Prepare for pork-processing cutbacks caused by COVID-19

Fallout from coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) continues to affect the pork industry’s workforce, especially in pork processing. Some plants temporarily closed, and others reduced processing in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus among workers. This created a massive backlog of market hogs.

While most pork-processing plants are open, many are working with a limited workforce. Producers should be prepared for continued slow-downs in processing as plants work through the COVID-19 issues, said Jim Kober, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Service veterinarian.

Short-term options

Just-in-time pork production has limited the ability of producers to hold market hogs on farms to handle issues like COVID-19. “As a result, there aren’t real good short-term options,” Kober admitted.

One option is changing grow-finish diets to lower growth rate and reduce costs. Fiber can be added to bulk up the feed and energy levels lowered to slow weight gain. He suggests working with a nutritionist when making diet changes.

“But pigs still seem to be able to get around anything we do and keep gaining weight,” Kober added.

Another option is raising the temperature in the finishing building a few degrees to encourage less feed intake.

Space per pig can be reduced, especially if growth rate and efficiency are not of primary concern. But overcrowding can lead to animal-welfare issues, especially with hogs close to market weight, Kober said.

The best place to overstock is with weaned pigs. They can be double stocked in pens for 6 to 7 weeks, he added.

If animals are sick, Kober encourages producers to treat an illness. “This is an animal-welfare issue,” he explained. “If pigs are sick, don’t back off treatment.”

Euthanasia

Euthanizing pigs is used by some producers as a last option. Kober suggests euthanizing weaned pigs and holding market hogs as long as possible until the animals get too big for market channels.

The National Pork Board provides information about the preferred methods of euthanasia on their website. Visit the Farm Emergency Planning Resources.

States have different rules regarding the disposal of euthanized animals. Producers should check with their state pork-producer group or conservation board regarding these rules. Kober also suggests keeping good records of the pigs euthanized and their disposal.

Long-term options

“We have producers backing off on breeding numbers,” Kober said. “Four months from now this will help.”

Some producers are aborting sows. Products to help with sow abortions are available from a veterinarian, Kober added.

A wide range of other COVID-19 information related to pork production is available on the Pork Board’s COVID-19 resources for pork producers page.