The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has created a dichotomy in the livestock industry that consumers may find strange. While availability of meats at stores has decreased the prices have been on the rise – this is simple supply and demand. What baffles some people is that while they see this when visiting their local supermarket they then return home to see that farmers are pouring milk down drains and euthanizing the animals that should be going to the slaughterhouse. If there’s not enough meat on the store shelves then why are farmers killing their product instead of sending it to market?

The answer lies in the supply chain that is dominated by large factory farms called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The supply chain has been designed to be efficient by keeping costs low and production moving at a fast pace. Slaughterhouses and processing plants that receive livestock were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. When these facilities were forced to shut down, or were severely slowed down, because of coronavirus outbreaks, the feedlots and CAFOs had nowhere to keep the animals that they would send daily for processing. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, almost all major meat packers have had to close some of their processing plants. Several thousand meatpacking employees have tested positive, and at least 17 have died according to CDC figures.

Think of the chain that supplies 98% of the nation’s meat as a conveyor belt that is filled with blocks. The belt has to keep moving product along 24/7. One break in the chain and the blocks start to back up quickly – the farms are now overcrowded with “product”. The country’s meat supply chain has evolved and essentially is done on a “just-in-time” basis so they just keep loading “blocks” onto the conveyor belt without thinking that the belt might slow down or even stop.

Farmers who supply the animals operate on the assumption that they’ll be able to send off mature livestock to slaughter on an almost daily basis so that animals still being grown can take their space. If it’s one thing that large CAFOs do not have extra of is space. The country’s pork processing capacity alone is about 500,000 head per day. Combined with chicken and beef, it doesn’t take much of a disruption for the supply system to feel the effects of plant closures and reduction.

Smaller, independent livestock operations that raise and slaughter their own livestock are able to better respond. In fact, many of these smaller farms  have seen their consumer sales rise dramatically since the pandemic outbreak. These operations are able to adapt to changes in the supply chain in ways that CAFOs simply can’t. Unfortunately the factory farming system is showing its weaknesses when placed under stressed and some believe that it will be forced into unprecedented change once operations can return to normal.

Jayson Lusk is an Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University. Dr. Lusk has written a great primer on his blog that explains the scale of the problem.