Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association heads to Rio processor for annual meeting

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Johnson's Sauasage Shoppe is located in Rio, Wis.

As grills get heated up for Fourth of July cookouts, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association took a "tour" of Wisconsin cattle farms and processors for their annual meeting day.

The morning began in Columbus, Wis. at Roche Grain & Cattle Farm, where WCA members and non-members alike got to tour the Roche family operation where they finish 1,300 head of Holstein steers and dairy-beef crossbreeds. Then, the group traveled 20 miles to Johnson's Sausage Shoppe & Catering in Rio, Wis. for the annual meeting.

Johnson's, founded in 1996 by Chris Johnson, was originally a deer processing facility that quickly grew into a busy beef and pork processing hub. The business processes 40 head of beef on average per week and 50-70 hogs monthly, and has gone through extensive renovations over the years to accommodate growing demand. Johnson's also offers a variety of beer, wine and spirits as well as cheese, candy and other favorites.

While offering a tour of the meat locker and other parts of her business, Johnson said the $3,500 package from the Gov. Evers last year was not enough and still won't be enough if there's another round this year.

Chris Johnson

"We don't need $3,500. We need $350,000," Johnson said. "People are hungry and it's just common sense."

Tammy Vaassen, executive director of the Wisconsin Beef Council, said the state is fortunate to have a diverse cattle industry of mixed beef and dairy and that the group's diverse programs, including the "biggest chunk of money" being spent on consumer advertising strategy, helps producers to focus directly on the target audience.

"It is well known today that there are so many different mediums, whether it's Hulu or cable or Netflix ... where our consumers are choosing to watch their television, that we are able to focus that consumer advertising dollar in a much more directed way," Vaassen said. "Rather than reaching the entire population, we're really focusing in on our older millennial parents, our food- and health-oriented people. "

MORE: Roche brothers of Columbus consider themselves 'biological farmers'

Vaassen said her organization quickly realized that many Wisconsinites didn't know how to properly freeze and thaw beef products during the pandemic due to rising Google search trends on the subject, so WBC has been creating YouTube tutorial videos that reach out to younger generations, especially millennials, who tend to go straight to the site for help.

"Takeover Tuesday" is another social media campaign from WBC, Vaassen said, that tells the personal stories of beef and dairy farmers each Tuesday in an effort to get consumers closer to their food source. She said that campaign reached more than 100,000 people on multiple social media channels in just a single month.

Don Schiefelbein

National Cattlemen's Beef Association president-elect Don Schiefelbein visited the meeting to provide updates on various legislative and policy initiatives from the national level. He said that the biggest problem facing the cattle industry right now is politicians in Washington, DC writing laws and regulations for the industry without understanding what producers do. The bottleneck of processing capacity, he said, is another big problem that will hopefully solve itself by the end of the year.

"Eventually, there's no more pushing back you can do. You have to take it as is and that's what we're getting to right now," Schiefelbein said. "How long will it last? That is the great news. If you look at the future ... I would say (in) less than six months, everything will fall back in line with the supply chain."

Ribeye steaks are ready to take home at Johnson's Sausage Shoppe in Rio.

Despite record levels of demand for beef, Schiefelbein said prices are high for consumers due to the bottleneck, but many consumers are willing to pay those high prices for high quality meat. But since meat processors are struggling with image and reputation after COVID-19 scandals involving employee health, plus a labor shortage, he said now is a good time to get into direct-to-consumer marketing.

"Everybody used to say people will never buy frozen beef or beef directly from a producer. What they found out is that, in a meeting two days ago, 25% of all consumers expect to buy their protein directly from somebody," he said. "They never dreamed that instead of you going to the supermarket actually getting the meat, that you would get it online."

WCA board member and former president Austin Arndt reported a financially successful year, adding that they are projecting record membership and sales numbers ahead of the 2021 Wisconsin State Fair. Membership chair Joe Scott said membership took a dip during the height of the pandemic due to a lack of events, but membership has climbed back up recently.

Matt Ludlow, current WCA president, said ag groups need to come together and form a coalition now in order to get new bills moved through the Wisconsin legislature. He mentioned that the ag funds in the Evers administration's budget proposal are appreciated, such as increased funds for producer-led watershed programs, more state meat inspectors and a pilot program for farmer-led nitrogen optimization. The budget is set to move to the state Senate floor for final debate before approval.

Employees butcher cuts of beef at Johnson's Sausage Shoppe in Rio, Wis. June 26, 2021.

"We asked for and pushed for a state meat specialist that would work through inspection. I believe we're going to get that, there's strong support for that," Ludlow said. "We will find out when that goes to the floor this week to start debating. There's already been a lot of work behind the scenes."

Plus, Jeff Swenson, meat and livestock specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, made an appearance at Johnson's to talk about direct-to-consumer marketing and the rules and regulations of selling meat from the farm.

While there's around 500 licensed meat processors in Wisconsin, only around 300 are state-inspected, Swenson said, while the others are federally inspected by the US Department of Agriculture. Federally-inspected facilities can sell across state lines. For beef farmers who want to bring their meat back from the butcher to sell themselves, Swenson says you'll need a retail license for that. Otherwise, consumers can just pick up their purchase directly from the processor without you needing a license.

Jeff Swenson

Not every county in Wisconsin offers this DATCP license, but for those that do, it costs $20 plus weights and measurements.

Other direct marketing things to consider include keeping a meat-only freezer (ice cream and other things must be kept separately) and keeping equipment and machinery away from the meat locker. Beyond that, Swenson said your facility could even be a shed or garage, as long as it's kept clean to health inspection standards.

"Health inspectors say these places are cleaner than most restaurants," Swenson said. "(For) most farmers who want to direct market meat, the state inspector will sign off, no problem."