Rebound seen in pork production

The pork industry suffered in the spring with several plants closing down, but it is now processing even more pigs than last summer in an effort to catch up to demand. (Photo courtesy of Dal Grooms)
The pork industry suffered in the spring with several plants closing down, but it is now processing even more pigs than last summer in an effort to catch up to demand. (Photo courtesy of Dal Grooms)

The pork industry has taken a hit from the coronavirus, but it is expected to rebound by the fall, assuming the virus doesn’t cause any more disruptions in the supply chain.

Iowa Pork Producers Association communications director Dal Grooms said the market for pork products was tough even before COVID-19 hit the U.S. earlier this year. Then it forced the closure of several pork processing plants, and even when those plants came back online, they were only operating at reduced capacity, sometimes half capacity.

Grooms said farmers were seeing lower prices for hogs entering the year. Combined with the disruptions to the supply chain caused by COVID-19, she believes some farmers will be forced out of the profession altogether, either from their own choice or because they will be forced out by lenders. Earlier this year, Iowa State University predicted pig farmers would lose $2.1 billion.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the industry. In fact, it’s already starting to recover. Grooms said there are still plenty of pigs to move through the supply chain. The disruption of that chain that COVID-19 brought caused consumers to panic buy pork and other meats. Grooms said that some grocery distributors reported demand for fresh pork was four times higher than normal. That has led to shortages.

“While we believe shortages are a reflection of the disruption, there’s no certainty how long the impact will last,” Grooms said. “We are hoping that distribution returns to normal by September, but that doesn’t take into account the occurrence of COVID-19 spikes that could impact the workforce at any place in the supply chain.”

Grooms said that packing plants are now mostly operating at about 90 percent of capacity and running on Saturdays, which they don’t normally do during the summer. The slaughterhouses are actually processing more pigs now than a year ago because they are trying to make up for lost time during March, April and May when the virus shut them down.

Earlier this year, there were reports of some farmers having to euthanize their pigs because there was no market for them at the time they needed to be slaughtered. Grooms said farmers have found ingenious ways to avoid that problem. Some of them changed their feeding rations so they could slow down the animals’ growth or maintain it at market weight.

“Some farmers had extra space in their barns, so they could increase their stocking rate and keep pigs at the farm longer,” Grooms said. “Some farmers donated pigs to food banks through the Pass the Pork program.”

As of June 8, 451 pigs were donated to this program, equal to 50,000 pounds of pork, which have provided 200,000 meals to Iowans dealing with food insecurity. Grooms added that some farmers have tried to arrange direct sales of their pigs to people who want them, and then make arrangements with their local locker to butcher the pig.

Another source of help came from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which partnered with Iowa State University and IPPA to provide information resources to producers through the Iowa Resource Coordination Center. IDALS also secured some money to help pig farmers offset costs of disposing animals that were euthanized.

Grooms said there are pig farmers who are uncertain about their ability to stay in business. The Iowa Pork Producers Association is working with the National Pork Producers Council to ask Congress to pass some measures to provide additional resources. One example is some of the provisions that were in the House-passed HEROES Act, such as:

• Compensation for euthanized livestock that can’t be processed into the food supply due to COVID-related packing plant capacity reductions.

• Expanded direct payments—without payment limitations—to livestock farmers who have suffered severe losses as COVID-related market disruptions have caused the value of their livestock to plummet.

• Increased funding for animal health surveillance and laboratories, which have been tapped to perform COVID-19 testing during this human health emergency.

• Mental health assistance for farmers who must make difficult decisions on euthanasia.