What the pork industry learned from the coronavirus debacle

"It was the craziest time I can ever remember"


By Betsy Freese, Successful Farming

Agriculture.com - 10/12/2020


COVID-19 dealt a body blow to the pork industry. The year started with many of the largest pig producers expanding sow numbers to meet global demand opportunities. By April, restaurants were closing, packing plants shutting down, and pigs backing up on farms. Today, producers and other experts in the swine industry are taking stock of what lessons are still being learned from the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve gathered some experiences and reflections here.


A crazy time


Rob Brenneman, owner of Brenneman Pork, Washington, Iowa, calls the pandemic, “the craziest time I can ever remember.” On two of his farms in Missouri, where 67 employees live in a company-owned trailer court, 40 tested positive for COVID-19 in the spring. For a few weeks, the company had only seven out of 33 employees working on one farm. “We never missed a breeding, never missed a farrowing,” says Brenneman. “Live born on those sows was the same. We learned how to prioritize what we had to get done on a daily basis.”


Brenneman Pork added 500 sows this past year, for 33,000 total, but cut back on the number of weaned pigs it usually buys. The company did not have to euthanize market hogs, he says, even though most of its pigs are processed at Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction, Iowa, which was hit hard and early by COVID-19.


“That was the first plant to go down, so we had the privilege of figuring it out real quick,” says Brenneman. Almost 100,000 pigs on his farms were backed up, but he managed through it. “We double-stocked right up front. We were fortunate we had six new buildings come on exactly when that happened, so we loaded those up.”


By late August, his pig flow was finally back to normal. “Our first pigs it affected were April 2 when Columbus Junction closed,” says Brenneman. “I didn’t think we’d be caught up until January. We were fortunate.”


He also slowed pigs down by changing rations. “Once we realized what was going to happen and we stocked up the finishers, then we basically went to corn and DDGs and a little bit of salt just to keep them from chewing on each other,” says Brenneman. “We learned a lot, so I think it is something we can use in the future if we want to go from an April market to a June market. It was educational.”


Brenneman did not see cannibalism with his pigs like some other growers did. “We didn’t slow anything down under 200 pounds,” he explains. “Other guys were slowing them down at 100 pounds and they were just deflating those pigs. It just trashed them.”


Coping with COVID-19 repercussions was educational, says Brenneman. “We came out of it with the opportunity to be better, no question. We learned how to slow pigs down. We learned how to improvise on the sow side. We didn’t wash farrowing rooms for two or three turns and that worked fine.”


On the marketing side, lessons were learned, too. “We learned that we have a good relationship with Tyson,” says Brenneman. “We both had to give and take. It was consistent communication and it made our relationship stronger.”


Overstocking pigs for short periods didn’t hurt them much, he says. Farm staff learned how to wash trailers faster.


“It was a very, very difficult time, but our team got stronger,” says Brenneman. “The community was awesome; they understood what we were going through. A lot of people volunteered to take a pig here and there and that was great. It didn’t solve the problem, but at least it showed they cared. You find out who your friends are.”


The network of pork producers in Iowa is tighter today, he says. “We helped each other. There are a dozen of us who talked every week last spring. We are all trying to learn from each other, because we are all in the situation . You realize how few of you there really are. You can talk to 10 guys and cover half the industry.”


Risk management strategies in marketing “saved us last year,” says Brenneman. “When the opportunity knocks in 2021 we definitely want to take advantage of it.”


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Lessons learned ...