OWH: Meatpacking woes lead farmers to consider euthanizing hogs, holding back market-ready cattle

Meatpacking woes lead farmers to consider euthanizing hogs, holding back market-ready cattle

· By Paul Hammel World-Herald staff writer

Apr 23,2020

Jim Bartling in one of his family’s hog barns in Unadilla, Nebraska, on Wednesday. “The problem with being a hog farmer is that I just can’t shut the door and lock it like store owners,” Bartling said. “This is a wound and there is no way to stop the bleeding.”

UNADILLA, Neb. — At the Bartling Brothers hog farm, nearly 2,200 pigs are ready for slaughter, but the packinghouses — which are either closed or cutting back on operations because of the coronavirus — won’t take them.

Jim Bartling said he knows some farmers who have already euthanized some pigs because they can’t sell them and can’t afford to keep feeding them because of mounting debts. Now, he’s wondering if he’ll also have to make that same, depressing decision.

“We’re going to stuff every barn full of pigs,” Bartling said on Wednesday. “But at some point, we’re going to have to decide when we run out of room.”

Times were already tough in farm country, with low prices for hogs and cattle, as well as for corn and other grain. But things have gotten worse with the growing spread of coronavirus at packinghouses across the country. It has caused processing plants in Iowa and South Dakota to close and others, because of higher absenteeism, to reduce operations.

That has left those who raise hogs and cattle stuck with animals that were ready for market and has left some producers willing to take rock-bottom prices to free up space in barns and pastures, and cut their losses.

Capacity at hog processing plants is down about 20%, some officials estimate, and Bartling said he figures it’s higher, more like 30%.

Because of that, he’s only been able to ship one load of 180 hogs so far this week, when he typically ships 10 to 11 loads a week. He got lucky — on Wednesday, a processor in Madison called to say that if he could get a load to the plant within an hour, the processor would take them.

These days, Bartling and his two brothers have sleepless nights, wondering if the packinghouse will call again to say they’ll take a shipment or two so he can pay his feed bills and other expenses, and free up barn space for other hogs.

“I know producers who are saying: ‘You’ve got to take my pigs, I’ve got nowhere to go. I’m going to lose my farm,’ ” he said. “It’s a pretty desperate situation.”

The problem is similar for beef producers — with packinghouse workers catching COVID-19 or fearful of reporting to work, slaughter capacity is down. Some farmers, with fat cattle ready to sell, are being told that buyers aren’t buying.

“It’s worse than terrible and horrible,” said Don Gasper, a cattle feeder from Lindsay. He said he lost $300 a head on cattle sold last week, while, at the same time, prices for hamburger and steak are spiking in the grocery stores.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” said Gasper, who, like the Nebraska Cattlemen and other beef organizations, has asked for a federal investigation into the price disparity.

But officials say meatpacking operations are in a tough spot — battling infections among an already short workforce, yet trying to stay open to keep filling the grocery cases. The alternative — closing down packinghouses until the coronavirus passes — is not an option, they say.

“If you think COVID-19 is bad now, wait until you have a major disruption of your food system or a lack of food. Then you’ll really have problems,” said Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association. “It’s almost a national security issue.”

Pete McClymont of the Nebraska Cattlemen said the crunch is probably hurting smaller producers harder. Large feedlots, he said, have contracts with packinghouses to take cattle when they’re market ready, while feeders with smaller herds have to sell on the cash market and hope packers are still buying.

Over the past decade, packinghouse capacity had already declined, McClymont said, but the coronavirus has probably cut that capacity by another 10%. As a result, some producers with cattle to sell have been turned away by packers, he said, and others have taken lower prices.

“You go to the grocery store and see what the prices are, but then you start back figuring what you got, and it gets very frustrating,” McClymont said.

The situation is probably worse for hog producers, because fat cattle can be put out to pasture, delaying the trip to the packinghouse.

The Bartling Brothers, who support about 40 farm families, raise hogs from birth to when they’re ready for market in a process that takes 10 months. As the animals grow, they’re moved from barn to barn until they reach about 290 pounds.

So when the market-ready hogs can’t be moved out, it blocks the pipeline, forcing farmers to keep feeding the biggest eaters on the farm, raising their feed costs. If the pigs get too big, Bartling said, the packers pay less. It leaves few options for farmers with debts to pay.

“I know baby pigs are being gassed and sows are being aborted,” he said in a recent post on Facebook. “I don’t want to have to make these decisions but my brothers and I have had conversations on which pigs we will have to euthanize to free up room.”

Is there a solution?

Bartling and others interviewed for this story said that a federal aid package announced recently will help but won’t cover all the losses. The feds could offer to buy sows to reduce the nation’s breeding stock, he said, which would allow some hog farmers a way to get out of the business “with dignity.”

The real answer, he said, is to increase the slaughtering capacity of packinghouses by hiring more workers, or even calling in the military to work at the plants.

That’s a radical idea, Bartling said, that’s generated some pushback on social media, but something needs to be done.

“What else are we going to do? If we keep (closing) plants, there will be a shortage of meat,” he said. “Food ought to be one of the No. 1 priorities.”

Paul Hammel

Reporter – Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.