COVID-19 vs The Livestock Industry

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Corinne Belton, the University of Kentucky County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources for Shelby County Kentucky, to ask her questions about how the pandemic has effected the livestock industry here in America, and especially Kentucky. Over the last five months there has been extensive consumer concern over food availability, with meat being of particular concern. Many of us have seen the depletion and rationing of meat in stores and have heard stories of farmers having to euthanize their livestock. I was curious to hear where the meat industry had failed and what was being done to prevent this kind of failure in the future. 

Corinne coaching the 4H livestock judging team

Aysha: We all heard the stories and have been concerned about farmers being unable to move their livestock and even having to euthanize them. Can you talk about what exactly happened that lead to this and why?

Corinne: A lot of what happened was because of COVID, our livestock processing facilities had to decrease the number of workers to keep distancing regulations.  There were so many workers in close quarters they did have some outbreaks. [The facilities] were closing down because they didn’t want to continue the spread. When you are looking at a facility that is processing 1,000, 1,500, or 2,000 head in a day you suddenly pull that out of the supply system on multiple levels from multiple plants, then what you have is a slowdown. The animals were there but you couldn’t [process them]. So that backed things up, and you started seeing it at the grocery store.   

They have groups of cattle or hogs that they bring in together. They come in on this day, they are fed for this many days, and they are scheduled to be harvested on this day. Then there is a group behind them, and a group behind them. If you stop one group then you get a backlog.  Then the processing facilities didn’t fire back up, and when they did fire back up it wasn’t at 100% capacity. You continue to increase the backlog and you couldn’t catch it up. Especially in the poultry and swine industries because they gain weight really quickly you have that window of ideal weight. In hogs especially they get too big and too fat. They are not then what they were contracted for and what the market is going to demand.  The backlog increases very quickly and you are never going to catch it back up with the number of processing facilities we have and how slow they have been to reopen. So that was where we heard the stories of those that would have to euthanize animals. 

 What we saw on a local level was a little bit of panic. Shoppers were panicking saying “Oh no! Where am i going to get my hamburger from? I’m going to go out and buy a cow and have it butchered myself”. Well that’s all well and good except we don’t have a lot of local small custom processing facilities in Kentucky, or really anywhere in the nation, so they filled up really quickly. Once everyone got on that bandwagon all of our small local processing facilities were working at capacity and they are now booked 18 months to 2 years out. I got really cringy on Facebook because I would see people saying “I have 25 hogs to sell, they are going to be ready in a week” and all these people were like “I want one. I want one” and I kept thinking, “You aren’t telling the whole story”. Unless you have an appointment somewhere already booked for them to go, the people that are buying these hogs aren’t going to get them processed. Then what are they going to do? They have a live hog now. Are they going to put them in their backyard? No.

Aysha:  Is there a way that we could prevent this in the future that you can see? 

Corinne:  I don’t know about prevention. With this whole COVID thing I keep trying to find a silver lining.  

The whole local foods thing was petering along for a while, but in the last 5-7 years it’s really gained some steam. In the last 5-7 months it’s REALLY gained some steam. People have said “well if Kroger can’t supply my needs then I’m going to find someone who can, someone I can rely on that is right here” That’s a silver lining. Local food awareness, customers building that relationship with farmers here in Shelby and the surrounding counties.  [We have a] hugely diverse community as far as types of agriculture, types of farmers, and lots of young farmers. I bet we have as many young farmers as any county across the state. We are extremely blessed that there is the opportunity for consumers to have that relationship. To [be able to say] “I can see my green beans growing and in a field right here. I can go see cattle and know that one of those is going to be on my plate in six months” Maybe you don’t want that visual but maybe you do, and that’s ok. 

As time has gone on we have been producing more grain and we have started to build the demand for local beef. We have a few local processing plants but they are all fairly small. Right now the Governors Office for Agriculture is giving incentives to our small processing facilities to expand because of COVID. Because they are all backed up and we aren’t getting the processing done that we need to. There is also more serious consideration being given to building a larger processing facility [here].  We have traditionally been a cow-calf state so those calves are weaned at 7 months or so. They would either go to a back-grounding facility, which would be a Kentucky place, where they would be on grass for a few months and go from 400-500 lbs at weaning to 700 or 800 lbs. It’s a relatively inexpensive gain and then at that time they go to a feedlot out west where they are finished on grain.  What we need to change then is how we can efficiently take them from the grass to the finished weight, which is about 1300-1400 lbs. How are we going to put that last 500 lbs on them in an efficient manner. Do we have enough local grain that it is going to be economical to finish those cattle. I think those things will evolve if we get this processing facility. 

To me that’s a silver lining. Our cattle industry is going to change greatly because of COVID. I think it’s been moving in that direction but this was a huge kick in the tail to move it faster and get us there quickly. Kentucky is already the 8th largest beef producing state in the nation, the largest east of the Mississippi river. We have the largest livestock market east of the Mississippi river here in the bluegrass. So we have a lot of things going for us already.  

Aysha:  Finally, lets throw in a really hot topic question. How would you respond to the increasing concern for climate change in respect to the livestock industry? 

Corinne:  This is so easy right now. In every city that has been on lock down the pollution in the air is almost gone. China, and across the globe, people stopped driving their cars, mass pollution slowed down, and the air cleared. I don’t have [the exact] percentage but it happened. I can’t remember what city but there was a mountain range outside of the city and they could never see the mountain, but now they can see the mountain because the pollution isn’t there everyday. The number of cattle in the world has not changed, the number of hogs has not changed. The number of livestock living on the planet at one time has maintained throughout COVID. So that was not what caused the visible pollution to change.  

As far as global warming goes there is a chart, and this is just an example, of carbon sequestration. If you look through central US there is tons of carbon sequestration happening there.  What are those grain crops primarily being grown for? Livestock.  We are growing all that grain, which is primarily being grown for livestock and we are sequestering carbon with that. So we are doing things that help maintain the environment .  In all of agriculture, it’s not limited to livestock, we focus on how can we do more with less. How can we reduce the harmful side effects of what we do by improving practices. You can throw out accusations and defenses all day but take for example a farmer who is growing a crop, whether it’s corn or beans or whatever, but what people don’t know is that farmers don’t go out and throw chemicals out there. #1 that’s expensive and #2 it is not in their best interest to do something that is going to harm the land that they rely on. The mentality is that you want to pass the farm down. You want to keep it as fertile as possible for as long as possible. So with this precision agriculture they do grid soil sampling. For every square acre of land they take a soil sample. If it’s 100 acres you have 100 different soil samples. You plug that in to your tractor and when you are applying anything it’s deciding precisely what each acre needs. Then you take your average home owner that wants a pretty lawn and what do they do? They over fertilize it. I’m not saying that to be critical. I’m saying it because people don’t know.  When you look at application of chemicals to the ground what happens in a typical subdivision is much more extreme and potentially harmful than what happens on a farm.   

People just don’t understand. They are so far removed from agriculture now that they just don’t understand. They have this ideal of this pastoral and if they did know a farmer it was their grandparent or great grandparent. It’s not the same as it was then, and it’s sad that we have lost our rural heritage. Shelby County at one time had over 600 dairies and when i came here in ’93 there were over 300 and in ’99 there was just under 200, and today there are 6. 

Aysha: Why do you think that is?

Corinne:  A lot of it is because the dairy pricing deal with the federal milk pricing is a mess. When you are making less money on 100 weight of milk in 2020 than you did in 1975 there is a problem. Your inputs continue to increase but the price of milk doesn’t, and the price of milk is controlled by the federal government. When our local producers in Shelby County have to pay for delivery of milk from Chicago because there is a deficit of milk in the state, while also getting paid less for their milk, it’s a broken system. It’s so costly to remain in the dairy industry. You are lucky if you break even one year out of 15. Who would stay in a job that costs you to work there. A lot of the dairy folks have diversified away from dairy if they haven’t sold their farms. The federal milk prices have been the main problem. It has really caused people in the last 10-15 years to not be able to survive in the dairy industry. 

Aysha: Thank you so much for your time. I am sure I, and my readers, will have many more questions for you in the future! You have been extremely helpful in understanding how this pandemic has exposed problems in our food systems and what changes are being made for the future. 

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Corinne’s son with his heifer at the 2019 Kentucky State Fair

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