It’s the topic no one wants to talk about. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced depopulation into the conversation.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our pig farmers are facing animal care and marketing challenges, the likes of which we have never seen before and I hope we never see again,” says Dave Pyburn, DVM, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Board.
Packing plant shutdowns and slowdowns are presenting animal welfare concerns that are prompting producers to make difficult decisions on the farm.
“Our farmers are doing what they can to slow down growth of those animals through change of diets. They're doing what they can to get space in their barns to be able to delay marketing for as long as possible. But there comes a point when the animal welfare issues become real and that barn is overcrowded because animals are so big,” Pyburn says.
As a last resort, many producers are looking at euthanasia and disposal protocols.
“This isn't just about those market animals either,” he adds. “This is also about the nursery that's behind there and the weaners that are behind there, that need to be moved into the next phase.”
Pyburn says most veterinarians are telling him producers have two to three weeks of space that can be made in barns today. But they are getting to the end of that period.
“We have not heard a lot about euthanasia to this point, but we need to be able to make some space here shortly,” Pyburn says.
Emergency depopulation is an option of last resort, says Marguerite Tan, director of environmental programs at the National Pork Board.
“The disposal side of depopulation is very important because of our commitment to protect the environment. We want to make sure that disposal is done in an environmentally protective way,” Tan says.
Before making depopulation decisions, Pyburn and Tan offer four guidelines for producers to consider.
1. Carefully weigh your euthanasia options.
The American Veterinary Medical Association provides clear guidelines for farm animal euthanasia and disposal, including several preferred methods of euthanasia and some permitted in constrained circumstances methods.
“Producers are always asked to choose the preferred methods first, but if those are not possible, or because of other constraints around the situation such as the need for depopulation efficiency or human safety, you can move over into that permitted column as far as looking at options,” Pyburn explains.
The Pork Checkoff offers resources to help you work through this discussion with your veterinarian, and provides a step-by-step checklist on what you can do on the farm as you put this plan together and then implement it, he says.
2. Consult your herd veterinarian and state animal health official.
Before you do anything, Pyburn says it’s important to consult your herd veterinarian to discuss and develop a euthanasia plan together. Then, reach out to your state animal health official for their guidance as well.
“Just because it works for your neighbor, that doesn’t mean it will work for you,” Tan says. “Consult with your veterinarian to determine your depopulation plan. It needs to be specific to your site and specific to your situation.”
Make sure that your plan abides by all state and federal animal cruelty laws, Pyburn adds. State animal cruelty laws can vary by state.
3. Contact environmental agencies about disposal.
Next, reach out to both your state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office and EPA office. They will be able to provide critical guidance as you look at your disposal options, including burial, incineration, landfilling, rendering and above ground composting.
“How an individual producer chooses to dispose of animals is really dependent on the governing rules and regulations of where they are located, as well as their specific situation,” Tan says.
Consult your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Not only will they have an engineer who can work through your best disposal option, but they can also provide information about the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Pyburn says. This program may be able to provide producers with funding for disposal.
To find your local NRCS field office, use the locator at pork.org/COVID19. To apply for funding, producers will need to submit an application and receive a waiver from the NRCS prior to proceeding with any euthanasia, Tan says.
“It’s critical that you contact your NRCS field office prior to doing any euthanasia of animals and make sure all of your ducks are in a row to get that process started,” Tan says. “Applications are made through those local district conservation offices.”
Pyburn says some FEMA assistance may also be available, but no further details are known at this time.
4. Arm yourself with knowledge.
“Do not try and do this on your own,” Pyburn says. Get in touch with your herd veterinarian, state animal health official, local DNR and EPA offices, and your local NRCS office.
The Pork Checkoff also has a wealth of resources to help provide producers with as much knowledge as possible. Producers are encouraged to call 800-456-7675 if they have any technical questions or need help finding contacts. In addition, the Pork Checkoff invites all producers to sign up for the Pork Crisis Alert, a text service that will immediately deliver essential information to U.S. pork producers in the event of a major industry-wide emergency. Text PorkCrisis to 97296 to sign up.
“This is not something that we want to have to do, but we now have producers that are coming up against this, and they're not going to have a choice for animal welfare reasons,” Pyburn says. “The quicker that we can get our plants back up and running, our plants back up at full capacity, that's how we'll be able to lessen the impact of what we're facing right now.”
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