Mobile slaughtering units, on-farm facilities could open bottleneck in meat processing

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
April Prussia began her farrow-to-pork operation 10 years ago. The Blanchardville hog farmer says that access to processing along with scarce butcher dates and humane handling of her animals has led her to use the services of a mobile slaughtering unit.

Two direct-to-consumer livestock farmers were part of a special “meating” organized by Wisconsin Farmers Union which drew 114 participants in the on-line forum and on the phone January 14 as they discussed the bottleneck posed by an increasingly overloaded meat processing system in Wisconsin.

The “meating” is part of a series of planned online events. Last week’s covered mobile slaughtering and on-farm solutions. The next meeting is January 28 on cooperative and community solutions. Others are planned in February, March and April. To see more on these events go to www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/processing.

April Prussia is a farrow-to-pork hog farmer in the Blanchardville area where she pastures heritage breed hogs. She began that business 10 years ago. On the Zoom meeting, she said that access to processing along with scarce butcher dates and humane handling of her animals has led her to use the services of a mobile slaughtering unit.

In the last four or five years, she said, booking dates for processing have gotten further and further out, and Covid “just brought it all to light,” she said.

“I love my animals and I give them the best life possible and we have a great local butcher, but to get them there I had to borrow a truck and trailer to get my animals to the facility and at that point they’re stressed out,” she said.

Many studies, and input from chefs, have shown that meat quality is better if the animal is not stressed at the point of its death, she added.

Because it was simpler for her and the animals, she explored the idea of a mobile slaughtering unit and has since supported the one operating in her area.

This mobile slaughter unit (MSU) owned by Natural Harvest is the first state inspected MSU in the state of Wisconsin.

The mobile slaughtering unit that she hires to come to her farm has an advantage in that it doesn’t have to have a kill site in a bricks and mortar building. She said that can be an advantage. One local meat processor in a community near her had to shut down because neighbors didn’t appreciate the slaughter facility in their town.

Another advantage for the mobile slaughter unit is that its owners are able to limit their insurance liability under workman’s compensation laws, which would be much higher in a building with more people, she said.

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“On the farming side,” Prussia said, “it’s great for new entrants into livestock production because they don’t have to have a truck and a trailer and haul animals to town.”

The way it works is that the animal is killed and skinned at the farm and the farmer can either choose to have the truck haul away the offal, for a fee, or they can properly dispose of it themselves at the farm. The meat runs on a rail into a refrigerated portion of the truck and goes back to a meat market where it is cut and wrapped.

She sees a future for other markets among farmers who raise livestock that would utilize more of each animal – like artisanal tanning of hides and products that could be made from them in local businesses or producing high-end dog food. She also sees a future that would involve bringing locally produced meat into institutions like schools where it could become a staple product in their kitchens.

Even the offal from the slaughter process, she said, could become a resource for the farm.

Transparency in process

“There could be a real transparency in the meat, and in knowing where it came from,” she said. “But we need capacity to process more animals.”

The nice thing about a mobile slaughtering unit is that it could be used to serve several meat processing shops in various communities. A unit housed in a 26-foot box truck is capable of slaughtering 25-30 beef and 30-40 hogs per week, she said. “The bottleneck is the kill.”

The unit can process meat that is “custom” meaning the meat is only for the owner of the animal and can’t be sold; or “state-inspected” where the inspector follows the mobile slaughter unit from place to place to do the inspection. Prussia said that farmers who decide to use a mobile slaughter unit must be ready when it arrives.

April Prussia is a farrow-to-pork hog farmer in the Blanchardville area where she pastures heritage breed hogs.

“One thing that’s nice is that the farmer can see the process as it happens, ask questions and be a part of it. For me, I can see the amount of back fat on my hogs and the health of their livers.

“For some people that’s not their thing but for me it’s a way to learn about the health of my animals from the carcasses,” she said.

She said farmers are finding that they can’t make appointments to get animals booked for slaughter well into 2022, which is a problem for farmers like her who want to develop a farm-to-table clientele.

Mobile slaughtering units in some parts of the country are in large semi-trucks where the meat is actually cut and wrapped inside the unit, but those are much more expensive to purchase and equip than the smaller, light truck she is familiar with that only does the mobile slaughtering, with cutting and wrapping done at a stationary location.

Colorado perspective

Jacob Gray, a farmstead poultry producer in Colorado, began raising chickens commercially in 2014 and has doubled his business every year since then. As he grew, slaughter capacity was a challenge for him as he first rented a shuttered facility to process his birds and then eventually built a licensed on-farm processing facility.

He raises his birds on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains (the opposite side of the mountains from Denver) and for him, distance is an issue – it’s two or three hours to the closest processor and a more than four hour drive to the nearest USDA-inspected plant.

Gray said that it was a lot of work to get started doing processing on his farm, because his state didn’t have rules governing what he wanted to do. So he fell under USDA rules and needed some kind of license. He worked with his state’s Farmers Union to help pass state regulations that covered producers like him who sell poultry only within the state and under a limitation on the number of birds.

“No one’s willing to give you plans, just general ideas of what’s going to be required,” he said. Hurdles he had to navigate included sewage treatment – how he was going to handle the large amounts of water that are needed for processing chickens.

Chicken processing requires large amounts of hot water for scalding and cold water to cool the carcasses. An advantage over other meat animals is that the footprint of his slaughter plant can be small because there’s no need for rails to move large carcasses.

It took two to three years for the drafting and approval of those state rules which were passed last year, he said. Now their farm facility is fully licensed and approved. (It is still the only one in Colorado.) That effort to get a licensing program for this kind of plant was also helped by grocers, who wanted to have local poultry to sell in their stores.

He has also had a lot of interest from restaurants who want to serve poultry that is raised within the state.

Gray said he has some recordkeeping and traceability requirements to keep up with as part of his licensure with Colorado.