When the coronavirus pandemic had first established a stronghold in the U.S., several industries experienced a disruption in merchandise, such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and canned foods. Now, meat is the hot-ticket item.
Calvin Crandall is a fourth-generation rancher who has been maintaining Crandall Farms in Springville for over 40 years. Specifically, he’s a cow-calf producer who breeds and births calves that are sold to backgrounding ranchers to be raised as beef cattle.
A cow-calf producer typically raises the beef cattle from about 500 pounds to 800 pounds before feed lot operators take over the process and raise each cow to a final weight of about 1,300 pounds.
Throughout the pandemic, ranchers like Crandall have continued to work, and for the most part, he said, it has felt like business as usual. However, some parts of the meat industry are experiencing more challenges than others, such as feed lots.
Although consumers are seeing limits being placed on packaged meat, and in some cases, a lack of particular meat products on shelves, Crandall said it’s not a meat shortage.
“There is no shortage of meat in the country,” Crandall said. “We are raising as much beef as we ever have. The problem is, we can’t get it processed.”
Dave Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Utah Food Retailer’s Association, said the meat industry can be broken down into three components: ranchers, processors and retailers.
The ranchers, Davis said, are doing great, growing a good number of animals and continuing to provide protein to the supply chain. On the other end of the spectrum, retailers are also doing well; they are willing, ready and able to serve packaged meat to consumers. The problem lies in the processing.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, production manufacturers who package the meat have seen a significant decrease in the number of laborers. Due to the lack of labor, a bottleneck has been created in the nationwide production process.
“People have cattle in feed lots, and all of a sudden, the packing houses have slowed way down,” Crandall said. “They can’t process as much meat, so it’s backing up the system, if you will.”
Employees in the field are hard to replace, Crandall said, because of their unique skill set and necessary experience.
Nationwide, more than 20 livestock processing plants have closed due to COVID-19 concerns over the past two months. These closures have reduced pork- and beef-processing capacities by up to 20% and 10%, respectively, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Locally, ranchers and retailers have not been hit quite as hard as other areas, Davis said, but processors are seeing some impact.
Due to the backup, local ranchers are left looking for a processor able to take their ready beef cattle. In Springville and Spanish Fork, ranchers are left waiting until an appointment opens, which at the moment is scheduled for November at the earliest and, in some cases, until 2021.
The best thing residents can do to help is not to panic, Crandall said.
“Get enough to get by,” he said. “Let the system reset. Give the processors a chance to back up and reset. Everything will be fine if we just don’t panic.”
Davis said there are two ways to create a meat shortage: through a genuine lack of supply by ranchers and through a significant spike in the demand for meat by consumers. In this instance, the supply is doing well.
By panic-buying large quantities of meat, consumers create an artificial meat demand, which markets already saw with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, he said. Davis is urging consumers to buy what they will consume over the next seven to 10 days and avoid hoarding or stockpiling products.
“If we pace ourselves on our purchasing or consumption of protein products, we’re going to be just fine, from a supply perspective,” Davis said.
Although ranchers haven’t felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic yet, Crandall said it has yet to be seen if there will be a significant impact in the future.
“We just got done with calving season, and we won’t be selling until fall,” he said. “We probably lost some value, but until you sell an animal, you don’t realize it.”
If the problem persists through the summer and into autumn, Crandall said it will have a significant and severe effect on local ranchers.
Feed lots will remain at capacity, unable to move their beef cattle through to the processing stage of the meat industry, and backgrounding operations will come to a standstill while they wait for feed lots to open.
In turn, backgrounding operations will cease looking for new calves until the blockage is resolved, affecting cow-calf producers like Crandall.
“If we don’t get our labor back in these plants soon, then it can back up the whole system,” he said. “It would have a serious effect on the ranchers who are putting cattle into the feed lots.”
Additionally, Rex Larsen, a Spanish Fork rancher and vice president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said with high-impact markets not functioning — such as cruise ships, restaurants and school — they are concerned about a substantial loss in profit.
It is critical for local economies, Davis said, that consumers keep ranchers and farmers viable and operating to maintain the state’s agriculture industry. Whether that means temporary government assistance or community economic support, every little bit helps, he said.