CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The impact that the pandemic had on the packing industry became evident in March when some processing plants were forced to temporarily shut down after workers tested positive to COVID-19, starting a backlog of pigs ready for harvest.
As the meat processing industry rights the ship, there are other issues ranging from feed demand, to supplies, to labor.
Bradley Wolter, The Maschhoffs CEO and president, concluded a recent University of Illinois farmdoc-hosted webinar by answering questions about a myriad of issues.
How has feed demand changed, if at all, during the current situation?
“We operate three large company-owned mills that manufacture up to 400,000 tons of feed per year. We’ve seen a reduction by as much as 20% of feed production in those mills during this time.
“Our pigs have gone for about 12 days where they haven’t gained and they haven’t lost a pound. So, while total feed production is down and consumption down, there’s no return on the investment we’re making either. We’re feeding them at maintenance and we’ve obviously got assets tied up to do that in terms of farms and people.”
Have your feed rations had to change because of COVID-19 and does that impact meat quality?
“They have had to change and we’ve tried to manage our nutrition platform to minimize any impacts to meat quality. We have several Ph.D. nutritionists on staff and we leverage an allied industry partner in this process, as well.
“We’ve designed a nutritional platform that we believe won’t change the meat quality properties, but certainly we’re changing the composition of growth on these animals.
“So, we’re likely to be changing some lean to fat ratios. The pigs are probably going to be a bit leaner as a result of restricting the growth. They don’t have the energy to put on and deposit additional fat. That will be a consequence though this narrow window of time and we are getting to the point where we’re starting to let some of the pigs grow again at near normal rates.”
What problems do you see going forward?
“The problem that I see is this isn’t going to be solved overnight. We’ve got an industry that is poised for let’s call it 10% growth over last year and we’ve not been able to harvest the sows through this process.
“There are disease events that have been occurring where the economics would indicate we should depopulate those sows, but you cannot physically get them killed.
“You can’t get them harvested in today’s environment because of capacity constraints. I suspect there may also be financial perils on some farms that are on that basis needing to liquidate.
“So, the pigs are continuing to come. There are some approaches being taken to euthanize some of the pigs early prior to weaning at birth and in some instances as a result of the situation and it’s actually the most humane way to deal with this crisis, but that’s a challenging thing to do as you think about the investment and the emotional investment that our caregivers have in this process.
“So, generally speaking the pigs continue to be put into the pipeline. There’s 3 million head of backlog at the moment and euthanasia on-farm is happening. It’s happening every day. I expect that the worst days are yet to come as it relates to that.”
What do you see that industry might adopt whether it’s in artificial intelligence or robotics in the future?
“It’s too early for me to prognosticate on that. We’ve actually reverted back in many cases to implementing approaches and strategies that have been around for hundreds of years in terms of restrict-feeding the pigs. I’m always amazed.
“The pig is so resilient, highly adaptive, and so where we’ve gone in and restrict-feeding the pigs to get to their caloric requirements that allow them to maintain, but not grow.
“We’ve actually invoked technology my grandfather used to use, so we’ve probably reverted more in reverse than we have forward at this time.
“But as an industry we believe strongly that we will certainly learn from this in terms of harvesting the information, understanding the biology of this will be of interest, and ultimately I expect we’ll be able to improve our growth efficiencies on the backside as a result.”
What’s the biggest problem that the pork industry has with labor?
“It’s simply the fewer number of folks that are available as a workforce in general. As we look forward, probably the single greatest thing in the context of animal care-giving is the human capital that we’re looking to acquire is there are just fewer and fewer individuals in the workforce today that have had prior association food animals.
“So, consequently they’re not even aware of the opportunity and certainly they don’t recognize husbandry as a profession, and so there’s also much, much longer lead time for us to develop the available workforce today as a result of that.
“We are having to rethink when it is that we introduce available workforce to our industry. We’re doing it increasingly more at a young age, but it’s a challenge as we see rural communities become smaller, quite candidly. We participate as a partner inside of our rural communities trying to really enhance them is how we think about it because it is concerning.
“We look to technology and look to ways to monitor animal behavior among other factors in production to make management decisions, but we’ve yet to really find a viable replacement for that human animal caregiver that can really understand and read the behaviors of the animals and make the appropriate decisions on their behalf.”
What is your outlook for plants reaching full processing capacity?
“We’re optimistic that next week we’ll be back north of 80%. We are hopeful that in the next three months we’ll be at 90% or north of that. I don’t see us from here to the end of the year hitting 100% as an industry. That’s why I’m terribly concerned with the 3 million pig backlog that continues to grow because we came into the year with 100%-plus of production.
“We’re at a period here in June and July that traditionally there’s seasonality in production. So, there’s some optimism that if we get plants near to 100% in the next weeks that we can put a dent in that 3 million pig backlog. But that’s a tremendous amount of overage.”