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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Processing Meats on Farm

Mobile Slaughter Yesterday,

Today and Tomorrow?

by Lynn Miller

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”

It was 1971 in Drain, Oregon, and I managed a small cattle and sheep ranch for some investors. Part of my wage was a steer to raise for personal use or sale. There were only two of us in the family at the time and I knew we wouldn’t consume a whole beef in a timely manner so I made arrangements to sell half to someone with the understanding that the cut and wrapped packages would have to carry a NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION stamp on the wrapping paper.

I had seen the truck running around locally with a sign on the side which said CUSTOM MEAT CUTTER and a phone number so I called. It was a small family-owned business thirty miles away. They told me straight away that their facility wasn’t federally inspected. I didn’t care. (In my rustic, hardscrabble, farm and ranch community, federal inspection was a joke – an extra fee you paid to get a stamp of approval with no one really inspecting anything.)

As a service to small ranches and farms, for a nominal fee, this custom cutter would send out their truck, a 1952 Ford 2-ton with a plywood box on the back featuring a steel trolley-track which extended out three feet back of the big rear door. If I made arrangements to have the steer close at hand, the driver would dispatch it and prepare it for a return trip to their cooler, where it would hang for 10 to 14 days before being cut and wrapped. They requested that there be a water hose nearby during slaughter.

So I made the arrangements like many others before me. Pretty sure of what was to follow. There weren’t any surprises. The driver got out of the truck, made small talk, checked the site and the water availability and removed a 22-gauge rifle from the cab. One perfectly placed shot and the steer dropped dead. Quickly the driver became butcher; making a clean incision at the jugular vein to bleed out the animal. He backed the truck up and rigged a butcher’s stretcher bar between the hocks. He then pulled a trolley out along the track and threaded a cable from his winch hooking the end into the stretcher bar center ring. Slowly the dead steer was yarded upside down until it hung free. Then came the hands-on process of eviscerating, skinning and halving the carcass.

The two halves were winched into the truck box and wrapped in plastic sheets with tags stapled to them. The driver offered to take the hide, head and vital organs if they weren’t desired. Everything was hosed off and the driver left to go back to the butcher shop and cooler.

On another occasion, I hauled a 250 lb pig 50 miles into a custom cutter’s facility near Elmira, Oregon where everything was done for me including smoking and curing hams and bacon with a maple recipe that was outrageously good. No inspection and the packages stamped accordingly.

These services are still legal in many parts of the country. And, depending on how remote and “rural” an area is, it is completely acceptable. But with the growth in ‘certified organic’ local foods and the swelling of food poisoning scares, if a famer is to avail him or herself of the strong new market demand for direct meat sales every effort must be made to go well beyond simple compliance with state and federal regulations.

For me in my yesterdays, the scenario above repeated many times over, constitutes my earned understanding of ‘mobile slaughtering’. That’s why this new buzz around these words, as if this was something absolutely unique and brand new, seems a bit odd. Odd, that is, until I started to do some research.

Today is just a worry away…

Today, restaurants, local shops, and individuals are demanding local, fresh, clean meat products from farmers they might actually know. That demand now figures into the millions. In some cases they are even demanding organic certification. That translates to state and federally inspected facilities, process and product. The new application of the term mobile slaughtering presupposes that we are talking about a facility and process that is federally inspected and approved, that cancels out those old guys with their plywood boxes mounted crudely to the back of a flatbed truck. Enter the shiny, stainless steel, fully heated, cooled and plumbed mobil antiseptic processing plant. Not a bad thing IF it honors those and that which it would serve. But if such a big shiny farm invader inserts itelf into the independent small farmer’s world with the sort of industrial insistence some dairy co-ops have come to represent, it could quickly become a nightmare.

But shouldn’t we back up a notch and ask why bother? We must bother because, as it has been said many times and many ways, this is one of those places where opportunity and need meet but without a suitable bridge. Let’s not make it into a toll bridge with a customs office at the end. Beware those who smell a very big profit with this need.

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering. And there seems no end to the growth of that demand – ergo opportunity. On the other side we have a comensurate growth in the number of new small farms answering the call for these products. But the farm, typically, is not set up to realize the value-added processing that takes the chicken, duck, catfish, turkey, steer, lamb or hog through to a cut and wrapped article. And the industrial options aren’t options. So we have a situation where it is clear that answering the processing need in a scale and cost appropriate way will not only add to farm profitability but, perhaps more importantly, will allow for, and encourage, the growth in small farm numbers to expand exponentially. Far-sighted farmers and farm organizations saw this and have been working over the last eight years to theoretically answer the need with research, development, prototype and infrastructure (though too little of that essential element). So we now have some working examples to consider.

On Lopez Island, west and north of Seattle, the first of these fully approved mobile slaughter units was put into operation in 2002 with a USDA nod and federal inspector on board. Since that time the USDA has certified eight others for large animals across the country. (Separately, a handful of specialized units geared towards poultry are cropping up in various configurations across the country.) While these are very few in number they do now represent some working history that would seem to point in interesting directions. All of the units which have been in full operation report tremendous local farm community acceptance and process success with every indication of growth in numbers. Those are internal conclusions. Externally we are beginning to see the making of an almost predictable backlash against the model(s). There are the opening squeaks of a propaganda campaign to paint mobile slaughter units as engines of contamination. This in spite of the fact that great pains have been taken to design these various prototypes to satisfy all state and federal sanitation regulations AND include on-board USDA inspectors assuring, in some cases, that the meats also measure up to organic certification standards as well.

The concept of the mobile slaughtering unit is gaining traction and all around the country news articles are popping up. Perhaps this is why we are seeing folks prompted to make criticisms that come more from speculation than knowledge. One of those frequently stated in New England is that the concept has a serious flaw because it does not take into reality the pressing need for suitable matching cold storage and flash freezing capabilities.

There are a variety of theories around how long meat should “cool” in the carcass before it is cut, wrapped and frozen. And there is great mystery and argument around what constitutes true ”fresh” (- i.e. if it has ever been frozen, how can you possible call it fresh?). But customarily a large animal carcass should cool from 8 days to two weeks. So what we see here is a bit of a disconnect. All of these prototype units presuppose delivery of a slaughtered carcass to a centralized cooling facility. It should be obvious that a mobile unit of anywhere from 35 to 55 feet long would quickly lack space to handle cold storage for any appreciable number of carcasses. And these units, in order to be fully useful and profitable need to move on the very next day to another farm.

Perhaps the most legitimate concern for these units would come from established small local meat processors who depend on the local independent farmers as their clientele. They are justifiably worried about losing business. These facilities might do well to think creatively about how they could collaborate with mobile units allowing for joint ventures in cooling and cutting. Or to add the mobile slaughtering service to their established operations.

But, of course such observations are in themselves shortsighted because of the truth of the broader landscape; the News Observer, in a July 2010 story by Andrea Weigl, told about a succesful and ingenious North Carolinian, Lee Menius, being awarded an $8,000 private grant with which he built a mobile poultry slaughterhouse on a trailer he pulls behind his pickup. He rents the unit to other farmers after finishing his own birds.

(Weigl further reports that in North Carolina a farmer must register with the state to be a meat handler. In 2002 there was one such registration, today there are 366. A very clear sign of changing times and needs.)

But to further complicate the question; there are certain farmer’s markets around the country which will not allow, for liability concerns, that patrons sell meats which have been processed ‘on-farm’. That would then point back to the more expansive and expensive fully inspected tractor trailer-type stainless steel units, and again back to the issue of storage and secondary processing facilities.

The Glynwood model: In May of 2010, Glynwood, a non-profit organization in the Hudson river valley of NY have come up with a modular mobile slaughterhouse concept (see Glynwood sidebar). They have trademarked it as the ‘Modular Harvest System” and speak of it as a next generation approach to the humane slaughter of livestock. It is designed to employ ‘docking’ stations. This appears to be a system as much as a facility and as such is remarkably more ambitious than the other prototypes spread over the country.

By comparison that first Lopez Island, Washington, model would seem highly and easily replicable. Bruce Dunlop, a founding member of the project was showcased in an on-line article by Ken Simon entitled “Is a Mobile Slaughterhouse Coming to Connecticut” (http://www.workingtheland.com/feature-mobile-slaughterhouse.htm) speaking to New England farmers. Quoting from that article; “Dunlop pointed out that the Lopez facility cost about $200,000… It can theoretically process up to 30 head of cattle a day, although it typically handles more like six to 12 head on each farm it visits….the USDA now looks at the project as an unqualified success… Last year, its third in operation, Dunlop’s co-op processed 500 head of beef and 500 lamb and hogs, comprising about 250,000 pounds of meat… The 55 co-op members… are taking in $850,000 in annual retail sales, more than double their first year… The cooperative, which services member producers within a 100 mile radius of the cutting plant, takes in $250,000 in fees from members which supports $225,000 in annual payroll costs for six year-round employees…”

This unit is built on an unmarked 33-foot trailer lined in stainless steel with heat, cooling and potable water. It can hold 10 beef cattle, 20 hogs or 70 sheep. An on-site USDA inspector checks each live animal prior to harvest and then again after processing. The meat is transported to the co-op’s USDA regulated cutting plant where it is later cut into retail portions, packaged and cold stored until pickup.

practical realities

Mobile slaughtering units may cost anywhere from 150 to 250,000 dollars and might have a variety of special applications. For example a unit in Kentucky moves between three locations processing poultry, shrimp, bass, catfish and other fish. That unit is supervised by Kentucky State University.

In Washington state, the Pierce County Conservation District put up $300,000 to cover the cost of building a mobile unit, stating that they believe such units will help to preserve local farmland in six contiguous counties.

One year ago, smelling a new alternative ag sector they might want to develop, the world’s largest natural-foods supermarket chain,Whole Foods, announced their intention to step into the mobile slaughterhouse arena with a fleet of state of the art USDA approved mobile units. Their operation model would be guided by their own process and profitability criteria. For example, client farmers would have minimum “buy” of 500 chickens with those who agree to sell to Whole Foods having unlimited access to the units. We are told that WF would impose a strict set of guidelines requiring participating small farmers to raise only a specific breed of chicken supplied by an identified breeder, and those birds to be fed a certain brand of feed. Other required guidelines would be imposed as well. All of this smacks to this writer of the vertical integration tactics which gave us industrialized agriculture in the first place. Having large retailers enter the arena of the mobile slaughterhouses points away from the decentralized small scale farming that is most needed. Further, it could be argued that the tactics will evolve to even more “get big or get out” pressure.

As the discussions and interconnectivity of this livestock activity continue it might be helpful to draw clear distinctions between small independent processors and the larger corporate entities.

tomorrow seems so close…

Regardless of scale, some have argued that rather than put time, research, and money into this mobile concept, why aren’t we moving to encourage a return to the mid-sized independent stationary facilities? In Weigl’s New Observer story she speaks of a 5,000 square foot poultry facility built three years ago in Siler City, NC. at a cost of $850,000. The Chaudhry Halal Meats plant has yet to break even. They are now slaughtering 1,000 birds a week at a charge of $4.50 per finished product. With such economic indicators it might be difficult to interest investors around the country. But if such stationary facilities, especially those geared to larger animals, were providing services (i.e. cold storage and cutting) which mobile units could avail themselves of, the numbers might jump favorably.

Some within agriculture see the concept of mobile slaughterhouses as a misguided quick fix to a problem that will eventually right itself through a supply and demand sieve. I disagree. Though there are many mechanics to work out, the basic concept of hundreds, if not thousands, of independent mobile units is sound and it has the applicability it takes to work most everywhere on the continent.

What is needed now is for non-profit and cooperative efforts to work with determination to develop a sort of specialized ‘brokerage and information referral’ for mobile slaughter. This would give farmers, meat cutters, and related endeavors a place or places to go for assistance in implementation, funding, and red tape wrangling.

Lynn Miller is editor/publisher of Small Farmer’s Journal and vice president and co-founder of the non-profit Small Farms Conservancy.

Spotlight On: Livestock

Horseshoeing Part 3A

Horseshoeing Part 3A

An examination should be made while the animal is at rest, and afterwards while in motion. The object of the examination is to gain accurate knowledge of the direction and movements of the limbs, of the form and character of the feet and hoofs, of the manner in which the foot reaches and leaves the ground, of the form, length, position, and wear of the shoe, and distribution of the nail-holes, in order that at the next and subsequent shoeings all ascertained peculiarities of hoof-form may be kept in mind and all discovered faults of shoeing corrected.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 1

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 1

by:
from issue:

For the last ten years, I have made hay mostly with a single horse. This has not necessarily been out of choice, as at one time I had hoped to be farming on a larger scale with more horses. Anyway, it does little good to dwell on ‘what if ’. The reality is that I am able to make hay, and through making and modifying machinery, I probably have a better understanding of hay making and the mechanics of draught.

Ask A Teamster Driving

Ask A Teamster: Driving

I have been questioned (even criticized) about my slow, gentle, repetitious approach “taking too much time” and all the little steps being unnecessary when one can simply “hitch ‘em tied back to a well-broke horse they can’t drag around, and just let ‘em figure it out on their own.” I try to give horses the same consideration I would like if someone was teaching me how to do something new and strange.

Mule Powered Wrecker Service

Mule Drawn Wrecker Service

This will only add fuel to those late night discoursians about the relative merits of horses over mules or viciversy. Is the horse the smarter one for hitching a ride or is the mule the smarter one for recognizing the political opportunity which this all represents? In any event these boys know what they are doing, or should, so don’t try this at home without horse tranquilizers. Remember that politics is a luke warm bowl of thin soup.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Portable Poultry

Portable Poultry

An important feature of the range shelter described in this circular is that it is portable. Two men by inserting 2x4s through the holes located just below the roost supports and next to the center uprights can easily pick up and move it from one location to another. Frequent moving of the shelter prevents excessive accumulation of droppings in its vicinity which are a menace to the health of the birds. Better use will be made by the birds of the natural green feed produced on the range if the houses are moved often.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A Gathering of Comtois in France

by:
from issue:

I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.

My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

by:
from issue:

In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw.

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

by:
from issue:

Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.

The Broodmare in Fall

The Broodmare in Fall

by:
from issue:

Mares are not the major emphasis in the fall since they have performed their task of foaling, lactating and being re-bred. After foals are weaned, most breeders tend to focus on weanlings and yearlings that are being prepared for shows, sales and/or performance in the case of long yearlings. Fall management of broodmares is far more critical than some breeders realize and can directly impact foaling and re-breeding successes next year.

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

Horseshoeing Part 3B

Horseshoeing Part 3B

Besides good, tough iron for the shoe, we need an anvil with a round horn and a small hole at one end, a round-headed turning-hammer, a round sledge, a stamping hammer, a pritchel of good steel, and, if a fullered shoe is to be made, a round fuller. Bodily activity and, above all else, a good eye for measurement are not only desirable, but necessary. A shoe should be made thoughtfully, but yet quickly enough to make the most of the heat.

Work Bridle Styles

Work Bridle Styles

Here are fourteen work bridle styles taken from a 1920’s era harness catalog. Regional variants came with different names and configurations, so much so that we have elected to identify these images by letter instead of name so you may reference these pictures directly when ordering harness or talking about repairs or fit concerns with trainers or harness makers. In one region some were know as pigeon wing and others referred to them as batwing or mule bridles.

Horseshoeing Part 4B

Horseshoeing Part 4B

Forging is that defect of the horse’s gait by reason of which, at a trot, he strikes the ends of the branches or the under surface of the front shoe with the toe of the hind shoe or hoof of the same side. Forging is unpleasant to hear and dangerous to the horse. It is liable to wound the heels of the forefeet, damages the toes or the coronet of the hind hoofs, and often pulls off the front shoes.

Horseshoeing Part 4A

Horseshoeing Part 4A

According to the size of the horse and his hoofs the nails should be driven from five-eighths to an inch and five-eighths high, and as even as possible. As soon as a nail is driven its point should be immediately bent down towards the shoe in order to prevent injuries. The heads of all the nails should then be gone over with a hammer and driven down solidly into the nail-holes, the hoof being meanwhile supported in the left hand.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 4

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 4

by:
from issue:

Over the last few years of making hay, the mowing, turning and making tripods has settled into a fairly comfortable pattern, but the process of getting it all together for the winter is still developing. In the beginning I did what everyone else around here does and got it baled, but one year I decided to try one small stack. The success of this first stack encouraged me to do more, and now most of my hay is stacked loose.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT