Cows and COVID: Alabama farmers struggle during pandemic

Jul 7, 2020


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An APR feature

The Fourth of July has come and gone but grilling season is in full swing in Alabama.  Getting meat to go on those grills might be a little more difficult than usual. COVID-19 has not only limited the number of people who can come to the cookout, it is also taking a toll on Alabama’s livestock producers.  

Summer is a prime time to fire up a grill and cook burgers, chicken and ribs with friends and family in your back yard. However, the people who produce the meat for these gatherings say they’re having a hard time due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

“Primarily our beef cattle farmers here in Alabama have been impacted at the price level when they go to sell their cattle,” said Brady Ragland, commodity director for beef cattle for the Alabama Farmers’ Federation.

According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Alabama has just over 20,000 beef cattle farms. Ragland said farmers all across the country are taking a financial hit due to COVID-19. 

“The national cattleman’s beef association did a survey industry-wide reported losses directly related to coronavirus upwards of $13 billion, that would be nationwide and so our producers would be right in mix experiencing those losses,” he said. 

Shoppers in Alabama may have noticed the price of beef has gone up since the pandemic began. At first, this might look like good news for cattle producers, but Ragland said that isn’t the case. 

“I say we, as in beef farmers, are still experiencing a price decline when they go to sell their cattle and that’s been a tremendous burden and a big hit to our producers here in Alabama," he said. 

Part of the problem comes from the large processing plants where the cattle are shipped to be prepared for the consumer. Erin Beasley is the executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. She said these plants were hit hard by the coronavirus. 

“The large processing plants that harvest cattle, they employ thousands of people and we did see the virus get into those large packing plants and they were shut down for days or even weeks at a time,” she said. 

She said those plants go through a lot cattle in a short period of time. 

“We’ve got plants in this country that harvest over 5,000 head of cattle a day," Beasley said. "If they’re closed for just a week, that compounds and really bottlenecks our industry.” 

That bottleneck causes problems for the producers here in Alabama. 

“We have large number of cattle ready to be harvested that have not been harvested and when all of that happens it trickles down to our state which is at the beginning of the production chain,” she said. 

In other words, if cattle are standing around waiting to be processed, Alabama’s beef industry is losing money. When it comes to the prices farmers are getting for their cattle, Beasley said the problem comes from those at the top. 

“There are four companies that make up the packing industry for the most part and they have the ability to up the price at the retail side and they also have a lot of control on the side of live cattle. While consumers saw the price going up, producers continued to see depressed pricing,” she said. 

Those four companies are Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef. The cost of beef in stores and even in restaurants was going up, but that extra cost didn’t mean money in the pockets of local farmers. Beasley said her association decided to act. 

“It really wasn’t adding up. Our efforts are for our producers and we want our producers to get the top dollar they can for the work they out into these cattle and given the circumstances, what was happening at the retail market was the opposite of what was happening on the live cattle side,” she said. 

Beasley said that investigation is still ongoing. 

Beef isn’t the only meat being impacted by the pandemic. Poultry in Alabama is big business.  

“The poultry industry in Alabama represents about a 15 billion dollar industry for our state’s economy,”said Russ Durrance, the commodity director for poultry for the Alabama Farmers’ Federation. “We have about 2,000 broiler farms, broilers are your meat type chickens that are going to processing facility to be harvested for meat.” 

Durrance said Alabama poultry producers are taking a financial hit, but it isn’t as bad as it could be. He said that is because of how the poultry industry is what is called “vertically integrated.” 

“Vertical integration basically means that the supplier controls everything from the hatchery that’s hatching the chicks," he said. "They control the breeder farms that’s laying eggs that go to those hatcheries that then become broilers to be raised and taken to processing. It’s not backyard poultry kind of like beef cattle.” 

He said they have more protection when it comes to prices too. 

“Our farmers are locked in at a price. They are contracted in with their integrator for a specific price per pound for the meat they bring to the market. While you don’t see the oversupply of birds in the market for them, they don’t have to worry about price fluctuations in that nature.” 

Where they will feel the pinch comes in the number of flocks they receive. Durrance said farmers could lose around 20 percent of their income. 

“A normal poultry producer that’s about to produce a flock of chickens in 45 days and be out of birds for 14 to 21 days might be out of birds for 21 days to 28 days. They would normally be able to produce four to five flocks a year and this year they may only get three to four flocks,” he said. 

Beef cattle are sent to processing plants mostly in the Midwest. Chickens from Alabama are usually processed in the state. Durrance said COVID-19 has slowed down the plants here, but not as bad as others. 

“The good news here in Alabama is we did not ever close any of our processing facilities, there were a few days where they ran at a much more reduced capacity than they would normally run at," he said. "They took social distancing measures and things like that at the plant. I wouldn’t say they’re at 100% but we’re able to process an adequate number of birds.”   

Recent trips to the supermarket will show shelves in the meat sections will be fuller than they have been in recent weeks. Beasley said it looks like life for the consumer is going back to normal. 

“I can’t say the prices will be exactly what you’re used to but it’s still coming down but it should be better than it was two or three weeks ago,” he said. 

As for farmers, the pandemic has no real end in sight. Beasley said these producers feeling the financial strain of the pandemic have options for help. They can apply for help through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program or CFAP. Livestock eligible for CFAP include cattle, lambs, yearlings and hogs. She says there are also efforts underway to help from the state as well.