Take a Tour of the New Prestage Foods Pork Plant


By Betsy Freese, Successful Farming

Agriculture.com - 8/6/2019


Let's take a tour of the newest and most modern pork packing plant in America, Prestage Foods of Iowa, near Eagle Grove.


Grab a hard hat, white coat, and boots. Put your rings and other jewelry in your pocket. Wash your hands. Walk over a disinfectant pad. Let’s go. (If you are squeamish, skip over the kill floor photos.)


Our first guide is Jere Null, CEO (right). Null spent 22 years with Smithfield before joining Prestage in 2017 to oversee the new plant.


The plant opened in March and is killing about 5,400 hogs a day, which is on schedule, says Null. The bulk of the pigs harvested today, about 85%, are owned by Prestage Farms, but that percentage will drop to 60% when the plant is running at full speed.


Prestage Farms is based in Clinton, North Carolina, and owns 185,000 sows. It is the largest family-owned pork producer in the U.S. today.


“This is the most advanced pork facility in the entire world," says Null. "We built this plant with a producer mindset. Producers always look at packers with a skeptical eye. It was clear that the capital we were investing in the live end of the pig business was not being rewarded proportionately to the packer end. You have to vertically integrate or you are not going to be around. Prestage did it once in turkeys, so we are doing it in pork.”


A small percent of the pork from the plant is being exported to Mexico and China, but that will increase, says Null. The goal is to export 30% of the product out of here.


There are about 600 workers at the plant now. It will take 920 to man the plant at full capacity.


The plant was designed so managers can get to the cut floor and the kill floor quickly and easily, says Null. 


Much of the plant is automated. Robots pull ribs and loins, and cut bellies with a water jet. “We are using revolutionary equipment in the plant,” says Null. “We have tried to replace a lot of the laborious jobs with automation.”


The plant is kept as dry as possible, for less bacteria, says Null. “People used to believe you had to wet everything down, but now we know you want to keep plants dry.”


These carcasses are coming right out of the cooler. The pigs were killed yesterday. The floor is running today about 800 head an hour, but will ultimately go to about 1,300 head. A computer is taking an image of every ham that comes through.


“There are a lot of things on the cutting side of this business that matter, including the perfection of the splitting,” says Null. “I’ve never worked anywhere with better process control than this plant.”


The plant is not boning hams yet. That will be phase two. Today, most of the hams are going to Mexico or to other companies like Smithfield or Hormel to be processed.


About 45% of the meat is going to go to industrial customers. Hams, bellies, and trimmings are going to processors that make sausage, bacon, and ham. About 55% of the meat is going to retail and food service. The rest is sold fresh.


Export customers like Japan want a red meat and firm, not oily, fat.


Everything on the cut floor is computerized. Most of the equipment is locked out and will shut down if there is a safety violation. “As an industry, we had a bad safety record in the 1980s and ‘90s,” says Null. “This equipment is literally locked down now so you can’t get caught in it.”


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Let’s head back to the beginning of the process.


Our new guide is Eric Hogle, director of procurement. Hogle works with producers. He grew up in nearby Clarion, Iowa. After getting a degree in animal science, he worked for Hormel in Nebraska where he got experience in animal welfare, carcass evaluation, and the cut floor. “I have had a roundabout experience in everything in a plant,” says Hogle. He joined Prestage in January 2018 as employee #4 (Jere Null was the first employee), so he was able to weigh in on the barn design and other aspects of the plant.


The top managers at Prestage were all plucked from other packers such as Smithfield, Hormel, Tyson, and Seaboard-Triumph. “We took what worked well at all those companies and went one step farther in automation,” says Hogle...


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