Packing plants, livestock, etc.


Clay Neubauer

My apologies, I had never been on this page of the forum before today. Usually I just dabble in the photo gallery or sometimes search for a recipe or info on a piece of equipment. But I ran across a thread where you guys were talking about the interruptions in the food chain back early in the Rona, April/May timeframe, and I don't think I can post a reply to that thread. Just wanted to give you some info from the front lines of what was happening- and thankfully, it is pretty much back to normal out here now.

The livestock complex, and pork and poultry in particular, has evolved into a very well polished machine from start to finish, but one that doesn't do well with large hiccups. Yeah, there will always be a truck that gets in a wreck or a tornado that levels a barn, but those are isolated events and can be shuffled around. Nobody ever made an allowance for multiple packing plants to be shut down arbitrarily. I'll mostly comment on pork from here on, to keep things kinda simple. The life cycle of the pork at your meat counter goes through several stages, and these days most of them do not happen at one site. Breeding stock and farrowing baby pigs are at one site. Baby pigs often go to nurseries at another site, although some outfits do wean-to-finish without that step in between. Finishing to fat weight happens in barns at another site. And then the packing plants are at another site, for instance many fat hogs from here go to St. Joseph Missouri which is nearly a three hour drive. A bred sow will have pigs in approximately three months, three weeks, and three days. (slight variation, humans vary from nine months too, but sows with a very similar genetic background and similar feed, housing, etc. are more predictable than your friends in the neighborhood). All the rest of the chain is based from that. And somebody, somewhere, is getting their pigs in the next part of the chain every single minute.
Oh, guess what else that means- if your fat hogs need to be unloaded at St. Joe for the morning shift and you are three hours away, you are going to be loading trucks from midnight-4am....

Anyway, when the Covid monkey wrench got thrown into the weil-oiled machine yes a lot of bad stuff happened. Euthanizations happened. Cutting feed to market weight hogs every other day happened, to avoid more euthanizations. The general standard for finishing in the industry now is barns built in 1200 head increments, sooo... all of a sudden, when you have a 2400 head barn of hogs that are overweight from being there two weeks longer than they should now you only get 155 of them on a semi instead of the normal 180. That strains the logistics even more. Oh, and one night back in that time frame I helped sort and load six semi-loads of overweight fat hogs. Now, doing so with the standard 250-270 pounders is not fun but it usually goes alright. Sorting 320 pounders and getting them on the truck.... well, that just sucks. All of their extra 60 pounds of muscle and mass is centered right at the level of your knees and thighs.

I butchered a hog before the debacle, and in the middle of it we butchered three. Six people with a rifle, a skid loader, a Sawzall, and a sausage grinder can put a lot of pork into freezers quickly. I'll get some photos posted soon. But... hanging and butchering a 1200 pound steer is a whole different ball game and something I don't have the balls to tackle. Butchers here are telling people they can't accept any deer during hunting season because they are booked 12 months or more out with hogs and cattle already. It's about past my bedtime now, but I've learned a whole lot of valuable things from the people on this site and if any of you happen to have more specific questions for me I'll do my best to answer.
Thank you for taking the time to post, @Clay Neubauer!

I see you're in SE Iowa. Would your info hold true for other parts of the country and their packing industry?

Everyone will have access to holiday meats in the coming months? (hams, rib roasts, turkeys, etc, etc...)
My butcher has turned to butchering whole cow carcasses himself (well, with a small crew). His prices are better than anyone in town and the beef is excellent. He tried this early on before covid hit and it didn't work. Now there's a real market for it.
Thanks, Clay - as others have said, very informative!

What's your opinion of the idea of changing the industry to feature more smaller, decentralized processors? Certainly we have a lot of them here in the Midwest, but I wouldn't be surprised if other parts of the country are held hostage by the big players.
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Addressing a question or two- yes, there are some projects in the works where cattllemen are reopening some smaller plants or trying to start a new one that isn't tied to the big integrators like Tyson or Farmland or JBS etc. It's a real shame that excessive regulations, largely lobbied for by those few big corporate packers in the name of "food safety" but going beyond what is actually necessary pushed so many of our small-town lockers out of business. The Rona silliness has brought to a point how short sighted that was. There was some serious anger at the price gouging when fat cattle on the hoof were worth $200-300 less while the price of steaks at the grocery counter were doubling.