by Tamara Scully

One of the oft-cited impediments to growing a local red meat food supply is the need for USDA inspection for both slaughter and butchering of direct-market retail cuts of meat. Livestock producers often lament long wait times for harvest dates, as well as the distance to USDA certified plants. There is a perceived lack of harvesting facilities in the Northeast region.

Cornell University recently released a study of the USDA-inspected red meat slaughter facilities in New York and New England. This study was designed as a part of a broader research study, “Overcoming Supply Chain Barriers to Expanding Northeast Ruminant Meat Production,” funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.

Researchers identified 62 USDA-certified red meat slaughtering plants in the New York and New England region in operation in 2017, and 50 of these responded to survey requests. In 2018, a brief survey was also conducted with 52 plants responding. In this time frame, two plants had closed, and two new ones had opened, leaving the number of USDA certified plants unchanged.

“This project wouldn’t have been possible without the processors who opened their doors to us,” MacKenzie Waro, lead investigator, said. “I hope that the readers will get a better understanding of the harvest and processing industry and how the production and processing chain can work together.”

Key findings

Some producers have animals slaughtered and then further processed at different facilities, possibly due to the desire for specific services, such as smoking, which not all processors offer. Yet 94% of the facilities surveyed want to continue to offer both slaughter and butchering services. Doing so avoids additional transportation costs for producers, and better ensures food safety standards are carried throughout the supply chain, respondents said. Eighty-two percent of the respondents make more money from the processing and cutting of the meat than from the slaughter.

While the respondents reported that their customers may travel up to three hours, sometimes bypassing closer facilities that might not handle a given type of livestock or offer a specific service, the average travel time was 90 minutes. Facilities report serving between 15 and 500 customers each year, with the average being 170.

“Plants may have species constraints due to equipment and preference, while some have processing and service constraints such as harvesting organic or smoking of product. It is important for a producer to know the limitations of their chosen plant, and to also accept the possibility they may need to travel distances to get all the amenities they desire,” Waro said.

Exotic animals, such as elk, bison or rabbit, can voluntarily be harvested under USDA inspection, and 17 plants offer this service. The license does cause concerns including storage space, additional Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) paperwork and USDA fees.

While lambs are not exotic, they do have differing requirements for processing. Most plants limit the amount of lamb they handle in order to increase beef and hog capacity. Lamb is less profitable, and there is less producer demand overall. If all lambs were shorn and clean before being harvested, more than 85% of the plants would be willing to expand their lamb services. Pricing inconsistency for lamb harvesting is a concern, as is hide disposal.

Lamb accounted for 46% of the total head harvested by the respondents during 2017, at just under 71,000, which was a decrease from 2016. Beef, at just less than 33,000 head, and hogs, at 65,000, both showed an increase from 2016 harvest numbers.

“It was surprising to find out how many plants can harvest lambs, but will not harvest them due to the lack of income on the species,” Waro stated.

Potential concerns

Many plants turn away business in autumn and early winter, leading to the belief that small farmers can’t find USDA harvest facilities near their farms. While producers have to wait for processing if they call in the busy season, plants are likely to be able to accommodate producers within a week off-season. One common belief is that part of the harvesting holdup is due to the lack of availability of USDA inspectors – the researchers found that this is not the case.

“All of the respondents stated that working with producers to finish animals at different times of the year would help their businesses be successful year round,” Waro emphasized. “For example, finishing more livestock in the late winter/early spring helps plants stay busy in the traditionally slow months and eases the bottleneck in the fall.”

The majority of the plants harvest two days a week, and process five days per week. Slaughtering takes less time than the cutting and processing, and harvest days are limited due to the physical processing and storage constraints at the plant.

“Adding a fee per each day or week that a producer does not pick up their finished product may help to alleviate some cooler constraint. This could be in the form of a meat pick-up policy that all producers must sign at each livestock drop-off,” Waro suggested.

Most plants can process 15 – 19 head of beef per day, but the capacity to process them is limited to five – nine head per day. Likewise, hog capacity is about 50 harvested per day, but only up to 20 animals on the processing end. Year-round demand would allow the plants to harvest on more days per week, therefore increasing and better utilizing overall capacity year-round, allowing for year-round employment opportunities at the plants, avoiding constraints on cooler space and permitting longer dry aging and hanging times.

Workers’ compensation costs are high for this industry, as it is considered a hazardous occupation, and is a burden for these small facilities. Average employee wages are about $15/hour, and the plants in the survey employ 550 people in full- or part-time positions. Labor, or lack of qualified labor, was the biggest constraint identified.

“Add value to your employees. From trainings to lunches to bonuses, showing your employees you care may help keep these employees in the slow off-season. Employees are talking around town and are great marketing for your business,” Waro advised.

While small farmers often feel constrained by limited capacity at USDA inspected slaughtering facilities during the peak season, the plants are suffering from lack of full use during the rest of the year. Existing plants are willing to continue to slaughter and process meats, rather than specialize in one aspect, and would be better able to offer a full range of desired services if they were better able to access financing. And like farmers, owners of these facilities are aging, with no succession plans in place.

“We came into this study asking many of the questions we heard over the years from packers and producers,” Waro said. “Our key findings found that the plants lack access to qualified labor; cooler size and space constrains the plants throughput; plants need access to funding in order to grow their business; and the plants need business year-round to remain viable. Livestock producers work hand-in-hand with the meat harvest and processing industry to get meat to consumers. It is important that we seek strategies to help plants become viable year-round and work together.”