Dead Local Meat: Building and Operating a Small-Scale Abattoir

Introduction

Lack of access to abattoirs is affecting small-scale farmers across Australia. Small regional abattoirs have been closing down for years, and the issues smallholders face in accessing large industrial abattoirs are diverse. With the loss of regional abattoirs, farmers are driving very long distances to process small numbers of animals at larger, more centralized facilities. A shift to export focus at large plants has seen pigs ejected from multi-species red meat abattoirs. And at least one poultry abattoir in Victoria has denied farmers access based on the perception that they are ‘competition’ because they produce the same breed of ducks as the abattoir owner, and the same abattoir just informed small-scale growers that they will no longer process their birds at all – with many scheduled to process the very next day.

In an attempt to stay one step ahead of this growing problem of access to processing facilities, we started considering abattoir solutions four years ago. (At the same time we built an on-farm boning room and commercial kitchen to ensure access and control of more of our value chain.) Our initial focus was on mobile abattoirs in hopes of achieving the highest possible welfare at slaughter – no transport, and ideally a totally un-stressed animal whose life is taken without any fear.

Two years ago, I went to see a mobile slaughter unit (MSU) in Kansas in the US, but found that it was in reality parked permanently in a shed. Owner Mike Callicrate, who was very generous with his time and knowledge, shared that it’s difficult to prove a viable model unless you can get a higher throughput than a single farm is likely to generate, and that movement between farms comes with a number of associated costs (e.g. staff accommodation). There are also issues with compliance when operating an abattoir across multiple sites, all with potential zoning issues and/or complicated overlays. Further research has led me to believe that mobile abattoirs might work in remote areas, where the farmers could bear a higher slaughter fee in recompense for the recovered opportunity and motor vehicle costs of long transport distances, but that in a region populated with small-scale livestock farmers such as the central highlands of Victoria, a fixed abattoir is more likely to be both viable and sustainable in the long term.

Shifting our focus to fixed facilities, in July 2017, my life and farming partner Stuart and I went on an abattoir tour and visited eight small-scale abattoirs in nine days over 4200km from Georgia to Vermont to Indiana in the US (one abattoir was still under construction, the other seven were all operational). We found that there are many committed people running viable businesses but that there are significant challenges to sustaining small-scale slaughter facilities, and in particular poultry abattoirs.

The following report was created based on our years of research, the recent tour of abattoirs in the US, and knowledge subsequently shared with us by Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats in North Carolina when we flew her out to participate in Australia’s first Slow Meat Symposium, as well as that gleaned from other farmers and processors who attended Slow Meat. The fully operational farms and plants we visited include: White Oak Pastures (Georgia), Cool Hand Meats (North Carolina), Alleghany Meats (Virginia), T&E Meats (Virginia), Vermont Packinghouse (Vermont), Maple Wind Farm (Vermont), and Gunthorp Farms (Indiana).

We’d like to thank the many farmers and abattoir operators who opened their doors and shared years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom with us. Your openness and generosity are deeply appreciated as we embark on a venture to build our own local abattoir and support others across Australia to do the same. To paraphrase a famous philosopher, ‘those who control the means of production control the world,’ and I’m glad to be in the company of the likes of you taking that control back for the people!

I would also like to thank the Victorian Government for their support in awarding me with a Food Source Scholarship to help make the trip to the US possible.

Lesson One: Slaughter is a break-even business & there’s no money in poultry

Multiple operators told us that slaughter is a break-even business, and that the boning room (further processing) is what makes it work. Having cooking and/or other value-add facilities further increases profitability. We learned that red meat is demonstrably more viable than poultry – just consider that it requires as many people to break down one poultry carcass as it does one beef or pig carcass. Clearly that is an enormous amount of labour for a very small yield, so high numbers of birds through the system are required to justify the process. We were flat told by more than one operator that there’s no money in poultry, and even that some lose money on poultry – dispiriting for poultry growers to say the least.

While the average poultry processed across four poultry abattoirs was 1450 chooks a day, the majority were only up to 1000 in a day. When processing ducks it was frequently emphasized that you need to double the time it takes due to QA time. In terms of staffing – we saw no facilities with less than eight people, even in poultry plants without a boning room. Note that wages in the US are at best 50% of what is paid in Australia, but then they also only command around 50% of the price Australian pastured poultry growers can charge.

A key challenge will be to prove a viable business model for slaughtering poultry. There are a number of on-farm poultry abattoirs in the US (we visited three) and in Australia, which seems to demonstrate that there is a viable model there. However, I’m keen to do more investigation and seek financial insight from those with on-farm abattoirs into just how viable that business model is before promoting it to others.

As I write this, Cool Hand Meats run by Amanda Carter in North Carolina just slaughtered its last chickens. The community came together to keep the plant operating while living in hope of investment from quarters that did not present themselves. While not wanting to be too doomsday, I can’t help but share Amanda’s comment when she was with us in Australia that if they were to go under, she sometimes thought it would be a ‘mercy killing’ for her community of small-scale pastured poultry growers as they struggled to make a decent living.

Lesson Two: Operational Insights

 

Lairage

Temple Grandin has revolutionized the conditions for slaughter in America and elsewhere, and part of how she has dramatically improved welfare for livestock is to design much better lairage that takes into consideration the things that spook or stress animals as they are in holding pens and walking through chutes to approach the knock box.

The best lairage we saw was at Vermont Packinghouse, where Arion has used high poured concrete walls for the holding pens. The solid walls ensure lower stress for the animals (as Temple says, ‘they don’t fear what they don’t see’), they are easy to keep clean, and they should last a very long time. We saw Grandin’s influence in a few other places as well, such as in curved chutes to entries to kill floors.

At one plant we saw workers using high pressure hoses just outside the kill floor, and even though the cattle were in holding pens some distance from the activity, they were clearly stressed and cowering from the noise and flashing movements in the summer sun. It sharpened our focus on the need to get the lairage right to ensure the highest welfare environment pre-slaughter. And it also highlighted the importance of training for all staff to ensure they understand the fundamentals of high welfare livestock handling.

The point was also made that plants need sufficient exterior holding pens for the planned throughput, and that these should also be carefully sited.

Stunning

Knock boxes – we saw one modified beef knock box with head resting and a drop down collar for complete immobilisation before the bolt, which is desirable in the American context as their standards have a zero tolerance for failure in stuns. However, my understanding of Temple Grandin’s work is that she believes that cattle are stressed by total immobilization, so this may not be entirely desirable – more research to be done!

While most plants had separate knock boxes for large and small animals (e.g. cattle v pigs), some had simple modifications in the beef knock box (steel inserts) to make it smaller for pigs. At one plant we also saw the ‘v’ shaped design where the floor drops out from underneath and the ‘v’ holds the pigs suspended, which was used to calm and better immobilize the pigs.

Stunning method – no facility we saw used gas stunning, only captive bolt or electric. Previous research had indicated that carbon dioxide stunning was considered best practice in spite of its potentially aversive qualities due to the lesser (stress-inducing) restraint requirements and lower reliance on highly trained staff for mechanical stuns, but our discussions with Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats and others offered other insights. An issue with gas stunning is convulsions – there can be bruising because of flailing, unlike in an appropriately applied electric shock. For further comparison see EFSA ‘The Stunning Report’.

According to Joe Cloud of T&E Meats, ‘when stunning for hogs, electric is definitely preferable to fixed bolt or bullet.  More sure; far fewer, if any, bad stuns; less thrashing, thus less chance for carcass damage or employee injury; less blood spotting in carcass.’

More research is warranted on stunning methods, and of course cost is a consideration and gas chambers and associated infrastructure may prove prohibitively expensive.

Staffing and Space Requirements

Labour is the most expensive aspect of running a small-scale abattoir, and even more so in a country like Australia where we have a commitment to fair work provisions and a living wage for all. From our observations, the design of the abattoir can play a significant role in having a sustainable staffing profile for the business.

A take-home point after viewing seven operational plants is that dead space causes a loss of efficiency and increased labour component. Smaller spaces encourage highly efficient staffing quotients, a key difference between viability and non. Sometimes automation actually appears to require more people on the floor – there’s a trade off between speed and number of staff required to manage the equipment that needs careful costing to ensure the right decisions are made when purchasing equipment.

‘Every time you pick up an animal and put it back down you lose money,’ said Amanda Carter.

It is considered advantageous to move product out of a plant quickly so as not to take up space. Time in refrigeration needs to be as short as practicable to make room for the next product to maintain optimal throughput.

Conversely, there is a demonstrated demand for dry-ageing facilities for beef, and provision of this is highly desirable in the oft-artisanal space of small-scale producers. Victoria presents a particular challenge in this regard due to the stringent requirements demanded by PrimeSafe for the dry-ageing of beef, in which a separate dedicated chiller would have to be installed, and a testing protocol not required in other states observed, as well as a mandated reduced shelf life. Ageing only the argie (porterhouse/rump/scotch) rather than the whole carcass is an obvious and common way to reduce the space requirement of the dedicated chiller.

Even distribution of slaughtering across the week, months, and year is important for staff. Seasonal livestock such as most poultry can create a problem for a viable operation as staff need secure and regular employment. A stand-alone poultry abattoir would need to manage this risk, and one that is part of a multi-species facility might still present difficulties as staffing quotients might need to fluctuate throughout the year.

In regards to building a multi-species red meat abattoir, the height of the ceiling is important if you want to slaughter cattle, and should be included in the design from the beginning when building a new structure. Three rooms – kill floor, boning room, chill and store – seems to be a common and practical design across species, with a RTE room as a desirable final addition. You need separate curing and product chill rooms for RTE, and possibly packing space as well, to avoid cross-contamination

Customer Relations/Scheduling

Running a small-scale abattoir means dealing with far more clients with custom needs. The work this creates cannot be over-estimated. Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats shared that she spends one-third of her time on customer management, and Joe Cloud of T&E Meats said ‘you have to do a LOT of education and hand holding.’ While we were at Cool Hand Meats a woman came with two rabbits to be slaughtered, and Amanda shared that there had been multiple phone calls and emails – a customer relations workload totally incommensurate with the return to the abattoir. This is just one area where tiered pricing depending on the number of animals being processed is critical to ensuring a viable operation.

In a small-scale abattoir you need to have at least one dedicated office staff member who sets the schedule and handles customer communications by phone and email. It is envisioned that this person also orders consumables, handles compliance, etc.

Many of the operations we visited have a six-month schedule. While this might be good for security of throughput for the abattoir, it has obvious drawbacks for small-scale producers who may not be able to confirm their slaughter dates so far in advance. In the case of a cooperatively-owned abattoir, it exists to serve the needs of its members, and in this case there is a potential conflict as on the one hand, there is a duty to remain viable for the benefit of the whole community, and on the other, to support small-scale farmer members with sufficient flexibility.

Abattoirs are industrial as well as agricultural facilities

Joe Cloud of T&E Meats provided the following very useful input around the siting and design, and energy and water needs of abattoirs, highlighting planning for resilience in the face of climate change:

I cannot emphasize enough that while abattoirs are agricultural facilities, they are also industrial facilities, and they work best with access to adequate infrastructure. Immediate access to public water, power, sewage treatment, gas, plentiful trained tradesmen, and rendering are all preferable to other situations, if possible. Of course, these often aren’t. If you don’t have this you will have to plan very carefully. If you are on wells, you need to test your water regularly & have robust filtration/treatment systems. If you are far from your local substation, you will need a good back-up generator. If you are on a drainfield, you will need to invest in a very good design, and also have traps and sumps to remove as much blood and grease and fat as possible from graywater.

I also think that in the years ahead, with climate change, we have to think differently about our world, and plan more robust adaptive infrastructure systems. Think about winds. We are likely to have more and higher wind storms. How are you planning for that? Especially your roof systems, and your back-up generators for when power lines are blown down. Look at Puerto Rico right now – a disaster. What about fire? If you are in a rural area, are your facilities vulnerable to wildfire? What about drought? If you are on well systems, what will you do in a severe drought? Are you capable of enduring one? What about flooding? We are going to be experiencing much much more precipitation levels in the years ahead. What is now considered a 100 years flood will become commonplace – look at the recent hurricane in Houston, TX – a disaster. DO NOT site your facility where it is vulnerable to flooding, unless you can also provide some adequate mitigation infrastructure.

I think that solar panels are great. But, unless you have a significant battery system (very expensive) your system will be inoperable in case of a regional power outage. Still need back-up generators. Also, a solar array may be vulnerable to damage from high winds – must be built stout.

In the design phase hire a very good mechanical engineer, and emphasize qualities of sustainability and low cost of operation over low initial costs.

Ideas – cluster compressors together and capture waste heat through de-superheaters. Use gas conversion solar technologies to preheat water for sanitation. Abattoirs use a LOT of hot water.

When we installed a new hot water system, I looked at a lot of on-demand systems, like Renai, and I thought I was going to go that way. But in the end, I realized that they were fussy, and needed a good bit of tinkering, and that I was not going to have a qualified and dedicated engineer on staff, and so went with a high efficiency but more traditional system of ganged up hot water heaters. You want simple robust systems.

Think about solar angles and roof lines when siting and designing your building – if your roof is designed as a solar panel support system, that can reduce the costs of such a system, which in the long run can really help save money for refrigeration/water heating costs. Find someone who is forward thinking. However, also give a lot of thought to maintenance trade-offs. You DO NOT want down-time.

Waste management – an opportunity rather than a liability

The on-farm abattoirs we saw appeared to be making the most of what are often waste streams for abattoirs sited in industrial areas. There are opportunities for further revenue as well as ecological benefits from processing ‘waste’ on site into compost or other value-added products. However, Joe Cloud offered a note of caution:

As Will Harris showed you, you can do your own waste management through compost. But you need a good design, and adequate supply of inputs. And that will require labor adding to overhead costs.

Compost – make ‘lasagne’ of windrow compost heaps with abattoir waste and local agricultural and forestry carboniferous waste (See Cornell Waste Management Institute for excellent resources on safe carcass and waste processing options.) We saw a great example of this at White Oak Pastures, where Will Harris makes good use of his abattoir ‘waste’ mixed with ubiquitous local peanut shell husks.

Value add bones, etc

  • Dehydrated chicken feet, pig trotters, ears, etc as dog treats
  • Tallow and/or lard candles
  • Tallow and/or lard soap
  • Decorative skulls
  • Hides salted on-site and tanned – potential relationship with local traditional tannery to make a range of leather products.

Business Structure & Funding Model

One reason it is difficult to run a viable abattoir is because in a highly industrialised food system that values cheapness over quality the profit margin will never be high, and in many cases will not be sustainable. We believe that nobody should profit from slaughter – it’s a critical part of the food chain that should provide a service for a fee, not profits for shareholders. In Australia we’ve seen the closure of countless abattoirs over the past twenty years, including the recent shut down of Churchill, Australia’s largest domestic-only abattoir (which processed up to 2300 beef carcasses per week and did 20% of Woolworths’ northern processing).

Given this context, I’ve always believed any abattoir we build must be a not-for-profit, and preferably also a cooperative. That is not to say it shouldn’t pay all workers fairly and run as a highly professional business with clear accountabilities, but there should not be shareholders who take an enduring profit from early investment and drive the cost up and viability down. As such, the start-up funding must be carefully procured, most likely from a mix of government grants and community funds.

In terms of those accountabilities, Joe Cloud says, ‘responsibility and authority has to be clear – and simple. When things break or go wrong – and in a meat plant that is likely to be EVERY DAY – it needs to be clear who has decision-making authority, and that person or those persons need to be right there, right then.’

Our Hope: the feasibility of Hepburn Meat Collective

We want to build a multi-species abattoir in Daylesford, here in the central highlands of Victoria. We have a thriving region of small-scale producers who regularly collaborate and support each other, a strong community of like-minded eaters, and also a thriving tourism industry, with a Council that has included outreach and educational opportunities from agriculture as part of the strategic brief of our shire. Together we are working to build food and agriculture systems that are ethical and ecologically sound, and the Hepburn Meat Collective is the next logical step to ensure our ability to continue this important and fulfilling work.

Our initial thinking was that we would start with poultry, then add a boning room with cook facilities, then build the red meat facility and ensure it’s of a size to slaughter everything from lambs and pigs to full size cattle. We’re seeking advice from the consultants to whom we have access through the Federal Government’s Farming Together program to see whether we can demonstrate a viable poultry facility before settling on the exact model and build process.

For the reasons discussed above, our preference at this stage is also that the abattoir will be a cooperative – co-owned by farmers and potentially other community members (there is much more to be discussed before we can determine the optimum model for coop membership). Including all species from the beginning will ensure buy in from more farmers than if we only focus on poultry in the initial stage. So while a staged build is envisioned, the entire project should be scoped, costed and planned for.

Staffing – our aim is to have a diversified facility where staff can work across the system – e.g. a day on a farm, a day on slaughtering, a day on processing, a day on distribution… and no one killing five days a week. As a small-scale abattoir, we don’t envision being able to fully employ people at just one thing, but there is potential employment across the value chain. The facility could in fact function as a farmer incubator, teaching whole value chain skills to help develop a future generation of farmers and farm and food workers.

While this highly diversified farmer incubator model is our preferred staffing model, we acknowledge the need for specialization and the challenges of cross-training a diverse workforce. We envision a need to balance our hope for a socially just and transformational system with the pragmatism required to run a successful operation.

The current preferred site is at the old Daylesford abattoir which has 100 acres attached – this gives a great deal of scope for the project to develop into a world-leading food hub. We envision that the project that starts with an abattoir, boning room, and commercial kitchen, but could also include on-site composting, rendering, leather production, and other methods of creating a no-waste nutrient-cycling operation, as well as ensuring highest animal welfare practices by locating the holding pens somewhat removed from the entrance to the kill floor. The site also already has like-minded small-scale existing tenants with food processing and distribution facilities, something we see as deeply synergistic to the project.

Download the full report below with additional appendices regarding ‘the need’ for abattoirs and detailed notes on the facilities we visited.

171103_Jonas abattoir research report_final

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

5 thoughts on “Dead Local Meat: Building and Operating a Small-Scale Abattoir”

  1. Bloody brilliant Tammi, I’ll be studying this very closely, getting fed up with the status quo here in the West

  2. Well researched and an interesting read Tammi. We’re considering an on-farm meat business model that only processes what the farm can produce… and contracts the kill / butchering to those with the skills and qualifications. Would need to be very low capital costs to cover less throughput, but far less complications with staffing. Thoughts?

  3. Tammi you have set the bar high for full transparency and knowledge sharing. Thanks so much. Our business has succeeded because of you and Stuart. Can’t deny it. I have printed the full report for bedtime reading. 🙂

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