Beef shortage, perhaps; cattle shortage, no


Deanna Nelson-Licking, Tri-State Livestock (SD)

May 21, 2020


The current crisis in our meat processing industry has brought to light many of the problems with the modern, large packing houses and the lack of small custom inspected plants. The big packers are struggling with labor issues, reduced capacity and widespread infection rates, and the small plants are swamped, most of them are booked through the first of the year and are unable to find more workers. There are record numbers of cattle on feed and they are heavier than a year ago, compounded by lower slaughter rates.


John Brown, lifelong meat industry worker and Master Sausage Maker from Libby, Montana, sees the current events as a starting point to change the way meat is harvested and processed. “I was a union certified meat cutter by the time I graduated high school. The beef industry changed, I grew up standing on sawdust, the packing houses were dry, the only place that was wet was the kill floor. If we dropped something it went in the waste bin, now everyone wears rubber boots and what drops can be washed in the sink and thrown back on the belt. They didn’t have these big huge giant farms; small operations raised them until the cattle went to finishing lots shortly before slaughter to be fed grain. We had local sale rings, and the cattle came in by rail and were processed by local packing houses. There was a patchwork of small USDA plants around the state of Washington. They were proud tradesmen, butchers that knew the industry, not an assembly line. Men who cared about what they were doing and did a quality job. Whole carcass butchering provides a cleaner better process, because tradesmen care about their job. Dry-aging beef sucks the moisture off the meat, so they have about a 15-17% shrink which is a good thing. Meat lasts longer, and there is no humidity in the plant.”


Brown worked at IBP and ran the brisket boning line for the work experience. “The plant was wet, I would have to have men wrap towels on brooms to soak up condensation on the ceiling since the USDA wouldn’t allow a plant to open with condensation present that could drip on the meat. The old way was a much cleaner, thoughtful and humane process, in the small plants everybody was like family. We need morality in the industry, morality in business and morality in processing. What Temple Grandin has done to the pre-entry process needs applied to the rest of the plant,” Brown said.


Montana is a self-inspection state with roving USDA inspectors. “We need more USDA inspectors, the small custom plants to come back and USDA inspected kill trucks. We have to go back to the old ways and do it right or go back to the jungle,” said Brown.


Kathryn Miller is a third generation Oklahoma rancher, who also works within the packing industry. She helps small and medium sized packers move product and also is involved in food service. She has a different perspective than many in the industry. “The supply chain is broken, the packers are facing challenges to protect their labor force and find skilled workers. One in four new hires don’t make it a week, they are starting at twenty dollars an hour with a bonus if they stay a month. The fabrication room temperature is less than 34 degrees; it requires standing for long periods of time in cold, damp conditions, making repetitive movements. High school equivalency isn’t necessary, and most major packers operate a program to help their employees receive a GED, and they offer tuition assistance for employees seeking college credit.”


Miller points out that packers now have increased labor costs and PPE costs. Many ranchers and feeders are talking about the $1,000 + profit margins packers appear to be enjoying, which is publicly known because of federal reporting of the price of boxed beef reporting, and fed cattle.


The numbers “thrown around” are gross margins not true profits, she says...