Meat processing backup leads to tough decisions

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pigs in a pen

COLUMBUS — The COVID-19 pandemic has led farmers to some excruciating decisions to cut their losses, including euthanizing animals. There’s a financial toll, for sure, but an emotional one as well.

“They’re cringing,” said Lyda Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science with the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. “It really hurts to have to do that.”

With meat processing plants partially or fully closed or backed up with orders, some Ohio farmers who raise pigs and chickens for slaughter are reluctantly turning to reducing their flocks or herds. It’s not a decision they want to make, nor a decision they ever expected to make.

Balance

This is happening amid other hurdles. Commodity prices continue to sink, and just last year, many Midwest farmers could not plant corn or soybeans because of unprecedented rainfall.

For some farmers, knowing options to stay financially sound is as important as knowing how to get help for anxiety and emotional slumps.

“The way we explain it is that taking care of yourself, including your mental health, is like changing the oil on your tractor,” said Sarah Noggle, an educator with Ohio State University Extension, in Paulding County. “If you don’t do it routinely, things become unbalanced.”

And there are many reasons for imbalances now. In the meat industry, the pandemic has led to a logjam.

Logjam

Though livestock raised on the farm is ready for market, many meat processors are unable to accept it — at least not at the same pace they had been before the coronavirus arrived in the United States.

The pandemic has led to a lot of sickness and time off work at processing plants, and though the nation’s major plants are opening up, shifts are limited.

Ohio has about 400 smaller meat and poultry processing plants, but most have a backlog of orders, some of which are typically funneled to the nation’s largest plants out of state, Garcia said. About 25% of Ohio’s pigs are processed out of state, and trying to find an Ohio meat processor to take them is challenging.

Farmers in Ohio have been forced to euthanize some pigs and chickens primarily because the animals can’t be held on the farm long after they reach market weight without declining seriously in value or losing value entirely, Garcia said.

“The farmers are really upset because this is what they devote their lives to,” Garcia said. “It’s happening frequently enough that many of us are gathering resources for farmers on mental health. This is serious.”

Limited options

Keeping pigs and chickens on a farm for longer times means they’ll weigh more when they’re sold. But sometimes a processor won’t buy an animal if it’s too large, or the processor will pay the farmer a lot less for the animal because the additional fat could mean it sells for less.

Typically, cattle can be kept a bit longer on the farm after they reach market size and still be OK for sale. But if a cattle producer has to seek out a smaller processor instead of a major one, they often earn less for that meat, Garcia said.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about losing money,” she said.

Most often, farmers with hogs and chickens are eliminating the youngest or unborn in their flocks or herds, rather than the fully grown animals that they’ve already invested in.

Farmers can’t easily donate their livestock to a food bank because it has to be taken to a meat processor, and the processors are backed up with orders for the next six months to a year, Garcia said.

“The farmers have plenty of animals, but nowhere to take them,” she said.

For information on mental health resources, visit u.osu.edu/cphp/ohio-mental-health-resource-guides and u.osu.edu/2019farmassistance/home/.

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