Again: Slaughter On The Farm With Mobile Units!


[As we have been advocating for several years, mobile units are the best alternative for local meat. We do not want a regional slaughterhouse that processes hundreds of animals a day to supply distant markets. That is a no-go. Rather, keep it small, decentralized, on the farms, and local. Compost the waste on the farms. Here is some history, and here is the answer for our local ranchers. Follow the links. Also, see Scott Cratty’s comments below. -DS]

As supporters of sustainable food production, many of us know that finding an alternative to the industrial meat supply chain is difficult but by no means impossible.  For the typical sustainable meat buyer, when one thinks of local meat, he most likely pictures a ranch, and then a steak or pork chop.  Unless he is willing to do the work of slaughtering and processing the animal himself, his access to a local abattoir is as difficult to find as local beer without the brewery. This is the marketplace reality that many small-scale ranchers face today.

As the daughter of a former butcher, I recently asked myself how we got ourselves to large-scale meat processing and what our alternatives are. Giant feedlots that truck thousands of cattle to large-scale processing facilities have not always been the favored manner of putting steaks on plates in the U.S. Rapid consolidation in the U.S. meatpacking industry, starting in the late 1970s, greatly impacted the way meat began to be produced, packaged, sold and consumed in the U.S. Earlier, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were many independently owned and operated meatpacking plants that catered to local customers within a few hundred miles of their facilities.

My parents operated one such plant just outside of Eugene, OR from 1980-86. They slaughtered about 100 head of sheep and cattle per week (primarily animals raised on our ranch) and sold the meat to restaurants and hotels in Oregon and Washington.  Meatpacking plants of this size were an integral link in the meat production and consumption chain because they offered ranchers and livestock producers a variety of locations to process their animals. Ranchers, for the most part, were a link in the supply chain that remained independent of the meatpacking plant (which slaughters and processes the animal into “primal cuts”, or “halves” and “quarters”). From there, wholesalers, retailers or butchers could further process the meat into “retail cuts” (the steaks, lamb chops, sausages and bacon) and then sell it to consumers.

So what drove industry consolidation?  Several factors influenced the movement towards larger facilities, but the three most important factors were economies of scale, aggressive price competition by low-cost meatpackers and slow demand growth for beef, which limited the number of large plants and furthered concentrated production into the hands of a few players.

Larger plants started to dominate the industry because they could process more meat at a lower cost than smaller plants, due to the use of specialized equipment and the type of labor favored by larger plants. In 1978 there were 6,135 [PDF] federally and non-federally inspected plants operating in the U.S.  By 2006, there were 2,893 [PDF] federally and non-federally inspected plants, or roughly half the number of those operating in the late 1970s.  These few plants competed aggressively on price, driving any plant with a higher cost of production out of business. Consolidations, mergers and acquisitions, in the face of declining demand for beef, bring us to today. There are four top firms that process almost 84 percent [PDF] of the cattle in the country.

We’re seeing a rapid climb: in 1977 the top four firms processed only 25 percent of cattle. By 1992—only fifteen years later—this measurement of industry consolidation had soared to 71 percent [PDF]. While this trend is not unique to the meatpacking industry, as many sectors of U.S. agriculture have consolidated and become more specialized in recent years, consolidation and vertical integration in the meatpacking industry is correlated with feedlots that have a capacity of over 100,000 animals [PDF]. To get a sense of the environmental impact of so many animals in one place, multiply 100,000 by 3 tons [PDF], which is the average amount of manure produced raising a 550 pound feeder calf to a market weight of about 1,150 pounds. Whereas consolidation in other agricultural industries does not always have as strong of an environmental or public health impact, food safety outbreaks associated with meat are increasing.

So, if you still want to consume meat but are opposed to large-scale, industrial meat production, what are your options? For an average American who eats over 200 pounds [PDF] of meat, poultry and fish per year, the solution lies in decreased consumption and an increase in local, sustainable meat production. The latter component requires an increase in local, sustainable processing capacity. Currently, many small ranchers have to drive increasingly long distances to find a meatpacking plant willing to slaughter and process their animals.  Since small-scale meatpacking plants are critical to the success of a local meat supply chain, we have to consider how to increase the number of small scale plants.

One of the most promising ideas is a mobile slaughter unit. These units meet a number of the unique needs of small-scale processing: They are nimble (one mobile slaughter unit can often process different species of animals), transportable, low-cost and highly efficient. The USDA has been supporting the use of mobile processing units through the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative and it has hosted two outreach webinars on the topic this past January.  Mobile processing units bring the meatpacking plant to the rancher.  This means lower costs (think travel time and diesel) for the rancher, less stress for the animals, a more efficient use of resources, and truly “local” steaks and burgers for all.  To find out more about mobile processing units, visit the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, or search for locally produced meat on EatWild or Local Harvest.

Scott Cratty, manager of the Ukiah Farmers Market, opined the following in his weekly UDJ column March 12:

However, as I discovered in the data on the EDFC [Economic Development Slaughterhouse] study, the substantial majority of nearby animals that a local slaughterhouse would depend on are not raised to maturity locally but are instead sold into the dominant industrial feedlot system for “finishing.” To get these animals ready for slaughter in a local plant we would need to develop a substantial new local infrastructure of small feedlots, get feed to those lots, etc. That’s a lot that would have to happen before any new plant, including, no doubt, lots of regulatory process.

Out the other end of the new plant there would need to be a new distribution and marketing infrastructure in place. Interestingly, ranchers who already have their own marketing operations, like the Fords, would need to accept less than they can get directly from customers today to feed their animals into this new system.

An alternative to building a series of new feedlots, a new central processing facility, new distribution facilities and marketing channels would be to just make it easier for ranchers to process their own animals nearby… but that would never fly because we seem convinced that anything outside a heavily regulated system would be unsafe. Hard to say just how we came to assume that central, out of sight, facilities, staffed by not so well paid employees with no person liability following a patchwork of government regulations (created by teams of lawyers, politicians and staff bureaucrats) is more likely to produce humanely slaughtered, clean meat than family farmers with the family business and property on the line.
See also Obama Administration Probes Big Agribusiness


What a great topic! I know that Food and Water Watch is very willing to help whomever go through the FSIS hoops to get a slaughter facility (mobile or otherwise) going, as well as help find funding through different rural development grants.

It seems that FSIS regulations can still be a huge hurdle in terms of making local meat processing affordable for ranchers, and thus making it possible for ranchers to sell their meat at an affordable price. I heard Deb Garrison of the Central Coast Ag Cooperative’s Mobile Red Meat Harvester speak about their experience getting their mobile processor going. It isn’t currently going for various reasons, including that they have to charge $200 per animal, which few ranchers can afford. Another cost to ranchers is that the ranch site for the mobile slaughter to take place must abide by several regulations. Solid cement pad, compliant water runoff, non-slip hold, ante mortem pen, covered suspect pen, clean bathroom not in the house for the inspector, hide inspection, etc…

Other difficult “lessons learned” included: finding, training, and keeping a butcher; having enough animals & species to keep the unit running full-time; and eliminating staff overtime. It would take them 13 hour to process just 5 steers.

Hopefully, their mobile unit will get going again, soon.

This is a fabulous topic! I live on the “other” coast, and in my state, we are fortunate to have over 300 federally inspected meat plants, many of them offering slaughter services to farmers. Yet, I still receive inquiries about mobile units and suppose there is a “fit” for them all over the U.S.

One question I have is the cutting part of the equation. The mobile slaughter units (MSUs) complete 1 step of the farm to fork process, yet what about aging, cutting, and packaging meat? Or is the idea to sell intact sides to individuals and retailers licensed to cut meat?

I think the greatest potential for MSUs is for poultry — for 2 reasons. 1) Selling whole birds is doable for many farmers, and 2) in many states there are volume/capacity exemptions.


This past Friday, we got our yearly pig from Adam. In about 45 minutes in the heavy rain, the pig was quickly killed and its throat cut (slaughtered, I guess, as your tax dollars do in Afghanistan, but far more humanely), gutted, cut and hacksawed into 7 transportable pieces plus innards, and loaded in the car. Then, the fun began. Marlene and I spent the weekend cooling it overnight, skinning and cutting (actually, mostly deboning – why freeze bones?), boiling bones for scraps and stock, processing lard, wrapping meat in butcher paper and stock in cartons and freezing them, and cleaning up. It took us all weekend and more. The result was almost a hundred lbs. of frozen meat for us, more than 10 lbs. of scraps for the dogs, many quarts of stock (it is still being reduced as we speak), and many pint jars of lard (still being processed as we speak). The price we paid was an incredible bargain compared with that supermarket stuff and the result is wonderful. Yes, we have the tools and skills that enable us to do this – we’ve found good tools carefully selected always pay off. The actual “slaughter” took about 5 minutes. Let us aid our farmers, support local industry, and get behind a local meat packing plant.

An addendum to the last: I forgot the bacon, maybe 20 lbs.. Marlene will honey cure and smoke it over apple twigs, so it is weeks away from being done. Local wildflower honey, of course. We just finished last years. Wow! No way does any of that store bought stuff compare.

Re: grassfed: much tastier, but you must know how to cook it; dry cooking and well done returns dry boards. Incidentally, the reason grassfed animals have omega 3 fatty acids is not because they eat flax or fish, but because they consume insects and other small animals with every mouthful; cows aren’t naturally vegetarian, nor perhaps is any other animal in its natural environment.

I would prefer a plant for a variety of reasons-it’s cheaper, it’s easier for me the farmer, there are certain things like water recycling and offal biodigesting that are easier at that scale, etc. A mobile unit would get my second choice but it still would be an improvement over driving a few hours one way.

Whoever actually brings their checkbook and starts doing whatever needs to be done to get something done, would get my vote regardless whether it’s a fleet of mobile units or a plant on Perkins behind Starbucks.