Pork producers across the country are struggling to find a place to take weaned piglets to finishing hogs as processing plants slow or shutdown because employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Mike Paustian, a Northeast Iowa pork producer and president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, normally takes his pigs to the Tyson processing plant in Columbus Junction. The plant has been closed since April 6 due to a virus outbreak but reopened Tuesday.

“It’s definitely a scary situation for producers,” Paustian told Agri-Pulse. “Everyone’s kind of holding their breath right now to see how this is all going to shake out.”

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there were 3,641 positive cases in the state as of Monday morning. On Sunday, the state reported 261 cases, or 67%, of additional positives reported that day, were attributable to surveillance testing of meat processing facilities in the state. 

The increase includes over 500 completed surveillance tests of Tyson employees and over 500 completed surveillance tests of National Beef employees, which yielded 84 positives among Tyson employees and 177 positives at National Beef, respectively, according to IDPH.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said the state is working to provide resources and has an adequate amount of tests for the meat processing plants — "whether it's consultation with the packing plant leadership or providing tests to these facilities so that they can test their workers to find out the extent of the outbreak,” Naig told Agri-Pulse.

He noted testing should provide confidence to the workforce that they can safely come back to work or continue to show up at plants. 

Paustian said Tyson has been working with pork producers, but noted as other plants slow or shut down, pigs just keep adding up.

“Last time I talked with a group of other producers, it sounded like most people were getting maybe 50% to 60% to market than they normally would,” Paustian said.

He said those producers noted they had about two to four weeks of wiggle room before they get in a jam and must look at other options.

Fifteen of the largest pork packing plants process about 60% of all hogs, Jayson Lusk, agricultural economics department head at Purdue University, said on a webinar Monday. Eleven of those plants are in or closely bordering Iowa, Lusk said.

Jayson Lusk

Jason Lusk, Purdue University (Photo: Joy Philippi)

“When you see these reductions in slaughter capacity or slaughter operations, those animals are still out there. They still need to be processed,” said Jim Mintert, director for Purdue’s Center for Commercial Agriculture.

Pigs still needing to get processed include those previously scheduled to go to the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. The plant has seen over 500 employees test positive for the virus. Its closure has sent ripple effects throughout the pork supply chain, impacting pig producers as far away as Illinois.

Ken and Becky Doyle raise piglets near Gillespie, Ill. Becky said they have a contract with a group of producers who sell to the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls. 

“They are struggling to find a market for the hogs that they intended to sell this week so that they could empty buildings, clean them and take our pigs next week,” she said in an email to Agri-Pulse

“Since they have not been able to do that, they have alerted us that they will not be able to take our pigs next week and the following week,” she added.

Now, Becky said she and her husband are trying to find housing for two weeks of weaned pigs they did not intend to keep. She said Ken talked to someone who has 1,400 pigs due to be weaned and put on a truck this week with no buyer.

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“He cannot get anyone to take them even for free. Euthanasia may be his only option,” she said. Euthanizing pigs is always a last resort for producers, but some fear it could come closer to reality as each week progresses without a place to take pigs.

Mintert, Lusk and fellow Purdue Economist Michael Langemeier also said the situation for producers could be worrisome if backups go into the fourth quarter because the industry was already supposed to see an increase in production this year.

“The problems for producers are pretty darn acute and we have a well-designed system to move animals through the process until it doesn’t work,” Lusk noted.

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