Diane DeWitte

The overall global impact of the Covid-19 outbreak remains to be seen. But here in Midwestern farm country, it has ramifications far beyond human illness and mortality. Crop farmers have been able to get to the field and begin planting, and that kind of feels normal. The livestock sector is far from normal. 

Beef, dairy, poultry and swine are all affected by this disease which doesn’t make them sick; yet has changed 2020’s livestock management, meat supplies and farm profitability irreparably. Swine producers have pivoted and adjusted to the daily changes surrounding their feedstuff availability, management techniques and market access.  Alongside them, Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, Pollution Control Agency and Pork Producers Association have nimbly provided assistance and support. 

In the swine sector, harvest plant closures have taken the bloom off of any highlights there might have been in pricing and supplies. As farmers address this absence of a market for their pigs, they’ve adjusted their management strategies to focus on keeping the pigs on the farm for a longer period of time. 

Managing pigs whose market has closed

No pigs are harvested today who don’t already have an appointment. Swine producers work with buyers representing the packing plant, and loads are scheduled to be hauled at specific times. That producer-buyer relationship is now a key to pig farmers knowing what may come next.

Packers who have multiple processing plants across the United States have attempted to continue to receive a portion of their farmer-supplier’s pigs. The loads are sent to alternate sites, but they are purchased and processed. Packers who are still open have added shifts of employees and have added days of work in order to accommodate pigs who normally are processed at other sites. This re-routing of pigs will not accommodate all normally-scheduled pig delivery, but it can help. Buyer and farmer communication is critical to assisting the farmer’s plan for what may come next. 

Back at the farm, producers can adjust their management strategies to reduce pigs’ growth rate. Instead of being ready to go this week, maybe the pigs will reach market weight next week. University nutritionists and related swine industry specialists spent early April assisting producers to make educated decisions.  

All of the strategies offered to producers are meant to be temporary and with the understanding that producers are in emergency situations. As always, when deciding how best to manage pigs in the face of harvest plant closures, producers consider the well-being of the pigs the number-one priority. Emergency management practices require additional observation of the pigs to ensure their safety and welfare.  

Adjusting the diet

Revamping the pig’s ration to retain important nutrition while slowing the pig’s gain has been a primary management choice. Reducing the amount of energy in a diet while adding fiber is a common method which lengthens the pig’s time on feed. 

Nutritional fiber comes in many forms and is measured as neutral detergent fiber (NDF), and the most commonly used ingredients in today’s swine diet are dried distillers grains with solubles, wheat midlings, corn germ meal, soybean hulls, and sugar beet pulp. Producers, working with their swine nutritionists, re-formulate the diet with 20-25 percent NDF. That amount of fiber in a diet makes the pig simply too full to eat enough feed to meet its energy requirement. 

While the low-energy/high-fiber diet is a successful short-term solution to reducing the pig’s growth rate, these fiber sources may be in short supply. Demand has increased and this is not the optimal time of year to obtain some of these ingredients.  

Other diet manipulation methods are also in play, including removal of all sources of dietary fat — a common energy source. From University of Minnesota Extension Swine Educator Sarah Schieck Boelke’s recent management summary, “What to do if your pork packing plant is closed,” reducing crude protein and essential amino acid levels will reduce growth rate and feed intake. That nutrient reduction has to be in the range of 30-40 percent.

Also from Schieck-Boelke, using a type of salt called anhydrous calcium chloride can be added to reduce feed intake. This is a very technical strategy, so a qualified swine nutritionist needs to formulate these diets. It is a strategy not advised for use in lower-weight pigs. 

Iowa State University researchers are currently conducting a limited pig growth study comparing eight different dietary treatments. Very preliminary results show that feeding a 97 percent corn diet vs. a typical corn-soy diet with the goal of holding the pigs for three weeks could provide the producer a lower-cost diet. This could maximize opportunities to get the pigs to market later than usual. Corn-only diets must be balanced for mineral and vitamin requirements.

Facilities management

Good producers keep an eye on the feeder adjustment to prevent wasted feed, but this is a time when tightening the feeder openings will yield additional needed results. A feed pan with 15-20 percent coverage provides necessary nutrition. This type of strategy requires more intensive monitoring of the pigs to ensure that feeders don’t become restricted and that aggressive behavior isn’t an issue in the group of pigs. 

High summer temperatures always reduce pig growth, and adjusting barn ventilation to mimic that seasonal effect is a strategy producers may choose. As always, pig well-being is the number-one consideration, and the producer in consultation with a ventilation engineer can arrive at a solution which may help slow pig growth for the short term.

As pigs gain weight and take up more pen space, their growth tends to slow.  Typical management would have the pig farmer market the larger pigs out of many pens in the barn to thin out the group and allow the remaining pigs to grow faster. A producer who needs to slow the pigs’ growth is advised to keep the groups together to reduce the compensatory gain normally achieved when a few head are removed.   

Minnesota agency assistance

Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency has issued a swine-specific guidance which approves flexibility for producers who need to overstock their barn(s) to accommodate limited pen space. MPCA will approve a 45-day overstock of barns without producers obtaining the environmental National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system or State Disposal System permit variances. Producers must meet manure containment criteria detailed in the guidance, and must contact the county feedlot officer for local ordinances and conditional uUse permits. Both the MPCA Regulatory Relief Guidance and an application template can be found at the Minnesota Pork Producers Association Covid-19 resources page (  https://www.mppainsider.org/covid-19/).

Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture is working to locate opportunities for producers who need meat processing because of harvest plant closure and lost markets. If producers need animal processing help, they may contact Jim Ostlie at (320) 842-6910; Jim.Ostlie@state.mn.us or Courtney VanderMey (651) 201-6135).

MDS has also created an expedited approval process to review and accept Minnesota custom exempt slaughter establishments who would like to process animals under continuous inspection. Custom exempt processors who meet the minimum requirements will be granted a 90-day provisional grant of inspection.  Custom exempt processors should contact Meat, Poultry and Egg Inspection directly at MDA.MeatPoultryEgg@state.mn.us or telephone Levi Muhl (651) 201-6216), Erik Jopp (320) 248-9515) or Jennifer Stephes (651) 201-6192).

If, as a last resort, pigs have to be euthanized, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has experts who can answer carcass disposal questions. The board also has an emergency carcass disposal guide which is found at   z.umn.edu/MNBAH-EmergencyCarcassDisposal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has allocated special funding for livestock producers who have emergency animal mortalities. Through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, producers can apply for resources to assist in handling animal mortalities. Producers should contact their local USDA Service Center (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/mn/contact/local/).

Spring 2020 began with tremendous crop planting weather and an optimistic forecast. The Covid-19 outbreak has damaged livestock markets and affected production in ways yet to be discovered. Although farmers are accustomed to dealing with events beyond their control, this chaos is difficult to live through and tremendously stressful. Assistance in dealing with farming’s challenges and struggles is found through  University of Minnesota Extension’s Farm and Rural Stress programs which can be accessed at https://extension.umn.edu/rural-stress or through MDA’s Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline at 1-833-600-2670.

Diane DeWitte is an Extension Educator specializing in swine for the University of Minnesota Extension. Her e-mail address is stouf002@umn.edu