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As meat plants slow, U.S. will help growers kill livestock

Producers have warned since mid-March of a potentially ruinous backup on the farm of cattle and hogs because of a slowdown at slaughter plants.

The government offered to help livestock producers locate contractors skilled in killing herds or flocks of animals and to provide cost-share funding for their disposal because the coronavirus pandemic has shut down packing plants and reduced consumer demand. The National Pork Board held a webinar on Sunday that discussed step by step “emergency depopulation and disposal” of hogs.

Producers have warned since mid-March of a potentially ruinous backup on the farm of cattle and hogs because of a slowdown at slaughter plants. Hog farmers may be in the worse situation because hogs typically reach slaughter weight of around 250 pounds in five or six months from birth and cannot easily be held from market. Two weeks ago, the president of the National Pork Producers Council, farmer Howard Roth of Wisconsin, said, “Sadly, it is true that euthanization is a question that is coming up on farms.”

“American livestock and poultry producers are facing an unprecedented emergency due to COVID-19, particularly with the closing of meat processing plants in several states,” said the USDA on Friday night. It announced a National Incident Coordination Center “to provide direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures due to COVID-19.” The incident center would seek alternative markets for livestock “and if necessary, advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.”

READ MORE: Tips for pork producers on pig disposal and feeding issues

“Encouraging news … from USDA for help on depopulation + disposal methods if necessary but govt needs 2b ready for more action,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley on social media. Iowa is the No. 1 hog state “but [with] meat packing plant closures from COVID-19 many hogs have nowhere to go & farmers are facing a crisis.”

Beef slaughter was 25% lower and hog slaughter 15% lower last week than in the corresponding week of April 2019, said the USDA in its weekly estimate of red meat production.

At least 17 workers have died and more than 3,300 have become ill from coronavirus infections, reported the Washington Post. It said there were outbreaks at 30 plants owned by Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods in recent weeks and 15 plants closed because of them.

Some analysts say the disruptions at meat plants will translate into short supplies of meat in the near future, reported Politico.

“As pork, beef, and chicken plants are forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” said Tyson Foods in a full-page ad. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.” The Tyson ad appeared in the middle of the Post’s two-page story that said “three of the nation’s largest meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers and some workers said they were told to keep working in crowded plants even while while sick.”

The USDA said it would deploy, as needed, assets of the National Veterinary Stockpile and “secure the services of contractors that can supply additional equipment, personnel, and services,” as it did during the bird flu epidemic of 2014-15. The stockpile includes equipment for mass culling of food animals, especially poultry.

WATCH:  The plight of a Nebraska hog farmer

In addition, the USDA said it would provide expert advice and cost-share funding through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program “in line with program guidelines for disposal.” Kevin Norton, association chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the maximum EQIP payment is $25,000 “per contract item.” Payment rates vary by disposal method and the total weight of the animals. Four disposal methods are covered – burial, incineration, on-farm composting, and transport of carcasses to a rendering plant or a landfill.

In opening the Pork Board webinar, chief executive Bill Even said, “Our worst-case scenarios are starting to materialize.”

To view a video of the webinar, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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