AMES, Iowa — Faced with one of the biggest challenges pork producers have ever seen, the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University spent the spring and summer of 2020 trying to help the industry prepare for the worst, and respond constructively to what was already happening.
In early March, prior to fully seeing the impact COVID-19 would have on Iowa businesses, the center began working on a research project with Iowa State swine nutritionists John Patience, Nick Gabler and Laura Greiner, to determine nutritional strategies for slowing down the growth rate of pigs in the event that packing capacity would be affected.
As predicted, the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately caused packing plants to slow down and in some instances temporarily close, which greatly reduced harvest capacity and led to an oversupply of market-ready hogs and lack of space on farms. Fortunately, the foresight paid off and data from the initial project was coming available just as packing plant capacity was being significantly impacted. This knowledge helped farmers with placing hogs on holding diets, until the hogs could be moved to processing.
Jason Ross, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center and professor of animal science at Iowa State, said one of the first major outreach efforts was a nutritional strategies webinar held April 21, in which animal science experts outlined the options for slowing down growth at the farm.
Close to 300 people tuned in, with pork producers from across the country, along with nutritionists and veterinarians, and a second nutritional webinar was held May 28.
“Those efforts from Gabler, Patience and Greiner really turned a corner for the industry,” said Ross. “It was such a rapid response and nationally effective. Producers and nutritionist everywhere were seeking scientifically validated approaches with repeatable results, and they were getting it at the time it was needed.”
Those efforts resulted in multiple collaborations between Iowa State nutritionists and industry partners.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Iowa Pork Producers Association launched the Resource Coordination Center, a multi-faceted effort to connect producers with industry experts, state agencies and technical specialists. The IPIC, along with faculty and staff from the college of veterinary medicine, ag engineering, economics, animal Science and ISU Extension and Outreach all collaborated to contribute to help in the development and distribution critical information to producers.
By adjusting hog diets, increasing stocking densities, sorting or topping off pens, and finding additional temporary production facilities, producers not only extended their market window, but were also able to avoid the need for mass depopulation.
Specialists and faculty across Iowa State University were working on plans for depopulation that for the most part were never needed, thanks to the management guidance and the re-opening of packing plants.
Even so, producers were feeling the stress of having to make big changes on the farm, and watch the market swing wildly at the same time.
On May 8, a Resilience in the Era of COVID-19 webinar was presented with David Brown, behavioral health specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach partnering with Cameron Schmitt from Pipestone Veterinary.
“It was, and still to a degree, remains a time of mental stress for many of our producers,” Ross said. “Regardless of the scope of their business, it was a stressful time for all of them.”
As producers began to think about recovery, the IPIC and IPPA joined together to offer four economic recovery webinars Aug. 19 through Sept. 9. Topics included evaluating hog supply agreements and contracts, the market outlook and evaluating the different tools of recovery.
“The Iowa Pork Industry Center was a critical component of our efforts to assist producers as we went through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Pat McGonegle, chief executive officer of IPPA.
The research on nutrition and extending pig production times was critical, as well as the concerns for animal welfare and pig health. McGonegle said the partnership with the IPIC played a critical role in restoring the market for producers, and also the overall food chain.
“The responsiveness and the effort by the staff at IPIC and IPPA was nothing short of phenomenal,” he said. “The cooperation and the speed of cooperation … having those experts available, kept science at the forefront in a very fast timeframe.”
— Jason Ross and Chris Rademacher, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
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