Starting in April, the pandemic struck at hundreds of meatpacking plants in the US, forcing temporary closures and operational slowdowns in dozens of locations. Altogether, 9% of the nation’s meat plant workers—around 30,000 people—have contracted the virus, according to a recent analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Plant outbreaks gummed up the meat supply chain, creating a backlog of animals awaiting slaughter. For pork and poultry operations, in which animals move from barn to slaughter in the space of weeks or months, the oversupply forced producers to kill millions of animals.
Cattle got luckier. They take more than a year to mature, and can be kept on farms longer when necessary without sacrificing quality. So instead of widespread “depopulation,” to use the industry jargon, they piled into feedlots, usually a cow’s last home. Cattle typically stay on feedlots at least 150 days; if they stick around any longer, the industry considers them ready to be slaughtered.