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Coronavirus In Minnesota: 200K Pigs May Be Put Down Due To Processing Plant Closures

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The closure of several Midwest pork processing plants is forcing hog farmers to make tough decisions in the days ahead.

Many will have to euthanize some of their pigs if they haven't started doing that already.

The National Pork Board hosted a webinar Sunday advising farmers on how to humanely put down pigs and dispose of them. For some, it's a last resort they're hoping to avoid.

From the seat of his combine, Minnesota hog farmer Dave Mensink said the idea of euthanizing his pigs is no different than growing a field of corn and setting a portion of it on fire come harvest.

"Very difficult decision to make, to put an animal down that we cared for," Mensink said.

With processing plants closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks in Worthington and Windom, as well as plants in Iowa and South Dakota, farmers are holding onto more hogs than they can handle. And with continued growth, many hogs could reach too high of a weight to be processed.

David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said there's at least a million hogs ready to be processed in the United States that can't because of the closures, adding that the number grows by tens of thousands every day.

"Quite honestly, it's absolutely tragic to have that conversation because it just becomes a waste of food," Preisler said. "We have hog prices that are low and plants that can't accept pigs. So we literally have got about 30% too many pigs [to process] in the United States and that's difficult to deal with. We're planning, at least creating plans here in the Minnesota, to probably put down 200,000 [hogs] over the next couple of weeks."

Minnesota is the country's second-largest pork producer, only behind Iowa. With advisement from federal and state government, as well as veterinarians, farmers are learning how to humanely euthanize and dispose of hogs.

Preisler said the carcasses would either be landfilled, composted, or rendered -- the latter of which turns a dead hog into byproducts.

"Could be fertilizer, could be fats and oils and so on. So it's really truly recycling," he said.

No matter what, it's a loss for farmers, one Mensink is fighting against. He's changed his hogs' diets to slow their growth and moved some into an empty barn. The processor he sells to remains open, however he said they've lowered their rates.

"We've had a few loads get cancelled, but we are pretty lucky," Mensink said.

Later this week, the JBS Pork plant in Worthington could reopen, but Preisler said only to help euthanize hogs. Even if that happens, he said it would only alleviate about 10% of the problem.

The financial hit won't only be felt with the loss of hogs. Priesler said farmers might also have to pay for the disposal process, but they're hoping government programs can help cover those costs.

"Because quite honestly, it just adds insult to injury," he said.

How this all affects pork prices at the grocery store remains unclear. Data from the USDA shows hog prices have dropped more than 40% since the beginning of the month to $34.21 per 100 pounds in Minnesota and Iowa, as of April 24. The five-year average price during this time of year is closer to $60 per 100 pounds. Priesler said restaurant closures were the main culprit.

"Sixty percent of all bacon was eaten in restaurants, and as that evaporated it just drastically dropped the price of bellies, and bellies are what gets turn into bacon," he said.

With such a large supply and limited demand, a drop in prices is expected. But if processing plants don't reopen soon, Preisler said there will suddenly be a supply issue that could drive prices back up.

"We will still have a pork industry in Minnesota when we get to the other end of this, but it's gonna look different," he said.

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