NYS Livestock Industry Poised for Growth but Impacted by COVID-19

The Cornell Small Farms Program contributed to Cornell CALS white paper on COVID-19 impacts on food and farming, offering insight on the livestock industry. 

NYS Livestock scaled

The demand for local meat products has skyrocketed since March 2020. Simultaneously, producers’ ability to get their animals processed at a USDA facility has emerged as a bottleneck in the local meat supply chain, resulting in financial losses for farmers and questions about the resiliency of the state’s processing infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted individuals, families, communities, and businesses throughout New York state, and continues to do so. In an effort to detail the impact of COVID-19 on selected agricultural sectors, experts from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at Cornell University have contributed to a series of nine papers.  

These papers will help bring “a greater understanding of the effects of immediate and sustained disruptions in the farm and food system on the agricultural economy and assist in highlighting lessons learned to strengthen the food system going forward,” according to Cornell CALS. 

The Cornell Small Farms Program contributed a paper on COVID-19’s impact on the livestock industry. Read more about New York State food and farming COVID-19 effects on the Cornell CALS website at https://bit.ly/3ovJcR3.

Perspectives on Livestock 

The non-dairy livestock industry contributes $893 million in sales to the rural New York economy, as well as an extensive and diverse range of products to local and regional markets. Of the 448 NYS livestock producers who responded to a 2017 survey about their businesses, over 85% believed the New York livestock sector has potential for growth. This optimism spanned all scales, livestock species, and farm business maturity levels. 

COVID-19 has both elevated and deflated this optimism. Demand for local meat products has skyrocketed since March 2020. Simultaneously, producers’ ability to get their animals processed at a USDA facility has emerged as a bottleneck in the local meat supply chain, resulting in financial losses for farmers and questions about the resiliency of the state’s processing infrastructure. For that reason, this paper will focus exclusively on the pandemic’s impacts on meat processing. 

Impacts to Producers 

In July 2020, the Cornell Small Farms Program surveyed NYS livestock producers about the impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses. 650 farmers responded. Of these, 85% (553) producers reported that demand for their products had increased, but 529 producers could not meet this increased demand because of inadequate slaughter facility capacity. This is not a new problem but has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Farmers shared: 

  • “We stopped raising meat because there is nowhere to process it near us, and it’s not cost effective to drive animals several hours for processing” 
  • “We can’t get slaughter dates until 2021″ 
  • “The primary factor that prevents us from expanding our meat lamb and pastured pork enterprises is a lack of access to USDA slaughter facilities” 

The challenges vary depending on species raised and geographic region. In the north and southwest region of New York, there are few USDA facilities; farmers have to haul animals several hours to get them slaughtered and processed. 

Impacts to the Food Supply Chain 

While livestock farmers are frustrated, New York’s slaughterhouses are also struggling. In order to sell retail cuts of meat, or sell meat across state borders, livestock must be processed in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. There are 36 such facilities in New York, though this number has steadily declined over the past 30 years.  

In Spring 2020, when hundreds of employees at USDA slaughterhouses out West became sick with COVID, those plants were forced to shut down temporarily. While many head of livestock were subsequently euthanized, a wave of animals entered New York to be processed at our Small and Very Small USDA facilities. This has continued to displace local, direct-marketing farmers who had existing appointments, despite the fact that the large slaughterhouses have reopened. In northern New York, farmers are being bumped from Fall 2020 slaughter appointments until Spring 2021. These farmers have to make a very difficult choice: to feed those animals through the winter or sell the animals live now. Either option means a financial loss. 

A 2018 survey of New York and New England USDA slaughterhouses conducted by the “Overcoming Supply Chain Barriers to Expanding Northeast Ruminant Meat Production” project found that these facilities: 

  • Lack access to reliable workers (74% of respondents) 
  • Have limited product throughput and harvest days due to inadequate cooler space (68% of respondents) 
  • Need access to grants or loans to grow their business (57% of respondents) 
  • Need more business in the off-season to remain viable. 

Future Considerations 

New USDA slaughterhouses are very expensive to build and challenging to run profitably, especially with uneven seasonal demand for their services in NY. While sufficient USDA slaughterhouse capacity exists to meet current demand, the researchers in the above study acknowledged regional gaps in USDA-inspected packing plants in western and northern New York. 

One cost-effective strategy to address the New York meat-processing bottleneck would be expansion of the cut-and-wrap capacities at existing USDA plants. North Carolina and Montana have initiated grant programs to increase capacity of their existing slaughterhouses. 

New York has more “custom exempt” than there are USDA slaughterhouses. USDA inspects custom exempt facilities annually, but individual carcasses are not inspected. This lack of individual inspection means that animals processed by custom exempt facilities cannot currently be sold by the cut. The federal RAMP-UP legislation would provide grant funding to custom exempt slaughterhouses that want to upgrade to being fully USDA-inspected. Cornell Cooperative Extension livestock educators are undertaking a survey to all slaughter facilities in New York in Fall 2020 to learn, among other things, how many custom exempt facilities have an interest in upgrading to USDA inspection. 

In addition, the federal PRIME Act would make it possible for farmers to utilize custom exempt plants to process animals whose meat would be sold direct-to-consumer by the cut. Some states, like Wyoming, bypassed the need for the PRIME Act by passing “Food Freedom” legislation that includes a meat amendment. This allows producers to sell cuts of meat direct-to-consumer from animals processed at custom exempt slaughterhouses. 

With reliable labor as the primary constraint to slaughterhouse expansion, no solution will be successful without creating new pipelines of employees. Programs to expose high school students to this as a career option, or possibly to incentivize employment at a slaughterhouse, may alleviate the labor shortage. SUNY Cobleskill is currently the only college with a training program specifically for meat processing, while Cornell CALS offers only one undergraduate course in meat science for enrolled students in the Department of Animal Science curriculum.   

While there is no way to know to what extent consumer interest in local meat will extend beyond the pandemic, the New York livestock industry is poised for growth but constrained by access to slaughterhouses. The pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses of a western-based concentrated meat packing industry. To be resilient to future shocks, investments in our existing decentralized infrastructure of slaughterhouses in NY will help farmers supply safe meats to their local communities. 

Erica Frenay

Erica has had several different roles with the Small Farms Program since she began working there in 2005. In 2006 she co-founded the Northeast Beginning Farmer Project, and launched the first online course in 2007. For 10 years she facilitated and organized the Beginning Farmer Learning Network, a professional development network for service providers in the Northeast who support beginning farmers. She has shepherded the development, publishing, and updating of several key SFP publications, like the Guide to Farming in NYS, the On-Farm Poultry Processing Guide, and the Guide to Direct Marketing Livestock and Poultry. As the SFP’s menu of online courses surpassed 20, she shifted her role primarily to managing these courses, providing ongoing training to instructors, and ensuring a high quality experience for students.