WATERLOO — Peter Schneider’s pig pens are bursting at the seams.
A veterinarian and fifth-generation farmer in southern Black Hawk County, Schneider and his fellow pork producers are struggling with a backlog of livestock due to the shutdown of the Waterloo Tyson Fresh Meats plant.
While the Tyson plant reopened in limited capacity Thursday following a two-week shutdown, Schneider and others fear the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on meatpacking plants in Iowa and across the country could linger for months.
“It’s too early to tell how having the Tyson plant reopening will effect us and other local farmers,” Schneider said. “Certainly it is a good thing, but the number of market-weight animals on farms across the country is continuing to increase daily.
“Packing houses have limited capacity,” he added. “It’s not like every farmer can bring their market weight hogs to Tyson tomorrow and be caught back up.”
And it will take time for Tyson to secure a healthy work force and ramp up production under the stricter safety and social distancing guidelines.
“I’m expecting some of the safety precautions they implement may slow down their production,” Schneider said. “Those are the right things to do, but it is going to take the packing industry months to return to full capacity.
“Meanwhile, the pigs I wanted to sell last week are still in barns I was expecting to put new pigs into this week,” he added. “We will probably be in the same position next week as well.”
Lee Schulz, an assistant professor at Iowa State University who focuses on agricultural economics, said it’s likely Schneider and other pork producers will be struggling with this issue for some time.
“This backlog is going to continue,” Schulz said. “Going into this situation, pre-COVID-19, we were operating near capacity of the packing plants. There wasn’t a lot of cushion in those plants to absorb production if plants started to decrease capacity or suspend production.”
Schulz said 1.85 million fewer hogs were slaughtered nationally between April 18 and May 6 this year than were processed during the same period in 2019.
“That’s speaking to the backup of those hogs that are on the farm,” he said. “We need to work through that backup.”
One saving grace is that June and July are typically slower months for pork processing plants. While that won’t be the case this year, Schulz said that may provide a little cushion to address the backlog.
Meanwhile, Schneider said his farm has been fortunate and not had to euthanize pigs.
“We are all scratching our heads trying to make the best decisions we can for the health and well-being of the pigs,” he said. “Some farmers have already been forced to make the tough decisions on whether to euthanize young pigs that do not have a home to go to or older pigs that cannot be sold.
“Those decisions will haunt those farmers for a long time, maybe the rest of their lives,” he added. “It is not a decision anyone raising livestock signed up to make.”
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