Several meat processing plants across the Midwest have already closed in recent weeks due to the spread of COVID-19. This week, a Tyson pork plant in Madison and a Cargill beef plant in Schuyler announced that they would temporarily shut down production to deep clean, putting more strain on livestock farmers who have faced drops in prices and are looking for places to send their hogs and cattle.
While several Washington County farmers with livestock said they haven't experienced the worst of the coronavirus's effects on the industry, they were quick to note that impacts are about the entire industry, producers and consumers, and not just them.
"There's a lot of people in this world that need food, and its terrible as producers when we can't get it to them," said Gary Lambrecht, who raises hogs, cattle and sheep with his family near Kennard.
Lambrecht mostly markets hogs. He said he markets to Fremont, where processing plants are still open, so he hasn't experienced the worst that plant closures and slowdowns have on hog farmers.
"For me, I've been able to keep up," Lambrecht said, though he noted that many people are having to euthanize their hogs.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that 10,000 hogs a day are being euthanized in Minnesota. On Monday, The Lincoln Journal Star reported that some Nebraska farmers have also had to euthanize their pigs.
Pigs are sent to market when they reach their market size, and if they gain too much weight, processing plants can no longer take them. With plant closures, a slowdown in the production and processing supply chain has left hog farmers with no place to send their pigs, and unlike cattle, hogs are raised in barns with limited space when new piglets are born.
Like hog processing plants, Lincoln Premium Poultry's (LPP) chicken processing plant remains open in Fremont. The plant has had several cases of workers with COVID-19, and one worker recently died due to the disease.
LPP spokesperson Jessica Kolterman said the plant has implemented all interventions required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is abiding by the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s guidelines for food processing facilities.
"At this time, we have not had to make any significant changes in production, nor do we anticipate any changes that would impact Washington County barns," she said.
Three of the first barns constructed to provide chickens to the LPP plant are in Washington County and became operational last fall. Erik Soll, who operates a broiler barn near Arlington, said he hasn't seen many effects to his barn's operation and production. He said that may be because the LPP plant still needs chickens, and the barns in Washington County, being some of the first constructed, are a main source of those chickens.
"Our birds went out, they went to the plant, they got processed, and we're expecting another flock soon," Soll said. "They still need product, and we're one of the first barns built."
Soll, however, noted that other parts of the livestock industry, like beef, may be in worse shape than his specific chicken operation.
Washington County resident Terry Rasmussen raises cattle, but he said he hasn't experienced a huge drop off in his ability to send the cattle to market. Rasmussen said, however, that the price he's been able to sell a head of cattle for has dropped nearly $300. The drop in price could be an issue for many cattle producers, he said, also noting the closure of the Cargill beef plant in Schuyler will affect livestock farmers.
"And it's not just farmers, it affects the people in town — servers when the restaurants are closed, and things like that" he said. "It's one of those deals where (coronavirus) affected everybody."