With Smithfield Foods’ Sioux Falls pork plant closed by a COVID-19 outbreak, Minnesota hog farmer Greg Boerboom may face a grim choice.
The South Dakota plant had been scheduled this week to slaughter about 1,400 of Boerboom’s pigs. Smithfield directed 25% of that shipment to another Smithfield plant in Illinois — with Boerboom paying the extra $1,500 in freight costs.
The remaining 850 hogs are in limbo. Boerboom is seeking a destination for them before they grow too big for market and thus face euthanization.
Over 3,000 healthy pigs were put down in Minnesota this week, and 200,000 more could soon follow.
“There’s never been anything like this,” Boerboom said. If idled pork plants don’t open soon, “we are going to see multigenerational, longstanding [hog] farms not get through this financially.”
Minnesota is the nation’s third largest hog-producing state. And pork is critical to Minnesota’s agricultural economy.
Up to 30% of the nation’s pork-processing capacity is shuttered as COVID-19 cases have spread through factories.
JBS USA’s big plant in Worthington, which processes 20,000 hogs a day, was indefinitely idled Monday. Major slaughterhouses in Iowa — also prime destinations for Minnesota-grown hogs — have been closed, too.
Hog farmers may contract with one pork processor or multiple slaughterhouses.
But either way, hog production is a just-in-time system.
Pigs grow fast, particularly in the later stages, and farmers turn over their barns as quickly as they can.
“You don’t raise pigs without knowing where they are going to go,” said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. “And it’s not like [processing] plants are out there searching for pigs.”
Boerboom runs a midsize, family-owned hog farm near Marshall in southwestern Minnesota, regularly working with three packers.
Two of them have remained open, including his biggest buyer, the Tyson Foods plant in Storm Lake, Iowa.
“We are feeling really fortunate that we are able to get in what we got,” Boerboom said.
After 350 of the pigs were sent to Smithfield’s Monmouth, Ill., plant, the remainder are still on Boerboom’s farm, waiting.
Hogs put on 15 to 20 pounds per week as they get close to slaughter.
Pigs optimally weigh 285 to 290 pounds when they’re shipped to market, said Terry Wolters, a hog grower near Pipestone in southwestern Minnesota who has been able to get pigs to market.
“When you cross the line at 325 [pounds], you put yourself in a tough position with most meat plants,” Wolters said. At that weight, hogs can stress a plant’s machinery and make it hard to process.
Growers — with nowhere to go with mature hogs and a new crop of younger pigs coming in — may turn to the bleak task of euthanizing healthy pigs.
Preisler said that one grower this week euthanized 3,000 healthy hogs, the largest single kill in Minnesota.
He didn’t have a total death toll. But Minnesota agricultural and animal health agencies are making plans for the possible destruction of 200,000 pigs in the next week or so, Preisler said.
That’s based on the number of animals coming to market and the slaughter capacity expected to be eliminated.
The state is helping the industry find environmentally sound ways of disposing of the pigs, Preisler said.
Unlike with 2015’s deadly avian flu, which led to the destruction of at least 9 million turkeys and chickens in Minnesota, hog farmers will get no financial help — at least at this point.
The federal and state governments spent millions of dollars to help Minnesota turkey growers euthanize their birds.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also paid many millions more to indemnify farmers for killing healthy birds that had the misfortune to be living in the same barns as sick ones.
But because this hog kill-off doesn’t stem from an animal health crisis, farmers are likely out of luck financially.
“It’s just a terrible situation,” said Beth Thompson, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Hog growers are changing their pigs’ diets to slow growth, increasing roughage and decreasing energy sources. The idea is to keep the pigs full but with fewer calories.
Some growers are raising temperatures in their barns; pigs eat less when it’s hotter.
“This is the first time in my life I have tried to make a pig not gain weight as fast as I can,” said Dave Mensink, a hog grower near Preston in southeastern Minnesota and president of the state’s pork producers’ association.
Mensink’s hogs go to the massive pork complex in Austin.
Quality Pork Processors does the slaughtering there, with hogs then flowing directly into the adjacent Hormel Foods plant to be turned into products ranging from bacon to Spam.
As of Wednesday, only one Hormel worker at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19 and there were no cases at Quality Pork. “So far so good, knock on wood,” Mensink said.
Still, “we have had a few loads [of pigs] cut because every packer has cut back on capacity — they have all slowed down,” Mensink said.
Even at plants that haven’t closed, some workers probably aren’t showing up due to fears of COVID-19, he said.
Plus, meatpacking plants that are still operating have increased social distancing among workers, essentially slowing down production.
“It’s a day-by-day issue,” Mensink said of processing capacity.
As for his hogs that were due to be slaughtered but weren’t, Mensink said he has found some extra space for them — for the moment at least.
“We are fortunate enough to have an empty barn to move a few pigs into,” he said.