An afternoon at the slaughterhouse

Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse? It’s where cattle become beef. It’s the step that can’t be skipped whether it’s grass-finished beef, organic beef, the beef at Safeway, or at Bill the Butcher. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, they are probably taking full advantage of Washington’s liberalized law on recreational marijuana.

Just one grass-fed beef joke. Promise.

Just one “grass-fed” beef joke. Promise.

This isn’t the first afternoon I’ve spent at a slaughter facility, but it was my first time at a shiny, new facility that wasn’t actually operating at the time of my visit. And it was Ranch Baby’s first tour of such a place, which is probably a few months later than I would have taken a trip to drop off cattle at one as a baby. Growing up on a diversified cattle farm, where we raised cows and calves on pasture, and also finished cattle in a feedlot, we marketed cattle directly to a couple of packing plants. Since my early days of riding along in the truck to deliver cattle, I’ve had the opportunity to tour a handful of facilities, in Washington and elsewhere, usually as part of a tour the beef commission coordinates for chefs, meat buyers, and health professionals who want to learn more about how beef is raised.

Here at the ranch, we either market cattle to a feed yard, or retain ownership while the cattle are being finished at a yard, and they ship directly from that farm, to the slaughter facility, so the first hand visits aren’t so common. This is a significant difference between Rancher and I. He gladly skipped the slaughter plant visit to bale and stack hay all day (“I’ve been to one, once, and that’s good enough,” he says), while I looked forward to the experience. When I see and learn about something first hand, I am a lot better at my job of explaining it to people who haven’t had the experience, but have questions about it. It makes me more smarterer.

Congratulations to a group of Washington ranchers who've really taken the bull by the horns. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Congratulations to a group of Washington ranchers who’ve really taken the bull by the horns. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The afternoon I am referring to was August 29th, and it was a special day in Odessa, Washington.  Odessa is the home of the new LPCA – Livestock Processors Cooperative Association. Who are they? A group of about 80 local ranchers who pulled together to fill a need – a geographically convenient, USDA inspected facility where producers of any size can bring livestock (the facility can handle hogs, sheep, and goats in addition to cattle) to be slaughtered, inspected, cut and packaged for marketing to anyone and everyone the rancher so desires to sell their meat to.

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The LPCA Board of Directors cuts the ribbon at the new slaughterhouse on August 29th. With a butcher’s knife, naturally.

Why is the opening of a USDA inspected processing facility a big deal? For several reasons, one being the number of processing facilities in Washington, and across the country has been on a sharp decline since the 1980’s. There are several reasons for this, one being the cost of building (or maintaining and updating an older facility to meet modern safety standards) such a facility, and more than that, operating one. The cooperative approach (versus for-profit business) is unique, and there are other examples operating in Washington, like the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative (PSMPC), which operates a USDA-inspected “mobile” slaughter unit serving livestock producers in Kitsap, Thurston, Pierce, King and surrounding counties.

LPCA director Wade King gives a tour of the facility, where he stands near a sanitation area. The facility was developed in consultation with Washington State University and other organizations to account for the best animal and human safety measures.

LPCA director Wade King gives a tour of the facility, where he stands near a sanitation area. The facility was designed in consultation with Washington State University and other organizations to account for the best animal and human safety and sanitation measures.

One point of clarification when I say “USDA-inspected”. That means a USDA safety inspector is on-site while the facility is in operation, and that inspector insures the animal is handled and slaughtered in accordance with the law related to humane handling of animals, and safety and sanitation of the staff and facility meet code. The processor pays the costs of this USDA staff. For now, the LPCA will offer USDA inspected slaughter a couple of days a week, and operate the other days of the week like many custom slaughter and processing shops, whereby the meat is available to be used by the rancher, or cut for customers who technically purchased a whole, half or quarter of a live animal prior to slaughter. This meat cannot legally find its way into restaurant kitchens, retail meat cases, or to individual consumers in packaged form.

The first beef carcasses slaughtered at the facility hang in a large cooler. LPCA can slaughter up to 15 head of cattle per day.

The first beef carcasses slaughtered at the facility hang in a large cooler. LPCA can slaughter up to 15 head of cattle per day.

The completed project is the work and investment of a dedicated group of local ranchers, with local and federal loan support. Now the real work begins with regularly scheduling livestock for processing, which will provide work for the small staff operating the facility (which will hopefully grow into more jobs for the rural town). Several of the cooperative members have already made great progress in getting their own brand labels approved in order to directly market their beef consumers, restaurants and retail stores. This Spokesman Review article explains some of the current marketing efforts in greater detail.

A portion of LPCA president Willard Wolfe’s remarks really stood out to me in describing the value of the facility to ranchers, particularly the next generation. Quite simply, the service provides another choice, avenue, opportunity, whatever you want to call it for a ranch to build their business model on. A business model that might help accommodate the interests, skills, and financial goals of a younger generation of ranchers just starting out in the family business, or on their own with a small number of cattle. Choice is the key value proposition for consumers, too. Depending on the efforts of the independent ranchers who are part of the cooperative (or not a member, but use the LPCA services), you may find locally raised, locally processed beef more readily available in local restaurants and markets.

If you are interested in learning more, and staying up to date on LPCA progress, visit their website. If you’ve been looking for the chance to connect with a local rancher, and buy beef from one, you may find your match!

How about you? If you had the opportunity to tour a slaughter facility in operation, would you?

9 thoughts on “An afternoon at the slaughterhouse

  1. Thanks for the article, which was an interesting
    description of a facility that will benefit ranchers and their
    customers. I for one would love to tour a slaughter facility. Beef
    is my favorite food and mainstay. I more I know about it, the
    better. Thanks again.

  2. Great article. I have never toured a large slaughter facility but as a requirement for my livestock production minor I had to take one of the meats classes offered at my university and I decided to take a class that required us to actually help with the slaughter process. In class we slaughtered pigs, lambs and cattle and then we would actually process the meat later on. I grew up showing livestock so I knew the process but was never present when it actually happened so at first I was a little apprehensive about the class but in the end I was very glad I stuck with it. It was very educational and allowed me to experience it first hand. If I had the opportunity to tour a large slaughter facility I would definitely do it!

  3. Thanks Sara! It is awesome that you took that opportunity in college! When I grew up, we did a fair amount of on-farm slaughter at our farm. It was really valuable to see talented butchers work with efficiency and precision. The large plants are a totally different experience to see in operation. There, it is fascinating to see how a plant is laid out and all of the interventions for safety. Every time I go through one, I notice something I didn’t notice before. When I ask my questions about it, there is inevitably, a really smart answer.

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