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Depopulation, Euthanasia Decisions Strategic

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Producers at all phases of production are making operation-by-operation decisions for what is being called strategic depopulation of some types livestock. (Getty stock image)

One of the most important things in a crisis is good information. Sometimes that just means finding the right person to reach out to. Right now, that is a challenge, but it is getting easier.

In Iowa, pork producers will benefit from the new Resource Coordination Center (RCC), launched last week, to help them answer hard questions they face as plant closures continue to limit options for how to handle market-ready pigs.

Anna Johnson, a Farm Animal Behavior and Welfare expert with Iowa State University, said livestock producers in her state want to consider all the different scenarios they have available to them right now. To get the best information, they need networks for support and resources at the state level.

In that vein, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship launched the RCC to support state livestock producers affected by Covid-19 supply chain disruptions. The Department is collaborating with public and private partners to operate the Center, including the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA), the Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC) and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. RCC gives producers a single point of connection for help during this crisis and can be reached both through phone or website (see below).

The RCC was conceived, created and released in less than a week, said Johnson. She believes it could be a template for other states as a way to help their producers quickly find resources needed during this crisis.

"This brings together the state government as well as pork producer groups and university Extension specialists all into one space," she explained. "A producer can make a call and say, 'This is my issue. This is what I need help with.' We can get them to the right people, streamlining the process."

Johnson said it was welcome news when President Trump declared packing plants as "critical infrastructure" and invoked the Defense Production Act. But by then many producers were already to the point of having to make some hard decisions.

In a letter dated April 27th, from Iowa's governor, Kim Reynolds, to the Trump Administration, it was estimated some 700,000 pigs nationally were being euthanized weekly because they could not be processed. The letter noted U.S. pork production lost 25% of its processing capacity in the 3-4 weeks prior. Governor Reynolds asked for resources to help with "humane euthanasia of hogs", both on-farm and in harvest facilities not currently producing food. She also stressed farmers needed to be indemnified for euthanized hogs, and given legal immunity moving forward from attempts by activist groups to penalize producers required to take these actions.

"It is all such a gut-wrenching decision," said Johnson. "To even have these conversations is heartbreaking. To think through these scenarios is so difficult. These producers care for these animals every day. What producers are asking me about is not mass depopulation, as we've seen reported. Rather they are asking about strategic euthanasia, if needed. They want to know how to evaluate their situations, and once they make a decision how to move forward."

Johnson added pork producers are looking at the entire production system as they consider what can be done. There is no one part of the system that is the only place strategic euthanasia may take place.

"No part of a production system is off the table right now, from the grow-finish operation to the sow farm or nursery," she said. "We are also looking at feed rations. Can we reformulate feed to slow growth and keep animals longer where they are? There are a lot of ideas to consider in a short amount of time."

NOT JUST A MIDWEST PROBLEM

While much of the media has focused on the pork industry and processing facilities across the middle part of the country, this is a nationwide issue.

Mississippi State University Extension veterinarian, Carla Huston, is on the front-lines of the crisis in her state. She said poultry producers there are in an incredibly stressful situation, and not just because of Covid-19.

"We had tornados at Easter that destroyed 90 to 100 poultry houses in our state, and depopulation had to take place there," she said. "The issue of depopulation and keeping our food chain moving is complex. I think we really need to thank our producers for handling things as well as they have, and for hanging in there."

Huston, a cow-calf producer, added because the cattle industry is so segmented, they have many more options to get through the current Covid-19 crisis.

"For us it's a matter of trying to slow growth so we don't finish them as quickly," she said. "I see a lot of producers at this level holding them longer, keeping them on a grass, forage-based diet. I also think we will see more bred heifers come out of this. I was at a sale last week, and we are still seeing our markets moving forward. Sale prices were ranging from $800 to $1,200 for bred heifers, depending on quality."

John Robinson, vice president of membership and communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, reiterated euthanasia is not a tool cattle producers will be considering, given the flexibility their system affords them.

"We have a lot of ways to manage cattle, and euthanasia is not a tool we use in the beef industry," he stressed. "We can manage cattle to slow them down, hold them, send them to grass. So this is not something we are going to do."

THERE IS NO FOOD SHORTAGE

Huston said it's critically important people understand there is no food shortage, and the issue is the supply chain and the fact it's been interrupted. That interruption for some types of producers will force depopulation unfortunately. Huston noted, it's important to point out there is a difference between euthanasia and depopulation.

"Euthanasia by definition means 'the good death'. Depopulation is different, it is used in emergencies for the quick removal of animals. Often, it's something we have to do for animal welfare, husbandry and disease. We may be moving to the depopulation stage."

She added, "People don't understand why this has to be done. I tell them we can't just stop producing food, because there is this supply chain. It takes two years for me to raise freezer beef; it takes 8 to 9 months to finish a pig; broilers take 6 to 9 weeks. As quickly as Covid-19 happened, and as frequently as recommendations have changed for how to manage it, the food supply chain was going to be impacted. That impact reaches all the way back to breeding, and we have to make adjustments. Right now, there are millions of chickens in the pipeline, for example, with nowhere to go. Not to address that is an animal welfare failure."

THERE IS A PLAN

Huston said as difficult as this situation is, producers need to know there is a plan in every state for how to handle this crisis.

"Every state has a disaster response plan. It is practiced, it is revised. Humane euthanasia and depopulation are parts of that plan. People are trained to do this efficiently. All the major poultry and swine companies have plans. Things like the water table and the environment are taken into account. We have already considered where to dispose of animals and depending on the reason behind the depopulation we have different options sometimes."

She explained that if this were a case where Foot and Mouth Disease were forcing depopulation, those carcasses would not go into landfills. But because today's crisis deals with healthy animals, in some areas that may be an option. Composting, burial and in some areas even rendering will be options. As much as possible, however, she noted producers will do everything they can to limit the number of animals that must be depopulated. They will reduce numbers by not breeding animals, or in the case of poultry producers by not incubating eggs.

VETERINARIANS A CRITICAL LINK

For those producers who have no choice, and euthanasia or depopulation is necessary, Iowa's Johnson said there are legitimate concerns about biohazards, and there is a crucial need that all of this be done professionally and carefully. On the front line is the producer's veterinarian, she stressed. In addition, she noted livestock association groups will have information as soon as it's released to help members.

A resource available through the Iowa Pork Producers Association, breaks down options for carcass disposal, the necessary equipment, and how to properly manage composting where that is needed, said Johnson (see below).

"In addition, we have been reaching out to rendering plants and landfills through this effort," she said. "Experts are figuring out where these places are, how much they can take and all of that data is currently being collected. What we have are a lot of options, but none may be a complete answer. In some cases, composting will be considered, in others we may see rendering plants take animals."

A national resource just released for livestock producers through USDA-APHIS is the National Coordination Center. This is meant to provide direct support to producers whose animals can't move to market.

The center, along with state veterinarians and other state officials will "be assisting to help identify potential alternative markets if a producer is unable to move animals, and if necessary to advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods."

In addition, the NRCS is providing state-level technical assistance and will make available cost share assistance under EQIP for disposal.

Lastly, Mississippi's Huston added it's important to say no producer, no one in the industry, wants to euthanize or depopulate animals ever.

"If we have to do this, we do it according to our plans and using humane standards. The public needs to understand these steps will keep animals from suffering. That is our responsibility, and it often forces us to make difficult choices."

For more information:

Iowa's Resource Coordination Center: https://data.iowaagriculture.gov/…

Or call (515) 725-1005

Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship:

https://iowaagriculture.gov/…

USDA-APHIS Coordination Center:

https://www.aphis.usda.gov/…

Euthanasia Resources:

https://www.iowapork.org/…

American Veterinary Medical Association

https://www.avma.org/…

Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC):

https://www.ipic.iastate.edu/…

American Association of Swine Veterinarians

https://www.aasv.org/…

Victoria Myers