Working Effectively with Your Processor

October 13, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF


For livestock producers and independent marketers, processing can be a challenge. In many areas there are few inspected processors who do custom work, and of these, few are full service. On this webinar, we discussed how producers and processors can work more effectively together to overcome common problems. We also heard about a scheduling system used by a producer group that owns and runs its own processing facilities.

Date: Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Duration: one hour



Recording of the webinar


Kathleen Harris presentation

NELPSC custom cut sheets (click links to download):  Beef (Excel) and Pork (pdf)


Bruce Dunlop presentation

Transcript of Audio

Kathleen Harris presentation

There are three types of direct marketing farmers that I've observed. There are those farmers who work with processors and are continually frustrated, and that definitely was where I was several years ago. Then there are those farmers who have been frustrated for so long that they have opted to do their own processing. We have several state facilities that have come about in New York state just because the producers were so frustrated dealing with plants and getting their own products back and just the problems associated with the USDA processing plants. The meat, the carcasses, must come with a USDA stamp so they must be slaughtered in a USDA facility, but then they can be transferred to a state facility for further processing; they can sell that meat legally from their farms and farmers markets. Then we have farmers who work successfully with the imperfect system called USDA custom processing and those are a lot of our farmers today.

But here are the processing realities. We have some good news. Small plants are more humane. I think most of you folks are in a place where you understand that all the food borne illness problems, as a rule, come from the larger plants. Food safety is superior in these small plants. Unfortunately, the one size fits all is onerous for our small plants, but they have a much better track record when it comes to food safety.

There is a higher inspection intensity. Our plants in this area typically might do 20 beef in a day or 20 hogs in a day, or even smaller numbers, so obviously that antimortem and postmortem inspections are a lot more intense when you have so few carcasses to look at and animals to look at.

Most of the plants don't have a recall policy because they test and they don't let the meat go until the tests come back negative, so there isn't that letting the product go and then this horrible recall process that we have with the larger plants. Slaughter and processing in the same facility is one of the greatest things about our smaller plants. It minimizes raw product and associated risks. Every time you transfer that product, there is more association with risk. And there is a higher level of personal service. A few years ago, I would say, that was not so good, but right now we're doing better with more competition in this area with plants competing more and proving more personal service.

Common problem #1: scheduling

The first common problem that most farmers share seems to be scheduling. They can't get a slot when they need it, particularly in the fall. It's our advice that farmers should try to work with processors after they've developed a good working relationship and schedule as far in advance as possible. Now for some folks, that's just not possible, but we have some plants that are open and you can get your slaughter done and you can then transfer it to a state facility, or if you need the plant to do everything for you, you have to be able to work with them and get slaughter slots in advance. That's the most important thing, is to have a good working relationship with the plant so that they know to trust you and that they can schedule you in and that you will honor the delivery.

I have some farmers that, because they're from a distance, will say, we're going to go ahead and commit to 8 cattle or 8 sheep every other week. Then there's no problem, because they have those slots committed. You need to develop a working relationship with your processor that makes them want to accommodate you if something happens and you can't get there. They're going to understand because you've developed a relationship with them that says I do what I say I'm going to do except for certain problems, and then they'll understand.

There are some things that farmers are disturbed by and one of them is the transportation to the plant. The distance that the processors are from the farm can sometimes be, the farmer believes, just too far to go. One option is to co-mingle, ship animals together. My advice is that you have to make worthwhile for you to take as many as possible each trip. Or, have a system set up, like we have in New York, with the Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, where we can coordinate because I know who is going to which plant.

But if you don't have that, you can say to your plant owner, "I'm coming in on this day. Do you have anyone else scheduled for that day coming from my county or my area? And just talk with the plant owner and find out. A lot of times they'll say, "Oh yeah, I have so and so coming in." Well you wouldn't have known that, but certainly, the person who's scheduling them knows that. So that's one way to coordinate delivery of the animals.

As far as retrieval of finished products, I understand that that can be ridiculous if you're going back and forth for one animal, so it's best to find or build frozen storage facilities on your own farm, or coordinate with other farmers to build frozen storage facilities. We happen to have a Northeast food bank which offers very affordable frozen storage for about $14/pallet  per month, and you can get about 700 lbs. of meat in boxes on a pallet, so that's quite affordable. So that's a great solution as long as you're close enough.

Common problem #2: cutting, packing, or labeling mistakes

If you want to prevent mistakes, you need to be totally clear about what you want. You can ask your processor -- again, once you've worked with them awhile -- if you can come in. You'll have to wear the white coat and the hairnet and that sort of thing, and you'll have to stand off in a corner so you don't get in the way, but its a nice idea to be able to stand on the processing floor and then you can be available to answer any questions about your product, and you can observe.

But I would approach them by saying, "I'm new to the business, I really don't know about the cuts of the meat, do you think, maybe, I could observe?" This way, you're saying to them: you value what they're doing, it's an educational experience for you, and you're not saying, "I don't trust what you're doing and I need to watch every stroke you make." So that's important.

Another thing is to use their cut sheet. Butchers like to be familiar with the cut sheet. I have a universal cut sheet that we use for our farmers, and our butchers are used to it now, but by and large, they want to use their own cut sheet, they know how it works, they know where to look to check. You want to keep a copy of the cut sheet that you give them, too.

If you're not going to be there for processing day, you'll want to make sure that your cell phone is on and you are available for any questions that might come up. And also know the day that your order is going to be processed so that you're reachable by phone that day, and keep it in your mind that your products are being processed that day. And if there are mistakes, it's very important you keep your cool and work through honest mistakes. As farmers, we know that equipment breaks down, we know that things don't get done in a day that we hoped they would. So it's important that you understand that they too have a plethora of equipment, and it's important that they have your understanding if something does break down.

Common Problem #3: the order is not ready on time

You can call early in the week. For example, right now I have 27 cows being processed into ground beef for schools. Initially, I went to go see the butcher. It was a new butcher, and I wanted to make sure that he was cleaning the bones well so I could have confidence in him. But I want a progress report at the end of each day. You don't have to do that when you have only 1 or 2, but you do need to call early in the week to reinforce your timeline.

Email is wonderful, because then you have it in writing, what your concerns are. But the important thing about email is to be very succinct. Bulleting and numbers are great because these people are very busy. If they read email, they want it very succinct.

Also, if there's a problem with your time line, you can offer to come and help. I have one plant where they made a lot of hot dogs for us. So I would come and do something benign like pack hot dogs with them. And they were good with that. I would never pick up a knife in their plant due to insurance, but I would certainly pack hot dogs and other things like that.

Then make sure you call before leaving home, especially if you're traveling any distance. One of the worst things is to get to the plant and not have it ready. If order is not ready, again, keep your cool, ask about delivery before you leave for the market at their expense. In other words, typically we would allocate Saturday for our market day, so I would spend the day on Friday going to 2 or 3 different plants picking up all our products. If the products were not ready, then I would say to them, "Okay, can you meet me at my house, or can you meet me half-way, before I have to go to the market," and a lot of times they would do that because they understand they need to find a workable solution for you because you have orders that you expect to be there, and the next day. I've had them come to my house at 10:00 at night and put them on my truck. But if this is a reoccurring theme, you're going to have to look for a new processor if that becomes habitual.

Common problem #4: Low carcass yield

Many farmers have called me when they first started and said, "The processor stole my meat, I only got blah, blah, blah." And I say, "Don't tell me how much you got back, I'll tell you how much you should have gotten back." Then I say to them, "Okay, what did your animal hang?" Then we talk about the description of the carcass and how they wanted it cut. And then I give them cutting yields that are acceptable, and almost always, the farmer will say a number very close to the number I've given them and say, "Oh well, I didn't realize that." So that's important that farmers, number one, collect their own yield data, so that they know what their particular livestock will yield. That is extremely important.

When I first started this project, 6 years ago, I saw that the same information was out there for yield that had been out there 25 years before. I think I called everybody in the industry and said, what's the story with this because obviously we've made genetic changes, we've made some processing changes. What is the story with the yield data? Apparently, there is a problem that not enough yield data has been collected so you should collect your own yield data because your animals are going to yield a certain way and its important that you know what they do yield.

When I first started the project I just went and collected, weighed every single pound of meat that was not on a scale and did enough collection and here is what I found: By and large, most farmers that send an animal that's average in condition and with average cutting instructions, you're going to yield about 60-65% on beef from your carcass [hanging weight, not live weight], for hogs it's about 75%, and for lambs it's about 85%. Of course, the variation is based on what cuts you get. If you get a lot of your bones back and your organ meats and things like that. But also, we do a lot of boning out of cows for ground beef. And if you exclude the organ meat and no bones, and just take yield, if you bone out a whole cow, you're going to find about a 60% yield. If you don't, and I'm working with a plant right now because I'm getting a 65% yield, if you don't get that, then you need to go and watch and see maybe they're not cleaning the bones as well as they should.

There are many factors that affect cutting yield and one of them is fat cover. If an animal is very waisty and you're not asking for 70% [lean, i.e. 70% meat/30% fat] ground beef, then, of course, there's extra fat. That extra fat is going in the rendering barrel and so your yields are going to be low.

Muscling. If an animal is lightly muscled, of course that's going to affect your yield. The bone-in vs. boneless cuts. Naturally when you have the SRM materials removed after 30 months you're going to get a loss: for cows, I've been seeing about a 50 lb. loss on SRM removal, so you have to calculate that in. As far as closeness of trim and the leanness of the ground products, that's extremely important. I always try to convince my buyers that an 80% lean is better than a 90% lean because they have a more juicy and flavorful product.

Lengthy aging. There's been good research on that. Basically, it's 3% in the first 24 hrs. Jay Wenther [AAMP] can probably validate this, and I think you lose about 1.5% for each 7 days after that. So the longer you age ... and again, the aging is a function of how well fat covered the animal is too. If you have a dairy cow with very little fat cover on it, then of course, the animal will dehydrate and there will be further loss during aging. It can go as high as 14%, so that has a lot to do with what your yields are going to be.

Close boning is very important. I've seen some processors that want to just throw the plates away if they don't age well, so you've got all those short ribs in between those ribs, so it's important that they bone well.

Then there's the other factor: product diversion. There's two ways that product can be diverted and I'm going to talk about the ethical way. The ethical way is in these small plants, often times not everything gets done on the same day. Say, for instance you have beef, at the plant. The first thing they're going to want to pull away from the carcass is organ meats, and those will have to be processed and packed because they can't withstand your 2 week hang time or whatever hang time you have, so they have to be processed and packed and put someplace. And unless they have a good, organized system for where they put those organ meats, a lot of times they get misplaced. The other thing is sausages and patties. Those typically are not done the same day as the rest of the beef is cut, so if it's cut another day, by the time they put it with the rest of the order, all the space in the freezer is filled up next to the order. So a lot of times, those patties and sausages will be put in other places. That's called product diversion. It's just a matter of you being on top of it, knowing what you're supposed to get, and then asking for the product.

Rules for Getting Along with Your Processor

1. Visit the plant before doing business. Do they have enough help? Is there someone to answer the phone and take cutting instructions? If not, you should ask the best time to call, and I would say typically around 7 in the morning, if they don't start until 7:30 with inspection, and then 8 hours later when they shut down and they're no longer under inspection. They're really pushing when they're under inspection. So if there's nobody to answer the phone, it's best to call prior or after inspection.

2. Use their cut sheets. Again, only because the butchers want to have it simple and they just want to be able to look at a cut sheet in a place they always know where to look and its all about taking the time to do it right, but they are under pressure, so keep it simple and avoid changes.

3. At delivery of the animal, you need to leave instructions for organ meats, hanger steaks, oxtail, and hang time. Be sure your animals are identified. Now here's the deal with a hanger steak. In some of these smaller plates they do not bother pulling the hanger from one side or the other on the inside of the backbone so they'll just split the hanger and its good for nothing but ground beef. Now, as you know, the hanger steak, has become quite the fashionable steak. And even though its only about 1.5 lb. by the time it's cleaned up, for some reason people like it. It's important that you preserve that hanger by telling them initially you want your hanger, then when they split the carcass, they will take the time to move the hanger from one side or the other. The other thing is the oxtail. If the animal is too dirty, they're not going to take the time to worry about the oxtail, they're just going to cut it off. If you want your oxtail preserved, you need to speak to that and be sure your animals are clean. And the hang time is something they should know at the time of slaughter as well.

4. Be punctual about delivery and pick up times. It is very important that you honor their delivery and pick up times. If they're going to take time to receive, they're going to probably want to do that before they start on the slaughter floor, and it's important that you observe that. Or, they're going to wait until they're done with the slaughtering for the day and you can bring in animals in the afternoon for the next day.

5. Also, bring your cut sheet when you go to pick up your product because that will serve as your checklist. Remember, you should have a copy and your plant should have a copy. Now, the organ meats or products, as I talked about before, are the ones that often get left behind and so those are the ones you should make sure you have. "Hey where's my patties? Hey, where's my tongue, beef tongue?" Don't be demanding. It's very tempting, depending on the quirky personalities that you're dealing with; maybe yours, maybe theirs, it's easy to lose temper. Try not to be demanding, be sensitive to their time and avoid taking the butcher off the block with questions that can be answered before or after inspection time.

6. And it's important that you compliment them on their good work. I used to go to this one plant and every once in a while you'd have an animal that really was much less than you wanted it be, but you knew, in the end, the product would look good. So, when I would see how they would transform that and put it into a nice package, with the label and everything, I would take that product, I would walk onto the processing floor and say, "This is a work of art." And they love to hear that! They just want to know that you appreciate what they did. And also, when I go to the plants, and I do oversight for other farmers, every time I leave at the end of the day, I go to each person on the floor and thank them, face-to-face, personally for the work that they did that day, because it is hard work, and it's work that you and I don't want to do for ourselves and it's important that they really understand how much you appreciate that. Most of these people just want a little respect for the work that they're doing and if you can give them that, because kindness does prevail, in most walks of life; if you can give them that respect and sense of appreciation for what they do, I think you're going to get along just fine with your processor.

End of Kathleen's presentation

Questions for Kathleen

Q: Kathleen, can you share your cut sheet?

Kathleen: Yes. [It is posted on this webpage; see above.]

Q: Have you encountered processors who are unwilling or unable to accommodate longer hang times?

Kathleen: Yes, and that is a function of the amount of cooler space that they have. You have some processors that want to get the work done and they don't care and so you have to kind of hold back your cutting instructions until ... that's just one way of putting pressure on them not to just cut it whenever they want. But as far as their inability to hang, it's all based on their space. However, if most of your products are going to be ground, you can have the fronts and hinds ground and you can just have them age the middles on a shelf someplace and that takes a lot less room than a whole carcass. So that's another option. You can wet age too.

Q: Are there special instructions for pelts that you want to keep?

Kathleen: Yes, you should definitely put that on your cut sheet if you want to keep your pelts. I have only one farmer that actually retrieves her pelts and typically they want them retrieved within 24 hours. Here's something though: One time the processor was mad at the farmer for something or another and he left the testicles in the pelt. When she picked up, she said, "Boy was he mad at me, he even left them in there!"

Q: How about surcharges for additional or excessive hanging times? Surcharges from processors, have you seen that?

Kathleen: Yes, yes, we have some processors that do that. They will hang for typically 10 days, but anything over that, they'll normally charge $3/carcass/day.

Lauren: One thing you and I were talking about as we were preparing for this webinar; we discussed producers bringing their animals to the processor together so they could avoid "I've got two animals in my truck and I'm driving 4 hours," but for picking up meat, it could be a little more complicated. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Kathleen: Yes, I do not recommend that you ask someone else to pick up your meat, for the reasons that I've said. There are often times mistakes, diverted product, you're not getting everything, it's not properly labeled, something's labeled that, you know, the label is there, but it's got the wrong cut on it. When you pick up your own meat, it is your responsibility to really check it over. Once it leaves the plant, there's a loss in the chain of custody. It's problematic for them to take it back and re-do it. It's really important that you check your products before they leave the plant. It also gives you an opportunity to evaluate any broken or compromised cryovac seals. If there is any presence of ice crystals or a loose cryovac seal, it's basically not a marketable product. You end up eating it, so the first place to find that out, you're going to have a few broken seals, that's just natural, so you should ask them to re-do it prior to leaving the plant. And they will.

Lauren: One last question. I heard recently of a situation where there had been some confusion between the processor and the producer, and a bunch of meat ended up getting spoiled. Another producer I know said, "Well, when I drop my animals off at a plant, I'm calling almost everyday, just to check in, see how things are going, make sure that the animals have moved to slaughter at the right time, that the carcasses move into hanging, and then they move into the cutting floor at the right time." How much is too much for the processors? I know it will vary by the personality, but, what's your experience been on producers who are calling every day and checking in on stuff. Is that a good practice? Can that be too much?

Kathleen: Very definitely, it can be too much. Prior to recently, we've had a lot of quirky processors who will just say, "Look, leave me alone to do my business and I'll call you when you're ready, but quit bothering me." And you know what? They had so much business, they could do that. Now we're seeing a little bit more spirit of cooperation and a little more, you know, better attitude toward working with the farmers but understand they have to get their work done in a day, and if they're constantly answering the phone then your stuff isn't getting done. Now if they have someone there who just answers the phone, then that's not as bad a problem. If you're pulling a butcher off a block, that's a problem, because your work is not going to get done. You have to use good sense about how frequently to call.

Lauren: Thanks very much, Kathleen. If any one has additional questions for her, she's going to be here for the rest of the presentation and you can ask questions after Bruce's talk.

We are going to move on to Bruce Dunlop. He is a livestock producer and a founding member of the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, which is in Washington state. He built the first USDA inspected red meat mobile slaughter unit and he's consulted on many others. His farm is on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands and previously, before all this, he was a chemical engineer in the bioag and food industries.

Bruce is going to talk about the scheduling system, the very specific scheduling system they use to keep their processing facility, not just the mobile unit but the cutting facility, which is a fixed facility on the mainland, with a steady flow and going as it needs to. Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce Dunlop's presentation

The Island Grown Farmers Cooperative has a slightly different arrangement than a lot of processors because we are member-owned in actuality. All of the employees that work on our slaughter trailer also work for all the members, as the members are the owners. In reality, it's a little more like a regular slaughter facility in we have a lot of the same needs.

We do have some overriding goals and one is that we want to meet the needs of all of our members, both large and small, and provide a high-quality product for them. We need to provide smooth work in the facility so that we make best use of our employees and we have the maximum amount of product that can go through, as possible, especially in the busy times. So we want the facility to be productive.

We also have issues with seasonal variation and demand. I think this is common around the country, particularly with grass-fed meat; not everyone can have their animals processed in the fall and have the plant sitting empty the rest of the year.

These are the considerations that we take into how we developed a scheduling system. Initially it was fairly chaotic and that didn't work very well, so we've developed a kind of unique system that works for us.

We have an annual meeting of all our members, in March, and we like to encourage as many members as possible to come to that meeting. One of the ways we do that is that's when we schedule the entire year's slaughter dates for the remainder of that calendar year, and members of the co-op have priority for slaughter dates. If you're not a member, then you can have work done for you, but it's done on a space available basis. Within the membership, if you show up at that meeting with requests for slaughter dates, then you have priority over all the other members that failed to come to the meeting. As we get more full, and when members want to get particular dates, that meeting becomes an important time. It's also the time when the rest of the co-op business takes place and members get to see each other.

Now the reality of that is sometimes, particularly with hogs, you're scheduling slaughter dates for animals that have not yet been born. You're basing this on your plan for what you're going to do that year. For larger animals, like beef, where you know you have those calves, because you generally slaughter them at about two years of age, you're predicting when you expect them to be finished. But out of necessity there are adjustments that get made during the year. But the essence here is that each member has a date on the calendar thats approximately at the right time of year for they expect the animals to be ready. And then a month or so before, you can make adjustments to the schedule if it looks like things haven't gone quite as well, they're not ready, they're going to be ready sooner; we talk to the schedule person at the plant, and say, "Geez, can I swap dates with somebody?" The members are pretty good at moving a date a little bit here and there to accommodate something that they weren't able to predict at the beginning of the year.

Then we look at how to balance demand across the year. This is really important if you want to keep your skilled, trained employees. They like to have full-time jobs year-round and being able to offer them that continuity in employment is a big plus for the plant. By doing multiple species, this helps. Hogs, in particular, are really slaughtered on the calendar, not from the time they were born, not so much dependent on grass growing or seasons of grass growth that you see with beef and lambs, as much. So we encourage people to raise pigs. We discount prices during the winter. Our slow period here in the Northwest is February, March, April. We offer a 10% discount for anyone that slaughters anything during that time. We also have a flat rate discount for people that are processing animals that are just going to be ground, which are usually cull animals and can be held later in the year, not slaughtered in the fall, when it's really busy. We recognize that it costs something and its a bit of a hassle and the inducement that has worked the best for us is to discount the pricing in that time.

And then, other uses of the facility. In our case, we've found a little niche market in offering workshops to culinary students that are studying cooking and potential chefs in a number of schools and community colleges throughout our region. We offer a one-day hands-on beef cutting workshop. We can do those in the off season. We do them with culled cows. We bring everybody in. We have our butchers on hand to talk about how you break down a carcass, where all the different cuts come from. We dress all of the participants up in coats and hairnets, and we give them knives, and they actually work. At the end of the day we have one or two beef all cut, all the cuts laid out, looking wonderful just like they're supposed to. And then we toss all of it into the grinder and make ground beef out of it. We charge them for this and this allows us, both to provide an educational service to all those chefs who are going to be potential customers down the road, and they really enjoy it, and also it gives us something else to do during the off season when things are a little bit slow and helps keep our staff busy. So things that the processor can think of or that you can think of that your processor can do may be very appreciated.

We can operate, roughly, 4 days a week with our mobile slaughter unit. Since we're a USDA inspected plant, there are a lot of holidays, so we can't operate 5 days a week with any regularity. We can process up to 10 head a beef a day, so we're looking at putting 40 beef or the equivalent in other species through our plant per week, and that matches fairly well with the size of our cutting room. But keeping that flow consistent, so that you have animals that are ready to cut means that you're coordinating the scheduling of slaughter and hanging, particularly of beef, for 2 weeks, so that your plant's not being overloaded by surges of one species. So working, again, with multiple species, takes a little bit of work with the scheduler to try and make sure that things are moving at an even flow through the plant.

Questions for Bruce

Lauren: Bruce, how many employees does your plant have?

Bruce: We have about 7 full time employees.

Lauren: And approximately how many animals go through your unit and your facility in a year?

Bruce: Somewhere between 1500 and 2000. That's a mix of mostly beef, lamb, and hogs. Sheep are probably our largest by head, but beef are the largest by weight through our facilities.

Lauren: And as we've discussed, only a few of your members do upwards of 100 a year or more.

Bruce: Right, and balancing that, this is where our producers can be flexible. If somebody cancels a date, its possible for our schedule person to call one of our larger producers and say, "Would you like this extra date that's coming along?" Because otherwise we're not going to have anything to do and our unit is going to be down. Some of our larger producers can be flexible that way if they know a couple weeks in advance. They can say, "Sure, we've got some animals and we can ship those in and we can drop another day we have or we can put a few more animals through this month or this couple months."

As a co-op, most of our members are pretty aware that anything that we can do as individual members to improve the efficiency of our facility is to our benefit in the long run. Our facility doesn't make a real profit. What it does is try to cover costs and charge fees that are consistent with paying everybody and meeting all the bills. The co-op is not in the business of making a profit as an end in itself, but to provide a service to the members. We'll have members that slaughter one day a year, and we'll have other members that slaughter once a week, pretty much all year long. So we try to balance that. We're not in a position to turn down members. You know, say, "Geez, you're such a pain to work with, we're not going to process for you anymore." We really, as a processor, have to make it work for everybody.

Lauren: Now, you all are an actual legal cooperative. And you and I have discussed this before, but how applicable do you think the system is to a more traditional one, where the processor owns the company, the producers are the clients. What would it take to put together, it would take a very organized scheduler at the processor who knew everyone who was coming in if they are regular customers or it might take some coordination from producers to do some scheduling. What do you think?

Bruce: I think some of the basics are applicable to any small processor. Most of these processors are seeing the same customers every year. They have a fairly good idea of what the volumes are from the various farms that are bringing product in. The farmers know that and it's worth the farmer talking to the processor early and not saying, "Geez, I need a slaughter date next week because my pigs are ready," and you can't really afford to hold them. The processor is not likely to be able to be very accommodating, but if you work with the processor 6 months in advance, and say, here's what my schedule looks like for this year," and get those dates on the calendar with the processor, they're going to be really happy because they then, and this is what we like to have, is they'll know what's coming, so we can be prepared from a staff point of view.

And the other is, if you do that on a regular basis, then at some point when you have some kind of emergency where you need to get something done, that processor is going to be far more accommodating, because they know that it really is an emergency. You're not just calling them at the last minute on something and mostly you slaughter on a pretty steady schedule, so they're more likely to bend over backwards for you there. And the flip side of that is, when you bring something in and you don't really need it in a hurry, you can let them know that. If they have something else that's a rush, they can get that out and then they can work on yours. Not to let it hang longer than it's supposed to, but it's helpful giving them some flexibility when you have it, so when you don't have the flexibility, they recognize that and they move your stuff to the front of the line.

Lauren: If you say you're going to bring animals and you don't bring your animals, and it's a last minute cancellation, you get charged, right?

Bruce: Yes, we really want our members to be ready when we show up to slaughter at their facilities, particularly since we're traveling to their farm and they don't bring the animals to us. If we get there and the animals aren't suitable for slaughter for some reason, they're not contained well enough, or there's some other problem, and we have to turn around and leave, they get billed for that.

Lauren: Right. It's even worse than for a fixed facility where at least maybe somebody else might be able to show up, you guys are actually out.

Bruce: Right. We don't really like assessing penalties for things. That's not the ideal way, but what we have found is that it is pretty effective. If you show up and your animals are really dirty and it takes your butcher twice as long because they've got to clean everything first, get it ready to process. That adds to our cost, and we've figured out how to pass that along and lo and behold, as soon as a producer knows that he's going to get charged for not having his animals ready the problem tends to go away. But, that's the same as offering discount pricing: when you just try and encourage people to process with you at a given point in time throughout the year, that's all well and good, but when you start offering them cash inducements to do it, then they become far more interested.

More Answers to Questions (typed into chat box)

We don't have surcharges for extra hanging time. Most people are 10 days to 2 weeks, but we try and work with the odd person that wants something done longer. We have instituted fees for taking carcasses out whole or in quarters instead of having us do the cutting for them, because we do incur some expense in handling them and preparing them for going out, for instance, someone taking a whole lamb out or half a pig, a lot of restaurants where the chefs want to do their own cutting.

Labels: Our farms either get the generic coop label on it, on all their products, or they can provide their own labels, which we then apply. They can have their logo and any other information they want as long as they meet the labeling requirements for the USDA.

Yes, we are indeed a self-sustained co-op, we've raised enough money and service fees for all of the work to pay all of the expenses. Our board of directors comes from members, they volunteer their time to be on the board they're not reimbursed for that and there's a lot of help here and there that members do, particularly in the early days. But we've now pretty much transferred all of the day-to-day administrative and processing activities to employees.

Lauren: As far as labeling, just to clarify, if you wanted to put some special label claims on your Lopez Island Farm label, you would take care of that yourself, you wouldn't pay a fee to your butcher or someone at the processing plant to do that for you.

Bruce: That's probably correct. Our plant staff are not really set up to do complicated label submissions. The generic labels for single ingredients, uncooked, raw product, or basic sausage products, the plant takes care of.

Lauren: Anyone other questions for Bruce or Kathleen? Kathleen, I don't know if you've seen systems like this in the northeast, scheduling. Do you have any thoughts on it?

Kathleen: We have a couple different situations where we're using mobile units, but the scheduling is a lot more open right now. Yes, the falls are booked, but we've had a resurgence in more plants coming online. Yeah, the fall is, just like Bruce said, you have to basically book 6 months out. I have one plant, who, when they really like a customer, when the customer comes to pick up their product in the fall, they ask them if they'd like to book for next fall right away. So it all depends upon if the plant likes you.

Lauren: How do plants in your area, Kathleen, get through the really quiet, dead times?

Kathleen: Well, I was interested in what Bruce was saying, the different things for the facility. We have one plant who got really creative and, remember I was saying that we have farmers who have built their own state inspected facilities, but they have to get the animal slaughtered under USDA and then they cut and then they're able to sell at the farmers' market and then at their own farm. Well, one of the plants was slow, so what they did was, they organized with a farmer who wanted to use the plant more. He basically got a state license for that plant and then he used their people also. So he got his farm state licensed for that plant so he could do the cutting there and sell the meat at his farmers' market and from his farm stand.

Bruce: That's interesting, and it's become more critical for Island Grown Farmers Co-op as we've filled up, because we now pretty much run at capacity for 7-8 months of the year.

Arion: Bruce, how many members do you have in your co-op?

Bruce: About 65.

Arion: Let's say somebody wants a lot of slots in the fall, are they encouraged to then pick up some slots in the spring to kind of help balance that out? Are there mechanisms in place to do that?

Bruce: Not overtly. Our larger processor members, the ones who process the most, they just can't possibly slaughter all the animals at one time of year like that. What they've found is one,  not all their animals are ready at the same time, and two, it's very expensive to store all your meat frozen, it's actually much less expensive to store your meat walking around the field. Because they're selling year-round, and frozen storage is really pricy, for large amounts of product. They're trying to slaughter every week and keep a flow going. They may be slaughtering 100 head a year, so they're looking at slaughtering 10-20 head in any given month.

Lauren: A couple more questions here, Kathleen, apparently you gave an 85% yield rate, maybe that was a yield rate for lamb?

Kathleen: Yes.

Lauren: Can you explain?

Bruce: It sounds pretty good.

Kathleen: Lambs yield well. Again, you're not boning the whole thing out. You're getting everything with bones in, all your chops, your shoulders, all your cuts and your shanks. If you are boning out the shanks then you're also selling the shank bone as cut bone. So the yields on lambs tend to be pretty high. So, about an 85%, as long as you're not putting in a really barky lamb here with 2" of fat on it either. I'm talking about a normal-conditioned animal, a finished animal, that's going to slaughter. That's what I've seen, basically 65, 75, and 85, 65 on the beef, 75 on the hogs, and 85 on the lambs.

Lauren: That's all from hanging carcass to finished cuts?

Kathleen: Yes, exactly.

Lauren: Not live weight to finished cuts?

Kathleen: Oh, no, no, no.

Lauren: Another question for both of you: have you experienced confusion from farmers about custom exempt processing needing some information to give USDA even though it's not USDA inspected? Now that wouldn't apply to you, Bruce, because you guys don't do any custom exempt, but Kathleen?

Bruce: We actually can, because we're licensed for it with our state, but we do very little of it. There's a huge amount of confusion in the general farm population about the variations, all the different regulations and what you can do with one license in one state versus another. That's a continual educational process.

Lauren: Something that we try to help with at NMPAN. One last question, any tips for processing accommodating unique further process requests? Different formulations, cook-cycles...

Bruce: We don't do any, so I can't really speak to that.

Kathleen: The plants that I have, they apparently have the plans, and the requirements for a fully-cooked product are far more onerous than for what they define as a heat-treated product. So I have plants that have in their hats a plan that their product is heat-treated and needs to be further cooked and so each product has to be labeled that way. That's typically if they want to be able to smoke their bacons and hams. There's very few plants that have a full-cooked product line.

Lauren: Well, we are at the end of our hour. I want to thank Kathleen and Bruce so much for taking the time to talk with us and educate us today.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.