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Due To Large Packing Closures, SD Hog Farmers Face Question Of Whether To Euthanize Pigs

South Dakota hog farmers are running out of room. That's because a number of meatpacking plants are closed and still aren't sure when they will reopen. In the meantime, hog farmers have nowhere to send their animals. That despite President Donald Trump's recent executive order to reopen the country's meatpacking plants under the Defense Production Act. SDPB's Lee Strubinger reports...
South Dakota hog farmers are running out of room.

That’s because a number of meatpacking plants are closed and still aren’t sure when they will reopen. In the meantime, hog farmers have no where to send their animals. That despite President Donald Trump’s recent executive order to reopen the country’s meatpacking plants under the Defense Production Act.

Leaders in the pork industry say support from the president is encouraging. However it’s still unclear how the executive order will help farmers who need a quick market for their hogs.

In a release, Smithfield Foods says it provides a “much-needed framework that prioritizes employee health and well-being.” The company says the presidential order will stabilize the country’s food supply and prevent the collapse of the agricultural economy.

“We’re in dire need to get these plants open,” Muller says. “Every day that passes that situation becomes more critical.”

That’s Glenn Muller, executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council.

Hog farmers produce a product that has a very strict timeline. Many of the hogs scheduled for slaughter in the last three weeks are still in the barns they were supposed to leave. Along with a new batch of younger hogs.

Muller says that’s putting pressure up and down the supply chain.

“We’re going to make some very serious decisions here shortly as to how we’re going to relieve that pressure and reduce the populations of these herd,” Muller says

Which means farmers may have to do the unthinkable…

U.S. Senator Mike Rounds says the industry may need to use emergency measures in the coming months. That could include euthanizing about a million pigs nationwide.

“The scale of this on farm and on ranch tragedy will be written in history books, probably, as a failure of epic proportions,” Rounds says.

Earlier this month, Governor Kristi Noem issued an executive order easing regulations so farmers can keep more hogs in place.

The state could also assist if many animals must be euthanized.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources lets farmers use manure or processed wastewater to help compost the carcasses. It recommends that farmers consider locating a compost pile outside a 100-year flood plain. The state agency needs written notification from farmers. The department says it’s a temporary practice because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, the DENR says it has not seen an increase in the composting of animals.

The state Animal Industry Board approves burning, burial and rendering as well.

Dustin Oedekoven is the state veterinarian.

He says farmers have 36 hours to dispose of euthanized animals.

“Composting is a very environmentally friendly way to dispose of mortalities when it’s done correctly,” he adds

Oedekoven says overstocking barns will only work for a limited time. But dealing with the space issue is not as simple as moving pigs outdoors.

“You got to build fence,” Oedekoven says. “It takes space. You got to have feeders and water and, of course, we have warmer days upon us. You need shelter and shade and that sort of thing.”

That’s because confinement hogs live in temperature and humidity-controlled spaces.

Before COVID-19, hog farmers were already raising pigs at a loss. Now, many of the animals have been fed for three weeks over their due date.

Oedekoven says relocating animals outside takes a precious resource… money.

“Where is that well of money and labor and resources that we need to care for those pigs?” Oedekoven says. “The system’s just not set up for that.”

Even ownership in the food chain is a complex patchwork. Oedekoven says hog barns are often owned and managed by one party, while someone else owns the pigs. The land the barn sits on may even be owned by a third party.

Glen Muller from South Dakota Pork Producers says the last resort is for producers to destroy their animals and not have that food reach the consumer.

“Euthanizing is financially devastating to our producers—as well as emotionally—that they are having to destroy animals that they worked so hard to provide food for our customers,” Muller says. “Now, having to go to, basically, waste, because we can’t get them through the food chain.”

Senator Mike Rounds says the federal government needs to lay out a plan to take on this task humanely. He says that may include identifying centralized disposal sites and mobilizing the National Guard.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.