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Hog depopulation plans move from drawing board to reality

Producers prepare to cull pigs due to reduced packing plant capacity using disposal plans originally created for African swine fever.

Austin Keating, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

May 19, 2020

3 Min Read
Raymond, Ill., hog producer Phil Borgic
TOUGH REALITY: Raymond, Ill., hog producer Phil Borgic says disposal plans for market-ready pigs are going from the drawing board to being practiced in real life.Holly Spangler

What does it look like when contingency plans move from the drawing board to real life? Hog farmers like Phil Borgic are finding out these days, as depopulation “scenarios” for a different virus become ready-to-execute plans in the wake of COVID-19.

Borgic, who raises hogs near Raymond, Ill., and works with 50 grower-partners to produce hogs on contract for Borgic Farms, started laying plans to reduce market hog weights back on March 1. He saw the coronavirus shuttering economies around the world, eventually coming to the U.S., and reducing meat-packer capacity and restaurant demand. Part of those plans include putting only the heaviest pigs on the few truckloads they manage to get from packers. 

Related: Complete coronavirus coverage


“That’s helped us maintain the population weight in the barns, but we’re still over 300 pounds load average, and without additional market flows, we’re going to get to the critical point in the near future where we’ll have to euthanize a large amount of pigs,” Borgic says, adding they’ve already euthanized non-Grade A hogs from the finishing barns.

Those relatively few euthanizations were carried out through composting and rendering. Borgic Farms is preparing to pull the trigger on a plan to mass euthanize Grade A hogs at partnering farms with market-ready pigs. While they’ve been able to sell a few truckloads to smaller-scale butchers, there’s not enough to take on the 8,000-plus pigs they need to sell every week.

Related: Illinois hog farmer: ‘We’re taking it day by day’


“Not all farms we work with have market-ready pigs. We’re shipping out of five to eight farms at a time. So those are the only ones that are affected. And they’re not affected by the lower prices because they don’t own the pigs — we do,” Borgic says.

Plans developed for ASF

Borgic Farms will rely on plans originally readied for African swine fever — a disease responsible for the culling of millions of hogs outside of the U.S. that is keeping producers on high biosecurity alert even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past several years, the U.S. hog industry has made plans for what to do if ASF struck here, including mass depopulation to contain the virus.

Related: Movement, disposal at top of Illinois ASF plan

Borgic says the only feasible way to dispose of a large amount of pigs, whether the reason is for low packing-plant capacity or ASF, is burial. Transporting thousands of hogs to a landfill would cost too much, and there’s not enough rendering capacity in the state, whereas disposing of carcasses with an incinerator isn’t an option because Illinois doesn’t have a Type 4 incinerator powerful enough to burn all the fat.

“Some of the strategies at the state and national level of going through the ASF exercises are now being shifted from the drawing board into concrete. We’ve got our plans ready. Now it’s time to get the permits, get the government agencies involved and get approval for what we’re setting up to do,” Borgic says.

As they prepare to depopulate, Borgic says they’re still putting weaned pigs into the barns as they sell market-ready hogs, comparing it to filling a bin with babies at the bottom as adults are sold. He says he’s reevaluating filling the bottom and has already reduced the sow herd to make sure they’re not filling barns at twice the rate that they’re taking off the top.

“The industry, and more specifically, pig owners, think we can get back to normal fairly quickly, and that’s just not going to happen. Processors are not going to get back to 100% capacity anytime soon,” he says, concluding the steps he’s taking now will prepare them for long-term fallout.

Borgic also says biosecurity is still important as producers follow through with culling their herds, “because ASF never went away. It’s still a danger, and it’s the last problem we need right now. We must put the emphasis on biosecurity measures, even though it might be hard to focus on that at the moment.”

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About the Author(s)

Austin Keating

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

Austin Keating is the newest addition to the Farm Progress editorial team working as an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine. Austin was born and raised in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in journalism. Following graduation in 2016, he worked as a science writer and videographer for the university’s supercomputing center. In June 2018, Austin obtained a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he was the campus correspondent for Planet Forward and a Comer scholar.

Austin is passionate about distilling agricultural science as a service for readers and creating engaging content for viewers. During his time at UI, he won two best feature story awards from the student organization JAMS — Journalism Advertising and Media Students — as well as a best news story award.

Austin lives in Charleston. He can sometimes be found at his family’s restaurant the Alamo Steakhouse and Saloon in Mattoon, or on the Embarrass River kayaking. Austin is also a 3D printing and modeling hobbyist.

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