The fear of the unknown kept Ashlyn Imus awake at night when packing plants began to shutter last spring due to employee absenteeism and COVID-19.
“You simply had no idea what could happen or what was going to happen,” Imus says. “On one hand, I wondered if it was real. Was it being overexaggerated in the media?”
As the farm manager at Smock Farms in Idaville, Ind., Imus oversees a 100,000-head, wean-to-finish operation and handles several responsibilities at Hanenkratt Grain Inc. In 2017, Smock Farms began working with Aaron Lower, DVM, president of Carthage Veterinary Service (CVS). They also purchased a Carthage System sow farm near Carthage, Ill.
On April 17, media began buzzing about a COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson plant that Smock Farms sends some of their market hogs to in Indiana. That’s when Imus began to realize the situation was about to get serious. Not long after, she received a call that the plant was shuttering. Less than two weeks later, Indiana Packers Corporation (IPC) sent out a letter that they were shuttering, too.
“We could take one load a week to the plant in Coldwater, Mich., and one week a month we got two loads,” Imus explains. “We went from selling 10 to 20 loads a week to one load. That had a huge impact on us.”
Imus says she’ll never forget the day the team at Carthage began talking to them about contacting a landfill. When the plants began opening up more, Smock Farms had around 2,000 pigs that would be overweight.
“That was completely gut wrenching to hear,” she says. “Like that feeling when your heart actually breaks.”
A Coordinated Effort
Beau Peterson, general manager at CVS, said they tried to coordinate information the best they could to help their clients through an unimaginable time.
“As you got into the heat of the mess, there was information coming from everywhere. We really just tried to pull together and figure out where the gaps were,” Peterson says. “We told our clients that we had three primary focuses. We wanted to keep the plants open. We wanted to work on solutions for euthanasia and disposal if it came to that. We wanted to work on indemnity for the producers.”
It took Smock Farms some time, but they eventually got pigs back under the 300-lb. mark. Fortunately, CVS was able to run data almost every day and could identify potential customers who might be able to trade loads with Smock Farms.
“We had such big hogs that people were willing to help us out as long as we would help them out when they needed the loads,” Imus says.
Other pork producers traded loads with them that they did not even know.
“They were better off than we were with lighter pigs, so we took two loads from them,” she says. “We were also in a group for the Coldwater plant, so there were three to four loads that we could get from that group also.”
Because of the generosity of other producers and swift coordination by CVS, Imus says they have not had to euthanize any pigs yet.
“Plants opened up at just the right time to keep us under the breaking point,” she adds. “We were trying to empty barns due to pigs coming in. But instead of us emptying barns, we went around and pulled pigs from three different sites (something we would typically never do) to move any pig that might be over 350 lb.”
Smock Farms office in Idaville, Ind.
Moving Pigs By Any Means Necessary
Smock Farms also sent a load of pigs with Weichman Pig Company, where they normally take their cull pigs.
“They called and asked if we wanted to send a load with them to Florida to make space in our barn,” she says. “We ended up getting $6,000 for a full load of pigs. That was a little hurtful, but we were doing anything we could to get pigs out of the barn.”
There’s no question they were money behind on that load of pigs, she adds.
“At that point in time, it was anything to make something from a pig that you already have all this money invested in. To get something back was still helping,” Imus says. “I guess it's more so for the peace of mind that you're not killing pigs and losing all of the money that you would have spent euthanizing them.”
Lower and Peterson scheduled meetings between Nutriquest and Smock Farms to go over ideas, solutions and thought processes.
“We changed diets, shut down some feeders and slowed down the growth process by doing little things with a big impact to make sure we wouldn’t have pigs growing like crazy like we normally like to see,” Imus says.
They also double-stocked and triple stocked barns — whatever they could do to utilize every piece of space to get the wean pigs in, she adds.
“We made it work and somehow by the grace of God, we were able to do it without having to be one of those flows that had to euthanize,” Imus says.
When the hits started coming back in April, CVS leadership decided to waive all veterinary service fees for April and May.
“We really wanted to pull down the walls and just get everyone talking and working together as much as possible without creating any barriers to people asking us for help,” Peterson says. “Many different places all came together to pull the rope in the same direction.”
Their team also got pulled into many of the emergency management discussions and Illinois Department of Agriculture discussions. Lower says it gave them a good opportunity to collaborate with Illinois Pork Producers Association, the Department of Agriculture, packing plants and others.
“There were tons of decisions to make — by the day and by the hour,” Lower says. “Our goal was to be as centered as we could in the decision making because there were no good decisions to make. It was: How do you make the best decision between two crappy ones? Our goal was to help mitigate losses and try to get people to the other side.”
Despite the challenging circumstances surrounding the pork industry, Ashlyn Imus says her job is her pride and joy.
Why would you ever want to be in this industry? Imus says that’s a question she has asked herself a lot lately. Walking through barns trying to figure out which pigs you might have to euthanize is tough.
“But my job is my pride and joy,” she says. “At the same time, you’re feeling so much heartbreak, you’re also aware that you are feeding people and making an impact on the world. So why would you let a little hiccup in the road (that you hope is a short-term thing) ever drive you away from something that you're so passionate about?”
Although they have been through a lot, she says they can also see some good that’s come out of this time.
“The whole community of pork producers really stepped in and everybody was helping everybody in a time that they could,” Imus says.
They’ve also learned some important lessons from a marketing standpoint.
“This has been an eye-opener to us along with other producers that when the market is good, that the greed maybe needs to be less. You always want to wait a quarter more or for this price, but what if that $89.75 is good enough? It may take some emotion out of the marketing so it’s not such an ‘I want this,’ but you could settle for this price because it’s OK.”
Smock Farms plans to expand their operation by adding at least one new barn, she says. They are also contemplating opening a locker plant of their own as interest continues to increase in people wanting to know the story of where their meat comes from.
“This has had such an impact on everyone — people are going to want to help a smaller business more than ever,” she says. “I think small business will come out on top of this. This is something we are really anticipating and hoping we can pull through on — if we do, I think it will be really neat for us.”
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