Working with Local Livestock Processors
By Jason Detzel
It is true that there are fewer processors today than there used to be. And on top of that, there are a lot more regulations that cost money to implement. The processors themselves are reporting to us that there is barely enough business to keep them afloat because there are very few folks processing in the springtime.
While you can’t count on more processors opening up in a given area, you can – and should – develop relationships with a few of them. The general consensus is that anything within about four hours can be considered local.
What follows are some general tips that I have acquired for when it’s time to process your animals.
1. Make your appointments at least six months in advance for large animals. Most ranchers and farmers will routinely make all of their appointments a year in advance for their entire season and if you call a couple of months out you will most certainly be put on the waiting list.
2. If you do find yourself in a bind, there is a map of slaughterhouses in New York available at: https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/resources/livestock/slaughterhouse-map/
With a few phone calls you can usually find someone to process your animal in some of the less populated areas of the state, although this will certainly require a longer trip.
3. Communicate with your processor! Every facility has their own cut sheet and a certain way that they do things. Before you fill out your cut sheet, sit down and think about what you or your customers are going to want as far as cuts go. Do you want to sell one-pound or two-pound packages of hamburger, do you want your steaks cut in one-inch or two-inch widths, and are you going to keep and package your organ meats? You need to know this before you go in to fill out your cut sheet. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. These guys are the experts, and if they are not willing to give you a little of their time to get things right for the customer, then maybe the partnership is not a good fit.
4. Talk to other farmers in the area. Ask them what they liked and possibly didn’t like about certain processors. Most farmers are more than happy to share their opinion and tend to be very loyal to the processors that they feel do a good job.
5. Shop around. Most processors have websites that list their kill fee and price per pound for processing. Each facility does this differently and even though one place is less expensive it does not mean they are the best choice.
6. The USDA makes the rules for retail cuts and each animal is a little different. A simplified version of these regulations is that cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs must be inspected at a USDA slaughterhouse to be sold at retail. Poultry can be processed and sold on-farm or at farmers markets as long as you are doing the work and are processing less than 1,000 birds per year. Poultry can be sold to stores and restaurants if they are butchered under a 5-A license. The different types of 5-A licenses are complicated so review the booklet or talk to your local 5-A processor about your options for selling your finished poultry in retail establishments.
7. Custom slaughterhouses are not USDA certified. These facilities are most often used to process deer and wild game in season. They can and often do process livestock but these cuts cannot be sold as retail and will often have a “not for sale” stamp on the packaging. You can sell half, whole or quarter animals this way.
8. For a product such as bacon to be smoked it often has be shipped offsite to a different facility. The process of smoking is also governed by USDA rules and regulations and many slaughterhouses do not have the space to devote to this. This means it will take longer to get your cuts back if the pieces need to be sent out to another facility.
9. Talk to your butcher about less than ideal animals. There are times, especially with cattle, where the animal may look finished and ready from the outside but when they process the carcass, they find the meat to be less than ideal. Selling tough steaks is not easy, so instruct the processor that if the steaks are not up to muster he should grind them for burger or make stew meat. Granted you will not have the premium steaks to sell but you will not have to sell marginal steaks either.
10. Moving animals to processing is going to be the most traumatic thing they ever experience. From loading to riding in an enclosed box behind a moving vehicle, these are both unnatural and terrifying for the animals. There is no rationalizing this with the stock but you can make your load in easier by prepping in the days prior to putting them in trailer. Put the trailer in the field and put treats in it to entice them to walk in. If that is not possible then use treats and low-stress handling to catch, sort, and push through the handling facilities in preparation for the load out.
There are some great resources for all of the regulations dealing with processing in the state. Here is a link to the Resource Guide to Direct Marketing Livestock and Poultry in the state: https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/resource-guide-to-direct-marketing-livestock-and-poultry.
The marketing guide is an invaluable resource for all things livestock and has an extensive section on slaughter and marketing regulations. This is the last stage in producing animal products. In some cases you have spent years tending to these animals so you absolutely must ensure that the product coming out the processor is the best it can be.
Jason Detzel is Livestock Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County.