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10 million hogs with nowhere to go

COVID-19 crisis forces the other 98% to crunch the numbers.

Ask any person in my chosen profession about "numbers" and his or her reply will most likely be "I'm more of a word person." Once upon a time, that used to be my canned response. Since COVID-19 cases hit our pork processing facilities and plants started running at reduced capacity, I've probably crunched more numbers than ever before, and yet those numbers still seem unfathomable.

Last week the National Pork Producers Council sent a fact sheet to lawmakers to educate them on the impact of COVID-19 on pork production and why euthanasia is necessary to prevent animal suffering. For someone outside the industry this is a good primer, and for those in the industry it's a good reflection of what is happening to this "well-oiled machine."

First off, pork producer investments begin 10 to 11 months before a hog is sent from farm to market to be processed into the food supply system. These investments begin with sow breeding. Litters are farrowed approximately 114 days following sow insemination. Piglets then progress through the production cycle as follows: nursing with mother 21-28 days, the weaned/nursery stage 42-56 days and the finishing stage prior to harvest 135 days.

Farmer decisions to produce hogs ready for market today were made in June 2019 when all market signals indicated favorable returns for these investments and the United States remained on record pork production pace.

At the beginning of March 2020, again based on decisions made well before anyone had heard of COVID-19, the nation's inventory of pigs and hogs was 77 million, 4% higher than the same time last year. The number of hogs harvested during the first week of March, before plant disruptions began, was 2.68 million.

Due to COVID-related plant shutdowns and slowdowns, pork harvest capacity is down 32.1% as of May 8. For the week of May 2, USDA-inspected pork processing facilities harvested 1.55 million hogs. During the same week last year, 2.36 million hogs were harvested. This year's harvest for the week of May 2 was expected to be over 2.4 million head.

At current capacity levels, more than 170,000 market-ready hogs per day can't be processed into the food supply. These hogs will eventually stay on farms too long and grow too large to be accepted by harvest facilities.

It is estimated that up to 10.069 million market hogs will need to be euthanized between the weeks ending on April 25 and Sept. 19, resulting in a severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers.

With those numbers in mind, I don't think it is unreasonable for NPPC's current asks.

  • $1.173 billion for the USDA Farm Service Agency Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish to compensate farmers, retroactive to April 19, who are not able to market hogs due to plant closures or slow-downs.
  • $505 million allocated as follows: $250 million for USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to pay euthanasia/depopulation expenses; $255 million divided between National Resource Conservation Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to facilitate environmentally responsible disposal.

Now, as Dermot Hayes points out, the clock is ticking on a federal response.

"The last time we had plant capacity issues was in 1998. The problems then were very similar. The USDA acted too slowly and with too little money and we lost an entire generation of hog producers, including two of the largest," says Hayes, an economist at Iowa State University. "Without federal assistance, including compensation for euthanized hogs, we will see further consolidation in the industry."

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