Bottlenecks in the supply chain will have lasting effects on producers
By Laurie Bedord, Successful Farming
Agriculture.com - 5/14/2020
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that this pandemic has created multifaceted disruptions in the supply chain that few could have predicted. Hardest hit are the pork, beef, and chicken producers dealing with an unprecedented backlog of animals because of closures and slowdowns at meatpacking plants.
“As I walk through our barns, my family is faced with the reality of having to euthanize market-weight pigs that would normally go into the food chain,” says Michael Boerboom, whose family has been farming in the Marshall, Minnesota, area for five generations. “At the same time, not even 10 miles away our local grocery store is out of pork. It’s frustrating.”
New estimates by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union show at least 30 meatpacking plants have closed at some point in the past two months. These closures have resulted in a 40% reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 25% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
“America’s meatpacking workers are putting their lives on the line every day to make sure our families have the food they need during this pandemic,” says Marc Perrone, UFCW International President. “Meatpacking plants did not close because anyone wants them to close. These plants closed because at least 30 workers died, and more than 10,000 workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19.”
What that means for the Boerbooms, who produce about 325,000 pigs annually, is a backlog of about 9,000 hogs. Because hog producers have a tight timeline to maintain productivity and safety, Boerboom says pigs can’t be held like cattle. While they’ve taken actions to adapt their business to the market reality, the changes won’t be felt overnight and won’t alter the fate of the hogs that should be headed to market.
“We’re not a factory. We can’t just shut things down, come back in six weeks, and pick back up again. Our sows continue to farrow. Our pigs continue to be weaned,” Boerboom says. “But our market-ready pigs are also getting larger. It won’t be long before these animals hit a point where they’re too large for the supply chain.”
Nationwide, Boerboom says the backlog across the U.S. is estimated to be 2 million hogs. “When you look at per capita consumption, that’s enough to feed 8 million Americans for one year. If we don’t get these plants back to 100% very quickly, those 2 million head may need to be euthanized. The size of this crisis is unprecedented and unbearable.”
In addition, holding market-ready hogs means there are fewer places to raise piglets, which also affects the future supply.
While two of the packers the Boerbooms work with have indicated they would accept pigs at a heavier weight, Boerboom says there is still a physical and engineering limit for what weight pigs can be processed. For the last few years, the average live weight of pigs has been 285 pounds. “I think we could see that shoot well over 300 pounds,” he says.
And more pig, says Will Sawyer, doesn’t necessarily mean more pork. “It’s not a one-to-one ratio,” says the lead animal protein economist in CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange research division. “Once an animal gets to a certain weight or beyond a certain weight, it’s not gaining a lot of meat quality.”
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