No rock is being left unturned to move pigs right now, says Illinois pig farmer Thomas Titus. With packing plants closing and slowing down temporarily, pig farmers are faced with unprecedented decisions.
“To be honest, it's very hard to develop much of a game plan,” Titus says. He and his wife, Breann, are partners with her family in Tri Pork Inc. “It seems like things change every 12 hours on what we're doing. Our business model has changed drastically in the last two weeks on how we market pigs.”
Despite the 700 pigs he has ready to go to market, he estimates only one load will go this week.
Whether it’s selling feeder pigs or marketing roaster pigs to Florida, Titus says their 600-sow herd size offers him a little more flexibility than other larger producers during this time. He even delivered 5 feeder pigs to a family in a suburban community raising chickens and pigs in their backyard.
“We’ve stopped selling feeder pigs because we’ve sold so many and feel like we’ve created a big enough hole in the nursery and growers to get by for six weeks,” he explains. “The market-ready pigs remain the challenge for us like everyone else. We’ve found some more outlets for them, but even for us and our size, it isn’t enough.”
He says they even sent a load to a plant in Ohio. “We basically gave them away, but we don’t have them anymore,” Titus says.
They have entered the freezer pork market as much as they can, he adds. He’s working with local processors to fill their supply needs and donating as much pork as he can. But at the end of the day, a huge gap remains.
Pig farmers weigh options
Times are incredibly hard now, says Heather Hill of Hill Farms LLC in Greenfield, Ind. With both pork harvesting facilities in Indiana shuttered this week, a silver lining is hard to find.
But Hill says she knows her family isn’t alone. That’s why she reached out to the local schools to let administrators know that her family is willing to donate meat to anyone who isn’t able to put protein on their table now.
“As a mom, not being able to feed your family is very scary. In this situation where we are worried about how we will pay our bills, thankfully I have freezers full of pork. Going hungry is not at the top of our list. It's everything else,” Hill says.
They have donated pigs to some of their employees and furloughed friends to process on their own.
Hill says they are carefully weighing all their options. For the past 15 years, they have been selling pork under a private label at local farmers markets and at a local orchard.
“We’ve primarily done that as a way to educate our neighbors about our farm and to remind them we are there and can offer that option for people who want to have a direct connection with where their pork comes from,” Hill says.
Under their private label brand, they market an additional 50 hogs a year, she says. Although they’ve seen an increase on that side of the business, it’s not enough to move 600 pigs a week, she says.
“Right now we are playing it day by day, trying to figure out where we can find extra space or finishers that we could send pigs and hold some pigs,” she says. “We have a little bit of flexibility right now, but that will run out sooner rather than later.”
Animal welfare is always a top priority and becomes even more critical in a time like this, Hill says.
“We have to make sure we're making those right decisions. And, unfortunately, I think all pork producers are going to be forced to make some very hard decisions regarding their operations,” she adds.
The last resort
Pig farmers are doing what they can to slow down growth, find extra space in their barns in order to delay marketing for as long as they can, says Dave Pyburn, DVM, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Board.
“But there comes a point where animal welfare issues become real and that barn is overcrowded because animals are so big,” Pyburn says. “Because of that, as a last resort, our producers are having to look at euthanasia and disposal protocols.”
Some colleagues in the field have told Pyburn that most producers have a buffer of two to three weeks before they are forced to look at euthanasia.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're facing animal care and marketing challenges – the likes of which we have never seen before and I hope we never see again,” Pyburn says.
Many of the decisions that loom ahead for pig farmers are dependent on packing plants reopening and increasing line speeds.
Titus says he’s hopeful the plants come back online soon, because if they don't, it could force his family to make decisions that drastically change the opportunities for the next generation.
“I'm truly appreciative of those essential workers that work in the plants that are going in there every day and doing their job to keep the food supply chain going,” Titus says. “I hope that the government comes out with some type of stimulus package for essential workers because they're crucial to our economy. No matter what sector we're in – whether it's pork production, vegetable, grain crops – those people that are still coming into work and doing their jobs every day are more than essential to us at this point.”