We live in strange and uncharted times, and it feels as though it gets odder by the day. We’ve been following the meat issues that have been a side effect of the Coronavirus and are broken hearted to hear about fellow farmers having to make difficult decisions on their livestock. I only can partially grasp their predicament since we are basically a small producer that raises a few hundred pigs per year compared with the thousands raised by the larger farms.
What I can speak to is the basic math behind where they currently are. A pig that is market ready (280-300 lbs) can eat around 10 lbs of feed per day. If the feed is 10 cents per pound, that is $1/day in feed. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that a lot of these large producers can have 2500 pigs ready at any given week. That is an additional $17,500 per week plus the next group of pigs that is scheduled for next week is still eating, and on it goes. Those pigs are continuing to gain 2 lbs. a day at this point and it doesn’t take long for them to be bigger and fatter than what the consumer wants, not to mention again the slew of pork that was scheduled for the future. We can’t even fathom the scale of production that it takes to keep society fed and meat shelves filled.
Even though we’ve been livestock producers our entire lives, starting our retail meat business helped us gain a healthy respect for our food system in America. I marvel at how we have always had plenty of every cut available at grocery stores and restaurants. I now know that a pig only yields around 16 lbs. of bacon. They only have 2 slabs of ribs and around 18 lbs. of Boston Butts, which are used in pulled pork. Think about a BBQ restaurant and the amount of rib slabs and pulled pork they go through in a day. Think about just one McDonald’s and the number of bacon cheeseburgers or breakfast biscuits that go out their drive-thru in a week. It’s mind-boggling. And that still leaves over 100 lbs more of meat that is has to be used for other pork products And this doesn’t even address other livestock related industries like pharmaceutical products, pet products and even the clothing industry. We have an amazing system and as a general consumer these are not the the questions that go through your mind when your stomach growls.
Large livestock producers have gotten a bad rap lately with all of the criticism of confinement pork operations and CAFO’s or cattle feed lots. However, we are seeing now what happens when those systems have hiccups. We personally have realized that our business works at its best when those businesses are at their best. If you took annual butchering capacity of the 5 major locally owned processors/meat markets in the Kansas City area they can’t butcher as many animals in a year as one of the major processing plants can handle in a day.
Our system is struggling right now. Meat, and actually agriculture products in general, are unique because it all takes time to raise and harvesting needs to be at specific times to get the best product to a consumer. I can crank out a radish or lettuce in 30 days if conditions are right, but I have to get that product in the consumers hands right away or it’s no longer good. We can raise chickens in 8 weeks, but that’s after a 3 week incubation and requires scheduling with hatcheries and processors. And those are the fastest products! Beef takes usually at least 14 months, pork 5 to 7 months - and that doesn’t include gestation! Fruits and vegetables take 80-100+ days. Agriculture is a long-term project and it’s likely we will feel the effects of these days long into our future as farmers adapt, adjust and try to correct for future production.
As your local farmers, we are doing our best to keep up with demands and trying to help keep food on your tables and ours. We are already trying to plan ahead to ensure a steady future supply for our customers, but it’s so hard to forecast what this will all look like a month or six months from now.
The upside I see from this is the awareness it is raising for local production and maybe a better understanding of agriculture. Maybe this will lead to a food revolution that will helps reconnect Americans to farmers and their agricultural heritage. In the meantime, be patient with your local producers and pray for the larger farmers that find themselves in difficult circumstances.