Livestock numbers continue to build across the countryside as packing plants attempt to restart meat processing capacity amid a number of coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Idled production reached an estimated 40% for pork and 10% for beef this month. Livestock prices subsequently remain below the cost of production while boxed meat prices hover at inflated levels due to a shift to retail demand and subsequent temporary meat shortages at some locations.

Some major grocery chains implemented limits on meat purchases this week while at least two fast food chains temporarily removed items off menus at some locations due to a lack of fresh meat products.

“We’re north of 1.5 million hogs that should have gone through plants by now that have not,” Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board (NPB), said during a May 5 webinar. “The Upper Midwest is ground zero (for the processing backlog). We anticipate this will continue.”

USDA sent a letter to the packing industry outlining steps to reopen plants using best practices to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining operations.

Guidance specific to reopening meat processing plants was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with USDA. It follows President Trump’s executive order that declared packing plant operations essential.

“Maintaining the health and safety of plant employees in addition to ensuring continued operation and a plentiful food supply during this unprecedented time is paramount,” Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue noted in the letter to the packing industry.

“We know these are very challenging times,” he said on a recent USDA podcast. “USDA is working with CDC and OSHA helping get these plants online as quickly as possible, with a goal of protecting workers. Meat processing facilities are critical infrastructure and are essential to the national security of our nation.”

The backlog of livestock continues to limit options for farmers and resulted in some choosing to euthanize herds or flocks in recent weeks.

Even urges farmers considering that route to contact their herd or flock veterinarian first and go over a depopulation checklist. Information about that process can be found online or by calling 800-456-7675. Illinois Farm Bureau also offers resources for farmers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic at its website.

“Producers have done a tremendous amount of work to slow down (livestock) growth to prevent depopulation,” Jake Schwartz, veterinarian with the Swine Vet Center in Minnesota, said on the NPB webinar. “Nevertheless, it’s a reality many are faced with today. Multiple options (approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association) are available.”

Considerations for depopulation include personal safety, animal welfare, stage of production, the number of animals to depopulate and animal facility type to determine the most humane method for each farm. The mental health of farmers and workers also should be considered during the decision-making process.