What should I look for in choosing a meat processor?
Answer: There are many differences when it comes to processing plants. Small to mid-size plants can especially differ in these key areas. When analyzing a processor, the following factors should be taken into account and then investigated to see if they will properly fit the needs of your livestock operation.
First, a processing plant should be located within an appropriate range of your operation. Transporting animals over long distances can result in excess stress and have a negative impact on the quality of meat harvested. With poultry or other smaller stock, losses can occur, especially in inclement weather. Excess time spent in transportation can also lead to a loss of time and profitability, both of which are crucial to producers. Ideally, a processing plant should be located less than two hours away from your farm. This will allow for easier and hopefully stress free transportation.
The services that a facility offers should also be taken into account. By now, you should know what kind of products you are offering to your customer base, but you need to make sure that the processor will be able to yield these products. Are you looking for just whole-carcass processing, or cut and wrap? Is there any further processing that your customers prefer? Even if you are not currently offering these products, the capacity for the processor to provide these should be noted. You may want to scale up further with these services in the future and provide new products to new or existing markets.
Equipment and labor can also make a difference in processing. For example, a processing plant may have the equipment for large animal processing, but none of the equipment needed in poultry processing, such as a plucker. This makes a difference for poultry producers, as they will need to find a processor that can handle their species. Labor is another consideration. Some smaller processors have difficulty keeping specialized labor on staff due to irregular business, meaning that a producer might have to provide his own labor in some parts of the process. Equipment can also play a role in the productivity of a processor. A processor should be able to meet your required deadlines efficiently. This leads to the next point of capacity. A processor’s capacity is how much of a species it can process in a day. This can be dependent on the amount of labor in the plant, the type of equipment used, or the cooler space available. These can all restrict the amount of livestock that can be processed, and in turn, the level to which a producer can scale up.
Scheduling can also be a determining factor in finding a processor. Some livestock such as turkeys are grown in a seasonal fashion. This can result in problems for a processor in scheduling clients, such as a producer not being able to get animals to customers in time for seasonal or holiday deadlines. Before working with a processor, discuss with them how they plan to handle the volume of your livestock, especially if you are looking to scale up.
Regulations can play a large role in the processing operation that you, the producer, chooses. It mostly depends on the markets that you are currently selling to or plan to sell to. If you are selling into markets that cross state lines, USDA inspection will be required, except for certain states where state inspection can be allowed in place of USDA inspection in order to sell in nearby states. Be sure to check your state regulations to see what inspection is required to sell to grocery stores, institutions, and other markets.
Finally, one of the most important things to look for in a potential processing facility is the quality of service that a processor offers. Processing presents a significant step in livestock production. A quality butcher can make all the difference between a smooth slaughter day or a disastrous one. Pay close attention to who established producers choose to process their livestock. Some processors may be more difficult to work with and, therefore, should be avoided. The processor should be easy to schedule, meet your specifications, and have the capacity for your volume. Find a butcher who will offer the best service, even if it is a little farther than a close and convenient plant that will present more problems in the future.
Check out the following ATTRA resources to learn more:
Scaling Up for Regional Markets tutorial, Livestock Part 2 – Processing lesson
Working with Your Meat Processor podcast