Iowa provides nearly $5 million to help producers with COVID-19 disposal costs for millions of hens, hogs

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Iowa livestock producers culled at least 6.8 million hens and 175,500 hogs from herds last year as the COVID-19 pandemic caused markets to collapse and meatpacking plants to close.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture sent pork and egg producers $4.8 million to help them cover the cost, according to records obtained by the Des Moines Register.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said the program was important to help producers through a difficult time.

The state released the final tally as Iowa and the nation face another rise in coronavirus cases. Naig said the industry learned important lessons from last year's disruptions, and Mike Paustian, who was president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association last year, said it is not as vulnerable to disruptions.

"We’re in a lot better place from now," Paustian said, and companies have "good systems in place to keep workers safe and keep the plants running." 

Walcott farmer Mike Paustian checks on his young pigs at his farm on Friday, March 19, 2021.

But a prominent workers' rights activist said he is concerned that employees still lack adequate protections.

"Workers at meatpacking facilities throughout Iowa are still faced with lack of social distance, working shoulder to shoulder, high line speeds ... and a lack of adequate rest periods," said Joe Henry, the president of the Des Moines chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Some Iowa workers also continue to struggle to recover from COVID-19 months after contracting the virus, Henry said.

Last year's public health emergency caused major U.S. supply-chain disruptions, especially in Iowa, the nation's leading producer of pork and eggs. Producers market about 50 million pigs annually and 14 billion eggs from 58 million hens.

Iowa pork producers began destroying pigs last year after thousands of Iowa meatpacking plant workers tested positive for COVID-19, forcing temporary closures at some plants and slowdowns at others. At least 19 Iowa meatpacking workers died of COVID-19, data from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting show.

Iowa producers culled pigs that they were unable have slaughtered and didn't have room for. Of the pigs destroyed, nearly 110,000 were weaned piglets,  records show.

Iowa pork producers received about $3 million, and egg producers roughly $1.7 million, to help with disposal costs.

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Iowa egg producers struggled as restaurants and other commercial food-service operations shut down. Nearly 70% of the state's eggs are processed into liquid for use in commercial markets, officials have said.

Many farmers were unable to shift their operations so they could provide eggs in the shell for consumers, who faced shortages at grocery stores and paid record amounts at times.

At the same time, prices for processed eggs fell to new lows, which failed to cover the cost of feed, analysts said at the time. Many producers lost contracts to supply liquid eggs and were unable to find new markets, even at reduced prices.

The state said it would pay up to $9 million of disposal costs: $4 for each pig weighing 25 pounds or less, up to 200,000 animals; $40 per pig weighing at least 225 pounds, up to 30,000 animals; and 25 cents per laying hen for up to 1 million birds.

Each of three egg producers received assistance for 1 million laying hens culled from their operations: Center Fresh Farms of Sioux Center; Rembrandt Enterprises of Rembrandt; and Fremont Farms of Iowa in Newton, each receiving $250,000.

Christensen Farms of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, received $1.86 million, the most of any pork producer operating in Iowa. The company is the largest shareholder in Triumph Foods, a St. Joseph, Missouri, pork processor. Triumph owns half of Seaboard Triumph Foods, a Sioux City pork plant.

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Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in Iowa, received $352,040 to help with disposal costs for 48,210 weaned pigs and nearly 4,000 hogs. Animal rights activists targeted the Iowa Falls company, secretly shooting video of pigs being destroyed.

The company said it did everything possible — from finding more barn space to donating pork to food banks and employees — before deciding to euthanize the animals.

Naig, the Iowa agriculture secretary, said Iowa livestock producers worked to avoid destroying more animals. The state initially estimated about 600,000 pigs in Iowa were waiting to be slaughtered and might be culled.

In addition to adding space and donating pork, many Iowa producers changed the pigs' diets to slow their growth, said Paustian, the former Iowa Pork Producers Association president.

Paustian, who raises pigs near Walcott, said he thinks changes that meat processors have made to protect workers will prevent plants from shutting down again. "The backlog hung over us for months," he said.

"Of course, there's some concern" plant shutdowns could happen again, said Paustian, whose family bought additional barn space and was able to avoid euthanizing animals.

Naig said Iowa producers also are raising fewer pigs and building in more buffers in their production schedule so that fewer animals will back up on farms if plants shut down. In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the nation had 2% fewer pigs on farms than a year earlier.

Also, federal government has provided $500 million in assistance so small, local meat producers, or lockers, across the country can increase their capacity. The state, meanwhile, has provided $4 million to about 200 small meat processors.

Large meatpackers say they've invested heavily in making changes to ensure workers are safe, including providing testing and health-care monitoring, providing protective equipment and erecting barriers between workers.

Tyson Foods, which is mandating that workers receive COVID-19 vaccines, said it spent $270 million over nine months on COVID protections.

"We are experiencing multiple challenges related to the pandemic," the the Arkansas company said in its fiscal third-quarter earnings report this month "These challenges are anticipated to continue to increase our operating costs in fiscal 2021.

"We cannot currently predict the ultimate impact that COVID-19 will have on our short- and long-term demand, as it will depend on, among other things, the severity and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic," said the meatpacking giant, which has several plants in Iowa.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8457.