Pig producers scramble as plants shut down

The pork industry runs on a tight schedule. As plants shut down for COVID-19, producers have to hold onto pigs longer or find other processing options for them.

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The Smithfield meat-packing plant in Sioux Falls, on April 8, 2020. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — Caleb Baer never imagined the response he’d get to a Craigslist ad looking for homes — or freezers — for some of his pigs.

“Due to the COVID-19 epidemic going around and loss of market places for hogs, I am able to offer butcher hogs delivered to Heart O’Lakes Meats in Pelican Rapids for the low low price of $1.55/lb hanging weight,” his ad said. “This includes the price of the hog and the processing fees. I will lose money on every animal, but I will sleep well at night knowing I am sticking it to the foreign owned multi-national corporations who control the hog slaughter capacity in the U.S. currently. Buy local, support local!”

Baer has placed ads to have pigs processed at local processing plants before, and he usually gets five to 10 responses to an ad. This time, he’d had well over 200 people place orders through April 20.

“I’ve always been willing to sell hogs to local people. I’ve just never had something blow up this big,” he said.

Finding places to take finished pigs is a struggle for many producers right now, with the beef industry also feeling the pain, as packing plants across the country have slowed or shut down operations as coronavirus has spread among plant workers. One of the largest hits has been Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, S.D., where the country’s largest outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been identified.


Keeping track of which plants are open and which plants are closed is a bit of a moving target. Other plants that have shut down include the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn., Comfrey Farm Prime Pork in Windom, Minn., and Tyson's Waterloo, Iowa, plant. Some others have shut down briefly before coming back on line. Several beef plants also have shut down.

Baer, along with his father Amon and brother Jareb, finish 35,000 pigs per year, feeding some themselves and working with contract growers in South Dakota and Minnesota. They typically sell to Hormel in Austin, Minn. While that packing plant was still running at full capacity as of April 20, Baer said meat packing plants have so many animals available that they don’t need to increase bids; he understands they’re just doing their jobs.

“These hogs are just falling in packers’ laps,” he said.

Selling to Hormel right now means a $70-per-head loss, Baer said. He’s losing money selling directly to consumers, too.

“It’s still a loss, but not as big of one,” he said.

His decision has been a boon for Heart O’Lakes Meats, though. Jason and Nicki Stetz opened Heart O’Lakes in 2011, and the plant became federally inspected March 1 — putting them in position to take on increased demand from livestock producers looking for an outlet. Spring typically is a slow time of year for the family-run plant, which takes animals from about a 100-mile radius in Minnesota and North Dakota. Usually in April, the plant would process five or six animals. Right now, they’re processing 25 beef and 35 hogs per week.

“I don’t think I’ve slept more than five hours in a night since (the COVID-19 outbreak began). This is unreal,” Stetz said. “People want to fill their freezers.”

A lot of that demand is for Baer’s pigs. It’ll take months to get through all of them.


“We’re out two months,” Stetz said. “That’s just insane, you know, but we’ll do our darndest to get to them.”

Stetz says Baer is charging about 20 cents less per pound of hanging weight than he was a couple months earlier.

Other options for producers

Minnesota Pork Producers Association CEO Dave Preisler said Smithfield, after shutting down the Sioux Falls plant, shifted some hogs to the company’s other plants. But the company can’t relocate all the pigs with the record numbers being produced nationally.

“They do have a plant in Denison, Iowa, Crete, Neb., Monmouth, Ill., that do give them some movement, but the plant that is in Sioux Falls is the largest one,” he said.

He said this could put some producers out of business, and they estimate losses of $2.5 million a day in Minnesota due to COVID.

With nowhere to go with loads, producers have been scrambling to find places to process pigs that are ready for market. While some, like Baer, have found limited local outlets for their animals, such places can’t account for all of them.

Many producers are holding pigs for a longer period to wait for processors to open or using other management techniques to slow their rate of gain. South Dakota State University Extension Swine Specialist Bob Thaler said producers can hold hogs up to a month if they have enough finishing capacity in their operation or can find empty facilities on other farms. However, with modern production systems, the pig flow is tight.

“If the last load of pigs goes out today, we’ve got at most a week to get it cleaned, disinfected and dried down before the next group comes in. When a sow gets bred today, we already know which finishing barn that pig is going to be, when it has to leave and when the next group after that comes in. Easily, we’re scheduled a year out, so any disruption on that pig flow backs up the whole system,” he said.


Thaler said pork producers can also attempt to slow growth nutritionally or through management, with respect to animal welfare.

“Nutritionally we can just add more fiber to the diet, and less energy means less growth. Easy ways to do that are soybean hulls, (dried distillers grains) and wheat mids,” he explained.

He said other options include reducing protein and amino acid concentrations in the ration by 30% to 40% or adding calcium chloride.

Other management changes can be made, including increasing the room temperature and slowing the ventilation rate. Thaler said that will increase the humidity and lower feed intake.

“If we can crank that temperature up in the room, they’re not going to feel like eating,” he said.

He doesn’t advise producers to adjust the feeders to limit intake manually.

In the unlikely event that processing closures continue, some pork operations may need to consider euthanization. While no one has confirmed that euthanizations are occurring yet, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has created an Emergency Carcass Disposal website to assist producers.

“This is the option of last resort and we pray it will never happen, but it is a possibility if any additional plants close,” Thaler said.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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