CORONAVIRUS

Hog farmers face 'calamity' from closed plants

Producers worry they will have to euthanize herds

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said Wednesday that hog processing plants, many of which have been closed by out
Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said Wednesday that hog processing plants, many of which have been closed by outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, need to reopen as hog farmers deal with a surplus of animals. Speaking of the hundreds of workers at a Smithfield plant in South Dakota sickened by the virus, King said the workers now have a “head start” on being immune. (Sioux City Journal)

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Pork producers, crushed by the closures of packinghouses, will probably have to resort to euthanizing portions of their herds, a Minnesota congressman said Wednesday.

“I’m being told that we have 160,000 per day needing to be euthanized at this point, because the plants have shut down,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “Across the country, 160,000, if we don’t get these plants running.”

Peterson appeared Wednesday with Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of northwest Iowa and a group of Minnesota leaders at the airport in Worthington to discuss the pork industry.

A JBS pork plant in this southwest Minnesota community closed a little more than a week ago; more than 200 of its workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Other major plants in the region, including the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls and the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, have closed as their workers have taken ill.

This leaves hog farmers with few or no outlets to get their animals to market. What’s worse, hogs — which have been bred to grow quickly — cannot be processed above a certain weight. So farmers are left trying to stop the hogs’ weight from ballooning.

“We’re turning the temperatures up on the barns, and we’re putting less energy and more fiber in the diets, to help try to slow” their growth, said Dwight Mogler, a hog farmer in Lyon County. “They’re bred to grow, to eat and grow, that’s what a pig does. And so, we’re trying to do the exact opposite, to disincentivize them to grow.”

Mogler’s farm markets about 140,000 hogs per year. With the closure of the JBS plant in Worthington, about 20 percent of his hogs have nowhere to go.

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“We’re putting more pigs into our barns, but you can only do that for about four weeks,” Mogler said. “That’s when you’re faced with a decision to euthanize pigs, because you have no other options.”

Hog farmers have not faced widespread destruction of their herds for economic reasons since the Great Depression, when low prices combined with federal intervention compelled them to eliminate some animals in a desperate bid to stabilize prices.

Sending the hogs elsewhere is not an option, Mogler said, because without a previously signed agreement, plants won’t accept the animals.

Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who also spoke Wednesday, said keeping everyone home isn’t working well for the meat industry.

“This is a worker safety issue, it is a food-chain supply issue, and it is also an economic issue,” Walz said. “We cannot shelter in place until we get a vaccine. We cannot weather the storm that long. So what we have to do is use the best practices that slow the rate of infection.”

King told the Journal the pork situation is a “calamity,” and he applauded President Donald Trump’s move Tuesday to order meat plants to stay open, declaring them critical.

In response to Trump’s order, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union has called on governors to ensure the safety of meatpacking workers.

“We’ve got too many plants shut down, and too many of them are running at half-speed or less,” King said.

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“The first priority is getting the plants up and running, and then of course get them to full capacity as much as can possibly be done. The second one is to deal with the hogs that have to be euthanized. It’s an awful circumstance,” the congressman added.

Hundreds of workers at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls have been infected with the disease, but King struck an optimistic tone — suggesting the sickened workers are now likely immune.

“They’ve got a head start on herd immunity,” he said.

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