Profitable meat production requires planning

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Producers raising meat for sale can maximize sales by planning their processing. Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) recently hosted “Direct Marketing Meat: The Logistics of Meat Processing” as a webinar with Rebecca Thistlethwaite, representing the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.

Directed by Larissa McKenna, FACT is a non-profit organization based in Chicago advocating for the safe and humane production of meat, milk and eggs.

Before even raising an animal for slaughter, Thistlethwaite said producers should know the regulations regarding slaughter.

“The USDA food safety inspection service has a directory on their website,” Thistlethwaite said. “That’s a great way to find a slaughterhouse. You can search by activity and narrow it down to state or region, if you live near a state line. It may take a half dozen to a dozen calls to find a slaughterhouse. This can be a challenge for newbies, as you won’t know how many months it takes to get your animal to slaughter.”

She advised scheduling with a slaughterhouse six to 12 months in advance and designating a back-up slaughterhouse.

“It’s always good to have a Plan B or Plan C slaughterhouse in case the one you had planned on is shut down unexpectedly,” Thistlethwaite said.

She thinks producers should also reduce their animals’ stress by exposing them to the trailer or vehicle well in advance.

“We would put bedding, feed and water in there and let them go in and out as they would please before their slaughter date so they would be comfortable with that space,” Thistlethwaite said. “Don’t wait until the last minute for the proper vehicle. If you don’t have one, some slaughterhouses may have a list of names or contract with a company.”

Choose one near enough to keep the drive within eight hours.

Producers should avoid shipping sick, dying or diseased animals for slaughter. “Kill them on the farm and use them for pet food or personal use,” Thistlethwaite said. “Make sure the animals are as clean as possible. If you’re bringing in sheep, have them shorn, ideally, so they’re not caked with mud and manure.”

The animals should also be at the right weight and properly fleshed out.

Thistlethwaite explained the differences among the types of meat. Custom meat is sold “on the hoof” only, meaning the animals are sold live to be butchered in custom wholes, halves or quarters. These are sold privately as a live animal sale, where it’s up to the buyer to arrange slaughtering. The meat cannot be sold wholesale, at farmers markets or to restaurants.

USDA-inspected meat is the most highly regulated. It opens up all options for selling, including across state lines, but requires a USDA slaughterhouse for processing, stamp and approval label.

State inspections are up to USDA standards, but cannot cross state lines. They are available in 27 states.

Thistlethwaite said carcasses and other products of custom slaughter are not eligible for selling, so selling animals on-the-hoof is by live weight, not by the hanging weight. The custom exempt operator can only charge fees for the labor involved, but not for the product.

“Selling by hanging weight is not complying with the federal law about selling on the hoof,” Thistlethwaite added.

As another option, Thistlethwaite said a retail exemption allows meat processors to sell meat directly to consumers through their own store or through a farmers market or restaurant without a HACCP plan or daily USDA inspection. The exemption also allows wholesale selling up to $75,000 for red meat and $56,000 for poultry. The live animal slaughter is still subject to inspection.

Poultry exemptions allow up to 20,000 birds annually without a continual, per-bird inspection. But the farmer is still subject to the PPIA. The producer must sell directly to the consumers or limited HRI (hotel, restaurant or institution) within the state with the proper label. But this rule is interpreted differently in each state.

Thistlethwaite said to improve quality and flavor, she suggests producers “focus more on management and diet and less on genetics or breeding stock, because that usually comes later on after you’ve taken care of management.”

She also encourages producers to make the animals’ last 24 hours of life as low-stress as possible, for both humane reasons and to improve quality of the meat. “Get the animals there right before they’re supposed to be slaughtered,” she said. That helps to minimize time in the handling pens, which can stress out the animals.

“Ask if you can stay and watch the slaughter so you can learn how it’s done and they’ll know you’re watching over it,” she added.

“Depending upon the species you raise, you’ll get different yields,” Thistlethwaite said. “It also helps you understand what happens to the meat when it goes to the processor. You won’t think someone’s stealing your meat because you’ll know the differences.”

For example, beef offers a final yield of 43.4 percent of the live weight. For lambs, it’s 35 percent, similar to goats at 33.75 percent. Pigs offer 52 percent, chickens yield 41.6 percent and turkeys give 45 percent.

“If the processor is against giving you a tour, that’s not the processor you want to work with,” Thistlethwaite said.

On the other hand, producers should ask for advice of trusted providers.

“Don’t assume they don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “I’ve known producers who got an 8 percent increase in yield because they asked. Find out how they want to communicate.” Some may prefer phone calls to email, for example.

Decide ahead of time if you want to age the meat, use the entire carcass, sell all the parts and how you want the meat cut up. Consider the seasonality of the cuts. For instance, roasts don’t sell as well as sausages in summer. Think about customers’ preferences in weight, size and package size. Thistlethwaite prefers selling bone-in, since it makes sense to get paid for the bones.

“You may need to pay if you want to get parts of your animals back, like the hides,” she said. “Most slaughterhouses don’t have a capacity for storing hides. You may have to pick them up immediately.”

Producers should plan packaging and labeling to meet customers’ expectations. Vacuum-sealed or heat shrink packs offer the most attractive retail packaging compared with paper, since “people can see the meat,” Thistlethwaite said.

Make sure the processor uses fast freezing. She prefers baskets to boxes in the freezer, since the baskets allow for better air circulation.

In the retail scenario, branded labeling offers a more attractive package. If you make label claims, you will have to complete the USDA label approval process. “USDA labeling can take six to eight weeks to get approval for label claims,” Thistlethwaite said.

For transportation and cold storage, she advised farmers to keep coolers clean by sanitizing regularly. Products should be kept cold with temperatures checked and recorded. Frozen meat should be under 32 degrees and fresh meat under 40 degree. Depending upon state regulations, you may need a meat-handling license to transport meat.

“If your slaughterhouse is six hours away, it may be a good idea to put ice or frozen water bottles in the coolers or drive at night when temperatures are cooler,” Thistlethwaite said.

She encouraged farmers to market their meat through differentiation. Breeds, fatter or leaner animals, production method, type of feed, portion size and other attributes can make a farmer stand out, including seasonality, selection, local, quantity, quality, delivery and payment plans.

“It’s really important to know your cost of production: how much it costs to raise that animal,” Thistlethwaite said. “Look at external pricing and see if that’s in line with the market.”

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