A break in the supply chain has left Ohio and much of the country with an excess of hogs on farms and a shortage of pork in stores.

Hog farmers in Ohio and elsewhere are struggling to get their animals to processors, some of which have been shut down because slaughterhouses have become COVID-19 coronavirus hotbeds.

"If the plants can't get back running, farmers will be faced with difficult decisions," said Cheryl Day, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Council. "Every farm, I guarantee you, has an emergency plan."

Some farmers in Iowa and Minnesota have even resorted to euthanizing their livestock.

Farmers in Ohio, the nation's eighth-largest pork producer, said they have not been forced to take that step but are scrambling to accommodate more animals than their facilities are designed to handle. They are feeding the animals less to keep their weight down, creating new spaces to house animals and double-bunking them, while waiting for packing plants to reopen.

"We're running out of options," said Keaton Brenneman, a hog farmer in Van Wert County in northwestern Ohio. "We're doing some creative things, but if plants don't open up and start operating at 120% capacity, we'd have to slaughter thousands of hogs in a few weeks."

Brenneman recently took the extraordinary step of advertising hogs for sale on Facebook, with a minimum of 10 per buyer. But he knows it's not a realistic solution for an operation that typically trucks 2,500 pigs a week to Indiana packing plants.

"It's no way to sell hogs," he said, "but we were getting desperate."

Brenneman, like many of Ohio's 3,500 pig farmers, sends his animals to two major Indiana plants -- Tyson Fresh Meats in Logansport and Indiana Packers Corp. in nearby Delphi. After hundreds of workers were infected by the coronavirus, both plants closed, along with others across the country.

Tyson's plant has reopened for limited production, providing hope that farmers can soon start shipping all their hogs.

Ohio has only one large-scale slaughterhouse, J.H. Routh Packing Co. in Sandusky. Some of the dozens of smaller butchers in Ohio are picking up the slack, but experts say they couldn't begin to handle the volume the Indiana plants manage.

"With the big boys going out right now, these small mom-and-pop plants in Ohio can't fill that void," said Valerie Parks Graham, executive director of the Ohio Association of Meat Processors, which represents small processors. "Those plants kill millions of animals a day. Our plants kill maybe 30 a week."

Large-scale processors require pigs to be a certain weight, typically about 285 pounds.

When pigs get too heavy, slaughterhouses won't accept them. The pigs also consume more food and space, taxing the resources of farms.

"Pigs are like other crops," said Brad Heimerl, whose family runs Heimerl Farms in Johnstown, one of the state's largest pork producers. "There's a right and wrong time to pick the peach. We can't just turn the pigs out to pasture."

Heimerl has been able to get most of his pigs to Clemens Food Group's processing plant in Coldwater, Michigan, but he still has more pigs than he would like because he can't take any to Indiana Packers, as he has in the past.

"Most Ohio pork producers are not in a fire drill yet," he said. "We're aware of the challenge; we understand we need to get packers open and get these pigs to market. The worst that could happen now is to have another plant close."

Ohio's cattle ranchers face similar problems, as most of the processors they use also have faced shutdowns. Cattle ranchers, however, have more flexibility than pig farmers in keeping animals longer.

"Certainly, the cattle industry is experiencing a backup in getting cattle to harvest, with larger processing facilities operating at 50% or 60% of capacity," said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen's Association. "It's a serious, serious concern. That said, it's important to understand that there are production practices that beef producers can take to care for their animals that other animal farmers can't take."

While animals wait on farms, grocery stores are struggling to fill their meat counters. Giant Eagle, Kroger and Costco all have limited consumer purchases of fresh meat.

The delays likely are to continue into the summer.

"Ohio consumers will see less meat on the shelves, or their favorite brand may be missing because a plant was closed," Day said. "I want consumers to understand to buy just what they need. Stores are seeing a short-term shortage in supply and are trying to keep people from hoarding."

Meanwhile, for such farmers as Brenneman, time is running short.

"We have two barns we're trying to empty," he said. "If we can get those empty, that can take us to the end of May. That's when we get very, very desperate. We'll have to euthanize pigs by the end of May if plants don't open."

jweiker@dispatch.com

@JimWeiker