State has one mobile slaughtering unit, thanks to longtime butcher

Jan Shepel
Scott Dobrzynski, abattoir extraordinaire, with a hog shortly after an on-farm inspected harvest.

SAUK CITY – Wisconsin can thank a couple of enterprising innovators in the meat business for its first – and so far its only – mobile slaughtering unit. The 26-foot truck comes to farms where livestock can be processed to the point of hanging the carcass on a rail in a cooler to be transported to a meat market for cutting and wrapping.

Scott Dobrzynski of Sauk City fabricated the unit with Marty Prem – one member of a family meat operation in Spring Green, Prem Meats.

Scott has a long history in Wisconsin’s meat business; he’s been butchering on farms for 40 years. For many years his father operated Dick’s Meat Market in Cottage Grove and Scott grew up helping in the shop along with his dad’s 20 employees. They processed 30 beef and 50 hogs per week – so that was a lot of practice.

When Scott and his brother got out of school they wanted to get out on their own but the lure of the meat business was strong. Scott tried his hand at a sausage facility in La Crosse and worked at various processing plants. Later, he worked as a state meat inspector for five years, but got in trouble with his boss because instead of sticking to inspection he would pick up a knife and get busy cutting meat – the thing he felt a talent for.

“As an inspector I got to see every state-inspected meat plant in southern Wisconsin and I learned a lot from that.”

The “Natural Harvest” slaughtering unit is a 26-foot truck, he explains, that he largely fabricated himself. It has a 300-gallon water tank, stainless steel sinks and a generator. The back 15 feet of the truck is used for the harvest and the 11 feet at the front of the truck is where the cooler and rail system are.

RELATED: Meat processing bottleneck continues at local meat plants

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It was not a cheap unit to set up, he said, and there were challenges. “Because you’re dealing with firearms, the liability is huge, but this unit harvested 600 beef last year on people’s farms and we butcher five days a week. I just love it.”

The saws that are used to cut the carcasses into halves or quarters cost upwards of $2,500 and they have three of them on the truck, just to make sure they don’t get caught without a working saw. The tong-like tool used to stun hogs with electrical current comes from Germany and costs about $5,000.

In addition to beef and hogs, the mobile slaughtering unit has been used to harvest 15 buffalo, a couple of elk and even a yak – and he’s not sure about the meat value of that last one. He recalls one Angus bull that weighed 1,295 pounds on the truck’s rail.

The unit is mostly used in southern Wisconsin but has gone farther, closer to Illinois as long as livestock owners pay for a mileage fee, he said. When the meat will be sold in a state-inspected meat plant, state meat inspectors meet the truck at the farm where the livestock is so they can observe the process.

The mobile slaughter unit has the capability of holding five Holstein steers or eight Jerseys. It can hold 26 sheep or 20 hogs at any one time. The idea is that the animals are harvested at the farm, which results in less stress to the animals, which yields better meat. It’s also simpler for the farmer who might otherwise have to borrow or hire a trailer and load the animal. When the truck leaves the farm, the halves or quarters are dropped off at a meat market to be processed further.

“When I was butchering animals on farms it was always hard to lift them with a tractor or it was raining or snowing and you’d have to find a shed to work in. With this unit we are doing everything inside.”

Normally he’s on the truck working as part of the team that processes the animals, but surgery on first his right wrist and then his left wrist in the last few months has put him out of commission for a while. “The doctor told me I had the wrists and hands of an 80-year-old farmer. But now that they’ve rebuilt both wrists I’m going to have the hands of a young man again. I can’t wait to get back to work.”

His second cast comes off this week after the surgical team cleaned up his cartilage and re-built his wrists. He’s hoping he’s back to 100 percent by the end of March. “I can’t wait for my comeback.”

Scott designed and fabricated the mobile slaughtering unit, even doing much of the welding himself. It is designed and built so that if there is ever a problem with the truck, the box can be removed and placed on a new truck chassis so it can keep going. “It’s not like you could just go and buy one of these. We did all the fabricating ourselves in a heated barn.”

There was talk of creating an LLC for the unit, with his name on it, Scott says, but he is happy working with Marty Prem. “He treats me like an owner; he treats me like a brother.”

The mobile slaughtering unit is one way to address the meat processing bottleneck in the state, he said, but it’s still hard to find trained people to cut the meat further. Currently livestock owners are booking slaughter dates for animals that aren’t even born yet and he thinks that’s a little wild.

“I think people freaked out a little bit when this all got started.”

Scott’s grandfather was a dairy farmer in the Thorp area where he spent his summers. When Scott’s dad was in high school there, he got started working in a local meat market. “He tells me he had to split wood for the smokehouse when he got started,” Scott says.

Today, at 78, his dad still helps Scott butcher and cut up meat. It’s truly a family affair as Scott also has help from his two grown sons on the weekends when they aren’t working their regular jobs.