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April 24, 2020, 4:39 p.m. EDT

Meat shortage looms as coronavirus shuts packing plants, leaving farmers with tough choices

Producers alter rations to slow growth, ponder euthanizing hogs

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By William Watts, MarketWatch

AFP/Getty Images

While consumers face the prospect of meat shortages as coronavirus infections shut down processing plants across the country, farmers are making tough choices about what to do with livestock they can’t move to market.

Producers are already changing ingredients in an effort to slow the growth of hogs and cattle. David Mensink, who raises around 80,000 hogs a year near Preston, Minn., said that around two weeks ago he began removing distillers corn oil, a byproduct of ethanol production, from rations.

“It’s probably the first time in my life I’ve ever changed a ration to make a pig grow slower,” he told MarketWatch, in a phone interview as he took a break from planting corn on Thursday. “We usually do all we can to provide the right nutrition to make that pig grow as efficiently as we can.”

‘It’s probably the first time in my life I’ve ever changed a ration to make a pig grow slower’

David Mensink

Despite those efforts, Mensink and other farmers have warned that shutdowns will create a backup that will likely force producers to begin euthanizing hogs.

Animals, of course, don’t stop growing once they reach slaughter weight. Oversize animals face steep discounts from meatpapackers—consumers don’t want oversize hams or other cuts of meat -- and producers also face the prospect of overcrowding.

Related: Farmers can’t pause planting season — here’s how they’re dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

COVID-19 outbreaks have closed around a dozen meat plants around the country in the past week, according to The Wall Street Journal , including three Tyson Foods Inc. /zigman2/quotes/201117502/composite TSN -0.90%  plants, while other facilities have curtailed operations to deal with or avert outbreaks of the deadly pathogen. Grocery executives have warned that supplies of some products could run short within two weeks, the report said.

Read: We have plenty of food, so why are grocery shelves running empty?

Altogether, closures and partial shutdowns have taken out around 30% of the country’s hog-slaughter capacity, said Mensink, who is president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. That equates to around 150,000 hogs a day, or 750,000 a week. Bloomberg reported that hog producers in eastern Canada have began euthanizing hogs due to bottlenecks there.

Feedlot operators are also taking steps to slow the growth of cattle, but may be able to avoid euthanization for now. That’s because the growth rate of cattle can be more finely tuned than hogs.

“The cattle that are ready for market, they just have to keep in the feedlot longer…and hopefully they will be able to get them to market — but everything is just slowed down,” said Ken Herz, who runs a cow-calf and feedlot operation in south-central Nebraska and is president of the Nebraska Cattlemen Association.

Calves are weaned at around six to 10 months of age and placed on pasture before eventually being moved into feedyards or sold to feedlot operators. As cattle enter what’s known as finishing stage, the content of their feed rations is adjusted in stages to allow faster growth until they are ready for slaughter.

If needed, producers can slow down growth by sticking with or reverting to lower-energy rations, said Daniel Loy, professor of animal science and director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University in Ames.

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