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Curless: Crisis Could Curtail Supply

by Darrell Boone

Published: Friday, May 22, 2020

There's no sugar coating it. In the midst of a pandemic that includes packing plant closures, hogs backing up on the farm, some euthanizing of pigs, and low prices, life for pork producers right now can only be described as grim.

But one former Indiana Pork official, while acknowledging the current reality is stark, also sees some possible bright spots on the horizon.

"There's no doubt about it, it's tough right now," said Randy Curless, of Wabash County in a recent phone interview. "Pig farmers are circling the wagons, just trying to survive and make it through this. And they especially don't want to talk with anyone who might be trying to sell them anything."

And if anybody would know about the pork industry, it's Randy Curless. A hog farmer for most of his career, Curless served as president of Indiana Pork in 2009, during the H1N1 "swine flu" situation. He was also an early adopter of using social media, to help connect consumers with honest and accurate information about how pork is produced, and the lives of pork producers.

Now, three years after selling his swine operation, Curless is now a marketing specialist for Pigtek Pig Equipment Group, a division of CTB Inc. In this role, he serves a resource person to pork producers, and regularly interacts with them throughout the United States and into Canada.

Although much has been said in the media about pig farmers having to euthanize pigs, Curless said for most producers, that option is the one of absolute last resort. Instead, producers are getting creative in ways they never would have imagined just a few short months ago. He said they've been trying to actually slow down their market hogs' rate-of-gain, to buy some precious time until packing plants re-open and they can once again find a market for their now-oversized pigs.

Strategies like: Allowing higher-than-normal heat levels in the buildings; "cranking their feeders way down," to slow feed consumption; changing the feed rations—less soybean meal and more corn. "There's quite a bit of these kinds of things going on," said Curless.

But holding back market-ready hogs until they can find a market also has some unintended consequences, said Curless.

"325 to 350-pound pigs are incredibly hard on barns and their equipment, especially if overcrowded," said Curless. "Our current situation is going to create a lot of equipment damage."

Another strategy being used by many producers is trying to sell unprocessed hogs directly to consumers. But Curless said that strategy has some obvious limitations.

"That's good in theory, but if you have a building with 4,000 hogs ready to go to market, selling off three or four here and there really isn't going to help all that much," he said. "And with the local locker plants now booked up to well into 2021, about the only people who can buy a market hog and pull that off are people like deer hunters, who already know how to butcher an animal."

Curless also said some producers have implemented strategies to cut production by aborting whole groups of pregnant sows, to lessen the impact of the current glut of hogs being readied for market. But he said while that may help some down the road, it's no quick fix.

"Before that could help alleviate the problem, we're talking a good 11 or so months down the road," he said. "With the better part of four months of sow gestation, followed by about six months from weaning to market, we're not going to feel the impact of this until well into next year."

But he added a caveat.

"The truth is, however, that no one really knows the numbers—how many pigs have been aborted or euthanized," he said. "And while no one can say for sure, I think there's a good chance that sometime next year we could experience a 'hole' in production, where we have a shortage of pork. If that happens, hogs could be worth quite a bit more."

But, he added, a gap in production is not currently a problem.

"What people need to understand is that there's not a product shortage. It's a processing shortage," he said. "But this leads people to talk about buying a freezer and filling it up, which is the worst thing we can do. We don't want people hoarding! If everyone would just buy what we need, then we'll all be fine."

Although the current situation is dire, Curless has also seen some encouraging signs.

"One thing that I find really encouraging, and love seeing is a greater emphasis on the farm-to-plate movement," he said. "Going directly to a farmer and buying local, I'd really love to see that trend continue and grow. And along with that, I'd really like to see the local processors—the locker plants—be able to capitalize on the current demand, expand their facilities and continue to offer more opportunities for local and regional processing, to build on the farm-to-plate trend."

Curless added that he had felt a greater public support for farmers during the pandemic.

"I've been impressed by what seems to me like the public has been very concerned and sympathetic toward the farmer and his plight," he said. "I'm certainly glad to see that, because farmers sure didn't ask to get into this situation, and frankly, neither did the packers. This just came out of left field, and no one saw it coming. I just hope consumers remember this after the crisis has passed. I can't help wondering, once the meat cases shelves are fully stocked again, will they remember this, or will they go back to just buying the cheapest thing they can find? Or will they be willing to pay just a little bit more for a product that's locally grown and raised? I hope they will."

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