Farm Journal Live: NCBA Responds to Plant Closures/Rural Hospitals

Farm Journal editor and AgDay anchor Clinton Griffiths spoke with Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the beef packing industry on today’s FaceBook Live.

Griffiths noted several packing plants are either closed or working reduced shifts, asking Woodall for an update on the situation.

“First, I want to make sure everybody understands that we do not have a shortage of beef,” Woodall said. “We have a lot of product in cold storage that is ready to go to retail.”

Before COVID-19’s impact on livestock markets, about 50% of beef products were going to food service such as restaurants and fast food chains. As social distancing directives led to the closure of most restaurants, more of the beef targeted for food service is now available for retail outlets.

“We don’t have a situation where we have a shortage,” Woodall said. “But it is something that is having a huge impact on prices because as we lose capacity, we lose opportunity to get cattle into these plants to be harvested and processed and therefore the negative impact on prices has been dramatic.”

Some of the problems that shocked the distribution system the first couple of weeks during social distancing have now improved.

“Those first couple of weeks we actually had to re-label those products because the labeling systems are different between food service and retail,” Woodall said. “So, it took some time to retool everything. But packers have been able to now focus on everything retail and to keep that supply going. We definitely don’t have a shortage of cattle – the protein is there.”

Woodall says the challenge over the next two weeks will be getting cattle processed.

“The good news is, unlike what we saw last summer with the Tyson plant fire, these are two-week closures, and we believe we can manage through these two-week closures.”

Woodall noted the current situation is not ideal, but unlike pork and poultry producers, cattlemen have some flexibility to stretch the marketing schedules of some cattle.

“Feedyards can put some cattle on maintenance rations, and they can turn some cattle out on pasture,” he said. “All of that comes with a cost, of course, but we can at least hold on to those animals and try to get through this.”

Woodall said the industry is also looking to see if other processing plants can absorb some of the excess supply of cattle created by closures and plant slowdowns.

Woodall said he expects the CARES Act for a disaster stimulus package for cattle producers could be rolled out late this week or next.

NCBA also requested that President Trump expand the USDA investigation they started last summer after the Tyson fire “to include what we're seeing now during this COVID-19 crisis to determine what kind of market influences are out there, to determine if there has been any manipulation and try to help us identify ways that we can better capture that retail value and get it into the hands of producers.”

Woodall said Ag Secretary Perdue told NCBA last Friday he wants to get this done as quickly as possible.

Griffiths said economists at the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri are reporting the ag sector could see a drop of up to $20 billion in net farm income due to the COVID-19 CRISIS.

While COVID-19 has created a crisis for hospitals in major cities, it ahs also strained rural hospitals. Alan Morgan with the National Rural Health Association, told Griffiths , more than 20,000 cases of COVID-19 has been reported across U.S. rural counties.

“Three fourths of the nation's rural counties currently have COVID-19 positive cases,” Morgan said. “And we're tracking roughly 20 rural hospitals that right now are facing the surge where their inpatient beds are full. For the vast majority of hospitals out there, it is, unfortunately, a wait mode. Many of them have had to furlough staff as they rapidly reduce their inpatient services, cut all of their outpatient services and a lot of their elective procedures out of their mix.”

Regarding the availability of equipment in rural hospitals, Morgan said the majority of rural hospitals have enough supplies on hand right now.

“But there's a real concern about whether they will have enough supplies a week out or two weeks out. And the issue about ventilators really hasn't changed. The vast majority of rural hospitals have one, maybe two ventilators,” he said. “These hospitals or primary care primary care in general surgery, they're simply going to have to transfer out patients, and they have started seeing a large influx of ICU patients”

Morgan said farmers, ranchers and rural citizens can help make their communities safer by staying at home. “Do this not just for yourself, but for your hospital staff.”

Finally, Morgan asked farmers and ranchers to be safe.

“Don’t take unnecessary risks. This is not the time to be plugging up the emergency room with accidents.”    

 

 

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