Cattle Producers Say Problems Predated Virus

Apr 10, 2020  | 4 min  | Ep4534

Tyson Fresh Meats temporarily suspended operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa hog plant after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19.

JBS USA halted beef processing at its Souderton, Pennsylvania plant until April 16 after senior managers suffered flu-like symptoms.

Those plants still operating are often doing so at reduced speed as they stop for more frequent cleaning, and add either social distancing or barriers between work stations.

The shutdowns and slowdowns came as most Americans shifted food purchases to retail outlets instead of restaurants, schools or work cafeterias.

Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center: “…early in the outbreak, when the restaurants were closing, we saw a run on beef in the grocery stores so actually boxed beef prices increased by a significant percentage so that gap between what the producers were seeing, which tended to follow the futures in terms of prices, and the boxed beef prices has been historically large.”

Eric Nelson, a cattle producer from Moville, Iowa, and a Midwest district director for the advocacy group R-CALF, said the consolidation of the packing industry has left cattle producers with fewer places to sell their animals.

Eric Nelson, R-CALF: “It’s like if you were going to have an auction of all your household wares or your house, you want to have as many bidders show up at an auction as absolutely possible.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, is calling for an investigation under the Packers and Stockyards Act to see if there is any market or price manipulation.

Eric Nelson, Bar N Cattle Company: “Last August, there was a fire at a large plant in Holcomb, Kansas that actually did the same thing to the markets…This is not a short-term problem. There are some short-term symptoms since the Covid virus but the deeper problems have been endemic. They’ve really been coming at us strongly for five years, and really 15 years before that.”

Tyson offered cattle suppliers a premium for animals delivered the week of March 23, saying in a statement:

“This is an uncertain and unprecedented time, where food service beef demand has come to an immediate and virtual standstill, while retail demand has increased. We rely on and are concerned with the success and sustainability of our long-term independent cattle suppliers and want them to succeed.”

Iowa State University Beef Center’s Dr. Dan Loy says there has been growing discontent among cattle producers.

Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center: “There’s frustration with the packers, with the situation in the industry, especially with our smaller producers that may only market seasonally. And if they are seasonally marketing this time of year, they are going to be impacted to a greater extent than others.”

Congress has recently approved payments to cattle producers suffering losses due to COVID-19.

Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center: “If we can get our way through this, the outlook is really quite good for the beef industry.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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