SUMNER — There is no quarantine at Beattie Family Farms west of Sumner, no furloughs, no days off and almost no time to think when there are crops to plant and livestock to tend.

Even homeschooling has a hands-on learning, hands-on helping focus.

Pandemic or not, family members are dedicated to caring for their land and their animals, said Shana Beattie, Nebraska Pork Producers Association president-elect.

She is a farm partner with her husband, Bart, and in-laws, Jeff and Nanette Beattie. Their diversified ag operation includes wean-to-finish swine barns, co-ownership of a 10,000-head sow farm, a commercial cow-calf ranching business, and production of corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

Now in the mix of many daily tasks and management decisions is a severe ag-sector economic downturn affecting all farm commodities.

“This situation isn’t unique to pig farmers,” Shana said.

However, they have been in the headlines recently because of temporary closings and slow reopenings of meat and poultry processing plants that are a critical link in the U.S. farm-to-table food supply chain.

Producing pork

“The weaned piglets come to our barns weighing approximately 13 pounds,” Shana said. “At this stage, they are started on a high protein ration as they transition to full feed.”

Over five months, the pigs work through eight stages of feed toward a market-ready weight of 285 pounds. All of the Beatties’ finished hogs are processed at Smithfield Foods in Crete, which is one of three pork plants in Nebraska.

Shana said cash prices alone haven’t allowed pork producers to see profits in recent years, so it has been important for the family’s business to lock in prices by hedging. “It has been the only avenue to get us out of the red,” she added.

Even the best marketing plan doesn’t work when a time-sensitive production, processing and distribution system has glitches.

Shana said they currently don’t have a backlog of finished pigs, but have slowed down feed rations with the goal of growing pigs slower.

“We are not euthanizing any piglets or market hogs,” she added. “Our hope is that by the time our pigs are at market weight, the processors will be closer to a full harvest.”

Also to be resolved are pandemic-related labor issues reducing the industry’s ability to fill export orders. “Exports continue to remain strong because there still is a demand for pork internationally,” Shana said, noting that 25 percent of U.S. pork is exported.

Homeschooling

School closings have allowed more family time at home for the four Beattie children — Mekenzie, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sophomore; Mattison, a Sumner-Eddyville-Miller sophomore; Bart Jr., an S-E-M eighth grader; and Preston, an S-E-M sixth grader.

Shana described it as a unique opportunity.

“From doing chores in a 6,400-head swine barn, to servicing irrigation pivots, calving cows, branding calves and learning to plant soybeans, we have been doing our own version of homeschooling,” she said.

“We feel blessed that our children have this opportunity,” she continued. “As farmers and ranchers, it is business as usual, the livestock must be taken care of daily and the crops need to be planted.”

When asked if they might be part of a next generation of Beattie farmer-ranchers, Mekenzie and Mattison said they aren’t sure, but they might be interested in other ag-related careers.

Challenges galore

“At the beginning of COVID, the initial impact to producers was a drop in market price, like was seen for most ag commodities,” Shana said.

That dashed hopes for 2020 profits. Then packing plants started to close.

“The economic impact will be devastating if we cannot market our pigs and we will have to use euthanasia,” Shana said. “We pray it will not come to that, but if we cannot sell our product, we will have no income ... to pay for feed, buildings, utilities and employment costs.”

“Emotionally, this is hard. We represent generations on this farm. Many families have been dedicated to our family farm for years,” she said, adding that their faith sustains them now.

Many of her ag sector friends and neighbors also are struggling with the economic downturn and are unsure where they will sell their commodities.

“We rely on one another to share the pain, the stories and be there as we navigate through these very tough times,” Shana said. “But I do know that as Nebraska farmers and ranchers, we are strong, hardworking and not willing to give up without a fight.

“The generations that came before taught us that and left us a legacy to fight for.”

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