So you produce a lovely, fleshy animal for slaughter. How does it get from your farm to a diner’s plate? What are the pieces of infrastructure needed in that journey, along with the costs? In this three-part story you will learn all the complicated and mundane details (from my perspective & understanding as a former farmer), first beginning with getting the animal off the farm to be harvested. The second part will cover the butchery of the meat with all it’s options (or lack of them) while the third part will cover some potential solutions in creating a meat processing infrastructure that works for direct market producers, the processors, and for consumers. While this article is aimed chiefly at meat producers and processors, consumers will get a much better understanding of the complexities and costs of getting better meat on their plate if they read along. I hope you will to.
1. Animal gets loaded into a livestock trailer of some sort. This requires some sort of capture, penning, & loading infrastructure on the farm, labor available at that time, and a proper livestock trailer and vehicle to pull it. Bare minimum cost is probably $3,000 for a trailer and $10,000 for a truck strong enough to pull it. More typical cost is probably around $25,000.
2. Animal gets transported to a place of slaughter. This requires a competent driver, fuel, wear & tear on the vehicle, potential animal stress & weight loss. From discussions with farmers from around the country, a 4 to 8 hour round-trip sounds pretty normal for this journey. Expect a cost of $240-360 each trip if you pay for a driver (or pay for your time to drive, avg. $15/hr.).
3. Animal gets slaughtered. First, you might have to call months in advance to get an appointment for slaughter. Animals are hard to predict when they will be ready, so this is no easy scheduling. Small animals may cost between $30-50 each for slaughter, whereas cattle may cost around $100 each. Factors to consider are drop off procedures, how the facility kills the animal, what parts they save, if you will have to pay to get parts back, will they dry age the animal for you, etc. A special consideration for swine is whether or not the slaughterhouse can scald and scrape off the hair rather than remove the skin. There is considerable value in the skin left on many of the cuts of pork, however many slaughterhouses do not have scalders.
4. Carcass gets transported to a place of butcher. Often this is not in the same facility as the slaughter, so the carcass must be moved. Some slaughterhouses have a truck for this, but you will have to pay for the transport. Another possibility in some states is that they allow you to pick up the carcass in your own inspected refrigerated vehicle and do the carcass transport yourself. Expect an additional $25-50 per carcass in transport fees. Logistics of carcass pick up and drop off are very important. For example, do they have rails? Will they save and transport the offal for you? Ask questions about every little detail to avoid problems down the line.
5. Carcass gets butchered. For basic fresh cuts, you can expect costs between .60-1.00/lb. for the cut & wrap. For sausages, cured meats, smoking, and other further processing of your meat, expect to pay an extra 1.00-2.00/lb. Wrapping may be in simple butcher paper, which does not freeze well nor does it allow the customer to see the product, or vacuum seal, which is more costly but can make the meat easier to sell. Most cut & wrap facilities will freeze your meat for you, but make sure it is done well. Warm meat on the inside of boxes may not freeze well and could rot or have ice crystals build up inside the packages, leading to product loss. Add an additional $75-100 in costs to pick up the meat if you pay for a driver (or pay for your time to drive, avg. $15/hr.). Will you be picking up warm boxes or already frozen? How many carcasses can hang at the cut & wrap facility and for how long? Again, ask lots of detailed questions.
6. Cold storage of the packaged meat cuts. Some areas of the United States where there are a lot of food processing or fish processing facilities may have cold storage space available to rent. You typically pay by the pallet load of product and are sometimes charged for each time you want to get in and take product off the pallet. This may cost you between $25-75/pallet/month. If there are no facilities around for cold storage rental, then you will probably have to purchase your own freezers. Depending on your meat volume, this may involve large chest freezers or a walk-in freezer. You will also have to pay for the electricity to power those freezers. A large chest freezer will cost around $800 and a walk-in freezer could range between $3,000-10,000 depending on the size, new vs. used, etc. You will also need a safe, dry place to install the freezers, along with the proper electricity voltage. If you don’t store a lot of meat at one time, you may get away with much less freezer space, but that also might mean more trips to the slaughterhouse and the costs associated with that. Good cold storage will give you more flexibility to kill a lot of animals at once (say in times of drought, flooding, high hay prices, etc.). Look for cold storage close to your house/office so trips to it won’t be that costly.
On the low end, if you wish to sell meat directly to consumers in the form of retail cuts (which require USDA inspected slaughter & cut & wrap), then you are looking at the following costs:
By load: By animal:
Truck/trailer deprec. $140*
Transport to slaughter $300 (avg.)
Transport to butcher $40 (avg.)
Cut & wrap $100-500
Pick up meat $85
Cold storage (rental) $150 (3 month avg.)
Totals: $675 $170-640/ea.
*Depreciation rate based on a 25k truck/trailer set-up with a 10 year life-span and 5 trips a year for the trailer (which cost 5k) and 50 trips a year for the truck (which cost 20k), for a depreciation rate of $140 a trip. Truck is used for other farm duties beyond just animal processing. This rate may be high for you. Use your own truck & trailer set-up to determine your per trip depreciation cost.
So if it costs you $675 per trip, regardless of how many animals you have on the trailer, it probably makes sense to get as many animals on the trailer that it will allow. However, there may be a limit to the number of animals that the slaughterhouse will take at one time. I have heard of one small facility that will only allow up to 8 cattle at one time, even if the farmers trailer will hold 15. So this can limit your options and your ability to spread your costs out amongst more animals. Your costs per animal are highly dependent on the type of animal you are processing (lamb being on the cheaper end, cattle on the higher end). It will also vary depending on what kind of further processing you elect to do. This is highly contingent on the quality of workmanship of the butchering facility, the prices they charge, and the kind of customers you sell to. Some folks like roasts and steaks, others like sausage and hot dogs, others like bacon and jerky, still others are looking for salumis and pates. Most USDA-inspected cut & wrap facilities have a limited number of products they will create from your meat and you will not even have the option of dry-curing or gourmet products. You will be given a limited menu from which to work with. This is a subject I will go into further detail in my next story.
If you take 10 lambs to be harvested, you are looking at a total cost of $2,375, or $237 per animal. If you yield just 35 pounds of usable meat (avg.) on each lamb, you will have to charge at least $6.79/lb. just to cover your processing costs. That does not even include your costs of production to raise it to slaughter weight. If you take 30 lambs instead, your total cost will be $5,775 or $192 per animal. That is a savings of $45 per animal.
If you take 5 pigs to be harvested, your total costs will be around $1,800, or $360 per animal. However, if you take 15 pigs at once, your total costs will be $4,050 or $270 per animal. That is a savings of $90 per animal.
The ability to take more animals is also dependent on your production strategy. If you don’t have 30 lambs ready at the same time, or 15 pigs fully grown out, then you will be forced to take fewer numbers of animals on each trip. It may make sense for you to produce your animals in age groups that will be close to the same size at harvest and will allow you to maximize the efficiency of your truck & trailer, while also fitting within the constraints of the slaughterhouse. There are many pieces that must be aligned to make the most efficient use of your time, lower your processing costs, and supply the meat you need for your market. One solution if you don’t have enough animals to take at once is to coordinate with a neighbor who has animals that need to go to slaughter at the same facility. They can pay for their portion of the transport costs, helping to lower yours.
Other ways to save on the processing costs listed above are to:
-Find closer slaughter & butcher facilities, ideally ones in which they do both at the same site. This will greatly reduce your transport costs. For example, we had to travel a total of 800 miles to get our pigs USDA slaughtered and butchered. That trip in gas, wear & tear alone cost nearly $500 for us. After factoring in labor costs and depreciation, we were looking at an $800 trip. For the 15 pigs we could trailer at one time, that added over $50 in costs per pig.
-Buy cheaper trailer & truck, which will reduce your depreciation costs but they also may break down sooner. This is a trade off you will have to heavily weigh.
-Ask for only basic cut & wrap processing, no sausages, no cured products, etc. This will reduce your processing costs for each animal by 30-50%. However, this may limit your ability to market the meat. You also may be able to mark up the further processed products enough to more than cover the additional processing costs. Much of that will depend on the quality & craftsmanship of the butchering. I will go into much more detail on this subject in Part 2.
-Cold storage may be cheaper if you move your meat volume quicker. It might look attractive to buy your own freezers, but this may not save you money after factoring in depreciation along with added costs of electricity (& the need to have a back-up generator on hand in case your power goes out).
Stay tuned for the next part of this story in the coming weeks where I will dig deeper into the meaty subject of butchery. If you are a meat producer, please let me know your costs, how far you have to travel, and what processing bottlenecks you are dealing with in your neck of the woods. Let’s get a conversation going….
P.S. The picture above is of a young roasting pig we slaughtered at our farm for personal use. Because it was so small, we were able to scald it in a home-made scalding tank, thus preserving the skin on.