiding the true cost of production. Animal agriculture is also a major contributor to deforestation in the Amazon and other areas, just to provide grazing land or more land to grow feed. If we stopped eating animals, we could convert that land back to forest and still feed the planet on plants. There is absolutely no proof that people need animal products to survive. Everything you get from meat, those animals got from the plants that they ate. We could stop the inefficiency and just eat straight from the plant sources. There is plenty of proof now that people function optimally on plant based diets. There are even professional athletes in a wide range of sports who are switching because of the benefits they see in their performance. That’s professional fighters, both in boxing and MMA, NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS players, runners, swimmers,etc. Whole food plant based diets have also been shown to reverse heart disease and other ailments. So we’ll cut down on land and water degradation and usage, we can regrow the forests, cut down on health care costs, create more humane industries and jobs, and feed everyone on the planet.

  10. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/28/2020 - 04:01 pm.

    The idea of dumping food that people can eat due to supply chain problems is simply unacceptable with hungry people here and abroad. This is not a farmer problem, but a result of how we cut corners processing food and do not have systems in place to handle the excess. Save your debate over meat eating for another time. Feeding hungry people and preserving family farmers is more important than your food preferences, which you are free to follow, but not impose on others.

    • Submitted by Bryant Hicks on 04/29/2020 - 08:25 am.

      Stating information that people can take or leave isn’t imposing. Our demand for meat is the direct cause of these animals being bred and slaughtered in the first place. If we grew plants, there is far less issue of not being able to process it properly. You don’t get sick from improperly dismembering potatoes, carrots, greens, and beans. Therefore if there was excess, they could open it up to direct public distribution, cutting out this issue entirely. The farmers in this article are lucky enough to have a cooperative. However many don’t and are being exploited by the meat industry. They are pitted against each other and driven away from unionizing for better pay and conditions. Eating plants won’t alone fix this labor rights issue, but at least would rid us of the inefficiency of feeding these animals the food and water we could consume ourselves directly, rid us of the land and water degradation and deforestation needed to continue production, as well as the inhumane breeding and slaughtering practices, etc. Again, nobody is imposing anything on others. Simply stating facts that people can take or leave.

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