Pork problems persist

HOG FARMER JAY FULTZ looks over some of his pigs at his farm east of Tracy. Fultz said farmers like him coule have major issues if the shuttering of pork processing plants lasts into the summer. Photo / Per Peterson

With COVID-19 shutting down pork processing plants left and right, farmers are wary of future

By Per Peterson

Smithfield Foods. JBS USA. Tyson Waterloo. Comfrey Farm Prime Pork, LLC.

All have closed because of COVID-19.

And it didn’t take long for the ripple effect of these closures to reach local farmers.

“We’re concerned,” said hog farmer Jay Fultz, who raises about 45,000 pigs a year. “We have some flexibility right now with how our barns are where we can hold back our pigs and just kind of slow things down — so we should be OK for a couple months.”

Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, which employs 1,000 people and processes between 4%-5% of the nation’s pork, closed on April 12. In nearby Worthington, JBS USA, employer of more than 2,000 people, shut down operations eight days later. Then, last Tuesday, Comfrey Farm Prime Pork in Windom announced it was temporarily shutting down, and a day later, Tyson Waterloo in Iowa suspended operations when it was announced that 182 COVID-19 cases in Black Hawk County were connected to the plant.

What does all this mean for farmers and consumers?

“Between all the plants in the industry, capacity is down 25%,” Fultz said. “In terms of hogs, that’s about 166,000 hogs a day that are not being harvested, that would normally be on the floor. Every day you’re backing up 166,000 pigs.”

Fultz, who also farms 7,300 corn and soybean acres, said pork producers are taking steps out of necessity to slow things down. Because of all the recent expansion, Fultz himself was running at capacity before COVID-19; now, he’s had to change things up to literally slow things down.

“We’ve raised the temperatures in the barns on our older pigs — the warmer it gets, the more uncomfortable they get and they just want to lay down, so they don’t eat as much,” Fultz said. “We’re slowing them down that way. There’s a lot of farmers that have reduced the energy component of the feed so they don’t grow as fast.”

According to the University of Minnesota Extension, the only practical way to increase barn temperatures is to reduce ventilation rates. That will increase temperature and humidity levels; if ventilation rates are reduced too much, however, there may be excessive increases in moisture and noxious gases inside the barn which could compromise safety of workers and welfare of pigs.

Fultz said the more farmers can slow things down, the more time it buys for companies like Smithfield and JBS to catch up with testing their employees to keep them safe and reopen as soon as possible.

“They need to get people confident to come back to the line and get the plants going — even 25-50% would be fantastic,” Fultz said.

Fultz said about 60% of his pigs go to JBS; the other 40% are split between the Tyson Plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, and a farmer cooperative plant in Freemont, NE — both of which are still open.

“We sent two loads out (last Thursday) night to Freemont,” he said.

See this week’s Headlight Herald for more on this article.