Hog Farmers Leverage Creativity to Manage Herds During Crisis

( National Pork Board )

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting slowdown or closure at packing plants has created unique and unexpected challenges for the hog industry. In the face of having to make heart-wrenching decisions about euthanizing some or all of their herd, pig farmers have gotten creative with solutions to maintain their herds until they can get them to market as intended.

Howard “A.V.” Roth, a hog farmer from Wis. and NPPC president, and Randy Francois, a pork producer in Iowa, joined AgriTalk to share how their farms are hanging in and talk about the state of relief efforts in the works for the hog industry.

On Roth’s wean pig operation, they’ve been utilizing their isolation barn to house pigs for the last five weeks until he was able to find someone that handles feeder pigs and could take 300 from him just this week. 

For Francois, he was able to empty their first complete site for the first time in six to eight weeks, relieving some of his backlog.

“We're very fortunate that on a lot of our sites, we have a couple different barns for every group of pigs. So we're trying to market as much as we can, and then we're crowding over to the one site or the one barn. And we're bringing the weaned pigs into the other site,” he says.

Francois also utilized a maintenance diet and was happy with how well it performed for his herd.

“For the health of the animal, it has been remarkable how well they've been maintained on hold diets. So thanks to our nutritionists. And thanks to everybody that's given us guidance on the best way to achieve that. The pigs have responded quite nicely,” he says.

For producers that have had to make the decision to euthanize their animals, Roth stresses the importance of financial relief and mental health support for them.

“If they have to make that hard decision to euthanize, they dug the [financial] grave for themselves, and without immediate help from the government to help dig them out, these farmers who are deeply rooted in their family heritage on these farms may be gone forever,” Roth says.

“I've listened to hundreds of calls from producers. And I don't know what to say. It’s the same thing here. I've had to euthanize some weaned pigs because we didn't have any place for them and it's not good,” he continues.

If assistance doesn’t come now, it will be too late, Roth stresses.

Pivoting the conversation over to the packing plants, Francois commended the job that the Tyson plants he takes his hogs to have done in allowing them to shift which plant he could take his load to.

In Wisconsin, there’s not a ton of finishing hogs in Roth’s area, but he says local butchers have done a great job with helping some of the backlog, but he’s still worried about places like Iowa and Minnesota that are overloaded, urging for calls to Senators to support the ag-related provisions in the HEROES Act to help producers.

On the sow herd side, host Chip Floy questioned if many sows had been liquidated, but Roth thinks it’s too early to tell an exact number. If you look at the supply chain, those with loads of sows are full just like everything else, and that could have an impact on total supplies in the fourth quarter

Francois thinks it may be a conversation best put back to legislators

“The best place for a market-ready hog is through the packing plants. I wonder if we don't need to go to our legislators and have a conversation with them that they need to incentivize to euthanize that weaned pig and that's going to be easier to handle versus a market-ready hog. A guy could easily get that through, and the costs aren't there on a weaned pig versus [costs] on a market-ready hog,” Francois says.

There is an estimated 2.7 million pig backlog at the packing plants, which when compared to the average kill from a year ago means there’s a backlog of at least six to seven production days, Francois says.

“We're already killing every Saturday, so are we going to make these workers work on Sundays? I don't think so. That's a good way to not have a workforce at all. So if we can slow down the supply coming in, it might be take six months, but the way I see it on our farm, it's probably going to take us four to five months before we're probably back up running as we'd like to be,” he continues.

One small bit of relief  – money is available from the NRCS that will help farmers who’ve had to euthanize their hogs. Roth encourages producers to reach out to learn about what’s available to them, as well as to talk to their state pork producers association. He also stressed the importance of keeping track of the number of hogs euthanized, so that when assistance is put in place from the government, producers have accurate information to apply for that assistance.

Francois echoes the need for help now, but also has one eye ahead to the fall, should another wave of coronavirus crop up.

“We need to be diligent in the future, we need to make sure that if we do get a second wave of this come fall, that we're prepared. Because just when we think we're almost recovering, now the second wave comes in and now we're back into it. And another thing I'd like to remind people from the consumer side is that we are bringing as safe, affordable product to the marketplace. I don't want them to hear that the farmers are getting all this help and then they think we're just doing it for the handouts of this. It’s similar to the check that they received, or their small business received for help,” he concludes

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