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Wisconsin hog farmers fear processing plant closures will lead to euthanizing animals

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CRAWFORD COUNTY (WKOW) -- As of Monday, The National Pork Producer's Council reports nearly a third of the country's meat processing plants are closed, due to coronavirus outbreaks, including the JBS plant in Green Bay.

The council's president, Howard Roth said hog farmers are among the hardest hit.

"When a producer gets to feed people that is a proud moment," he said.

For most farmers, that's a six month process. It starts with farms like his in Crawford County. There he weans piglets for about 21 days until they're big enough to sell to a full-size hog farm.

That's where the animals grow to about 250 lbs and ready for slaughter at a nearby processing plant.

"Once it's harvested they split off the bacon, the pork chops, the ham," Roth said.

Thousands of Wisconsin hogs go to the Smithfield plant in Mounmouth, IL plant each week but now that this plant and dozens of others are closed, farmers are running out of options.

"They don't just say for two weeks, they say indefinitely," Roth said.

Unfortunately for those farmers, he said pigs can't wait that long.

"Once they get to a certain weight the packer no longer will take them and there's pigs that are already hitting that weight," he said.

Other industries like beef farming has a little more leeway. Those animals can wait a few more months, but Roth said that's not the case with pigs.

Once they outgrow 250 lbs., Roth said they're too big to go through a processing plant, which means if a plant that typically takes in 2400 pigs a week closes, that many pigs have to go somewhere else.

"People are driving two, two and half hours to get rid of their pigs," he said.

In Wisconsin, Roth said small processors and local butchers have stepped up, taking in as much as they can, but they don't have the capacity to take in the volume Smithfield plants process.

If farmers aren't able to find a suitable buyer before the pigs grow too big for processing, they face a difficult decision.

"The last thing they want to do is euthanize those animals," Roth said.

That's what it's come to in Minnesota and Iowa with his council predicting the hundreds of thousands of pigs killed without making it to processing plants.

If the Wisconsin-area plants remain closed, Roth expects a similar pattern.

"If we can't make it up, that farmer has to make that call and that can not only mean the pig's life, but his farm's life," he said.

As for consumers, Roth predicts they'll notice the impact in their grocery stores in a few weeks. He said they may find it harder to purchase pork products or see prices go up.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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