Pork processing plants are slowly beginning to reopen, but hog producers are still feeling the impact of COVID-19 closures and finding unique ways to adapt.
Reicks View Farms near Lawler, Iowa has made raising hogs from farrow to finish a family tradition. Brady Reicks said he works alongside his wife Tessa, parents Dale and Laura, and sister, Kaylie. They have nearly 50,000 sows and several thousand acres of cropland.
The corn they produce meets about 25 percent of their feed needs, so the family buys bushels from local farmers, elevators and co-ops in the area. Brady said the farm also purchases distillers dried grains (DDGs) from ethanol plants that they run through their feed mill. However, the ethanol industry has not been immune to the current economic shutdown, and several plants closed operations.
“The DDGS situation with the ethanol plants has been challenging because we really don’t need growth at this point with the packing plants shutting down or slowing down,” Brady said.
DDGs are a more fibrous, light feed that can lead to slower growth rates than traditional corn/soy mixture. It was one of the many strategies Reicks View Farms tried to avoid euthanizing animals.
“When Tyson Foods in Waterloo, which is where about 70 percent of our hogs go, shut down that was difficult for us,” Brady said.
Another plant they deliver hogs to has also slowed.
“Probably only 20 percent of the pigs that we need to market are being marketed,” Brady said. “It is very day-to-day. It is a big problem.”
The farm hoped to get the federal government involved in the situation to help producers who are losing livestock recuperate costs.
“Human safety is always first, but we also have animals that have to go somewhere at some point,” Brady said. “When you’re only selling 20-30 percent of your pigs, you’re only getting 20 to 30 percent of your revenue.”
Brady explained most hog facilities work on a ‘just in time’ supply chain. As soon as hogs go to market, there are feeder pigs behind them to fill their place. Behind those feeder pigs are weaned pigs coming from a sow farm, and those sows are all bred with replacements.
“You can’t really shut it off,” Brady said. “You would have to euthanize animals at some point in that supply chain.”
Reicks View Farms has been fortunate to not euthanize animals yet. They started aggressively selling animals early to get ahead of the situation, and the farm has enough for now.
“If this keeps going, we may have to [euthanize pigs],” Brady said. “Even if you did hold onto them and restrict growth as much as you can, it is hard to completely stop growth. They can grow to a certain point where they’re too big to even go to harvest because they are too big for the equipment.”
One unique way Reicks View Farms put pork in the hands of consumers was by giving pigs away on Facebook.
“It is not a fun time, but at least that part is fun,” Brady said.
They provided the pig and even transportation to a meat locker for the nearly 120 winners who simply had to pay the processing fee.
“Everyday people buying from a local locker is a good thing,” Brady said. “They don’t have the 1,000 to 2,000 people to operate a processing facility. Buying hogs directly from farmers is great, but in the grand scheme of things, that will only help so much.”
Brady said it was crucial to get the plants operating again in a way that is safe for workers or pay an indemnification to producers who are losing markets and euthanizing hogs.
“Once you start the plants back up again, it would be very hard for them to catch up with the backlog of pigs that’s been created,” Brady said.
The best way for people to help, according to Brady, is to keep eating pork. “We’re doing the best we can,” Brady said. “We sure appreciate any support that we can get from others.”