Beef City

by Bryan Salvage
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Cargill's beef complex in Schuyler, Neb. spans 577,000 sq, ft,. The slaughter and fabrication facility sits on a much larger 107-acre site.
(photo courtesy of Cargill)

While driving west on rural US Rte. 30 on the southern outskirts of Schuyler, Neb., it first appears to the left on the horizon. It’s impossible to miss Cargill’s sprawling 577,000-sq.-ft. beef complex. Totaling more than seven acres under one roof, this slaughter/fabrication facility sits on a 107-acre site. As impressive as its massive footprint is, operations inside the plant, where 2,200 employees process 900,000 tons of beef products per year, is even more impressive.

Gazing down upon the the harvesting and processing floors from a series of catwalks high above, the chaotic yet synchronized scene below resembles a Beef City where thousands of people are pushing and pulling in the same direction to keep massive amounts of beef flowing during two production shifts a day, five days a week. As a result, more than 1,000 SKUs of beef products are produced under iconic beef brands such as Sterling Silver, Certified Angus Beef, Certified Angus Beef brand Prime, Angus Pride, Ranchers Reserve, Blackwell Angus, Butcher Block and Cargill’s Own Certified Ground Beef, plus private-label brands. Products produced are sold throughout the Americas and in Asia, notably Japan and South Korea.

“We produce fresh boxed beef, frozen boxed beef, ground beef, beef trimmings, finely textured beef [FTB], red and white offal, fresh [green] hides, by-products for pet foods and rendered by-products. Our largest volume is our fresh boxed beef,” says Jarrod Gillig, vice president and general manager of the facility. “We make somewhere around 8.8 boxes of beef products per head of cattle. Each box will include anywhere from two to 12 bags of beef. We go through a lot of boxes and bags.”

Most beef products Schuyler produces are considered commodity. “Today when we think of commodity, we think of our standard-make products, which are closely trimmed [1/4 inch fat],” he explains. “We produce some case-ready items primarily found in our ground-beef operation.”

Cargill ground beef ranges from 73-percent to 96-percent lean. FTB, which is 95 percent lean, can be mixed into it, based on a customer’s specifications, to achieve the right lean percentage for each product. An organic acid is used as a processing aid in producing its FTB to help prevent bacteria growth. FTB is 100-percent beef that is exceptionally lean. Fat separated from it is turned into tallow, which is not added to ground beef but sold out in the tallow market. Cargill’s FTB is frozen into blocks, undergoes pathogen tests and is boxed for shipment.

Without FTB, ground beef would cost a lot more, the company relays. Thanks to this process, Cargill captures another 26 lbs. of beef from each animal harvested. Because FTB is 100-percent beef, labeling is not required. However, Cargill voluntarily labels its fresh, branded, ground beef containing FTB to provide transparency.

Carcasses chill down to between 40°F to 45°F and remain there for 28 to 36 hours.

Most products produced at Schuyler are packaged in clear or branded sealed bags. Bulk packaging is used on some products, including beef trimmings. Ground beef is packaged in clear or printed film. Boxes include Cargill’s standard brown box or premium branded boxes.

A speedy process

Consistently sized cattle arrive daily from 7 am to 10 pm on approximately 140 semi-trucks. “We process 5,100 head per day,” Gillig says. Cattle are sourced mostly from Nebraska, but also Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Minnesota. Schuyler produces what amounts to 6.1 million, 8-oz. servings of beef per day.

“We hold between 1,800 and 2,100 head of cattle in the yards [at one time],” adds Don Porter, harvesting manager. Cattle rest there two to four hours before heading to the knock-box on the harvest floor.

“From knocking until that carcass enters the hot box takes approximately 35 minutes,” Porter says. Once into the hot box, carcasses chill down to between 40°F to 45° F helped by a water-spray chill and carcasses remain there for 28 to 36 hours. Green hides are shipped out after they have been chilled using recycled water from the carcass spray chill process.

Schuyler strives to use water in- plant at least twice. “The chill water we use in our hot boxes is recaptured,” Gillig says. “And in biogas methane recovery, we utilize the bacteria to produce methane gas, which is pumped back into the plant. One boiler uses it, which decreases our energy usage by about 33 percent.”

Cargill beef plants use an automated Camera Assessment System for grading. It’s the first major beef processor to use this system where a photo of each carcass’ ribeye is taken allowing the system to objectively determine marbling, weight, color, ribeye area and fat thickness. Improvements gained using this system include quality grade and branded beef certification is more consistent across plants, shifts and graders at each Cargill beef plant; yield grading is computed based solely on the camera ribeye area and back-fat thickness with hot carcass weight; and data for grid-based payments and pre-harvest decisions (genetics and management) are very accurate, consistent and repeatable.

“They make it all look so easy.” — Jarrod Gillig, vice president, general manager

More than 75 percent of the beef Schuyler produces is graded Choice or higher. Once grading is completed, the beef moves to the fabrication floor. Out on the fab floor, carcasses are weighed and product is broken down into primals, chucks, rounds, ribs and loins at 10 production tables, says JT Hopkins, fabrication floor manager. “Approximately 550-580 people per shift work on the fab floor,” he adds. “We break the primals down into boxed beef, pack them through Cryovac machines, seal packages, weigh up the boxes and then they proceed to our boxed-beef distribution center. We also produce about 500,000 lbs. of ground beef per day, run an FTB operation and ship quite a bit of trim out the door.”

Twenty minutes after the carcasses enter fab, they exit as finished products packed in boxes. From there, product moves into the boxed storage system and then onto the truck.

Food safety first

Maintaining and enhancing food safety is always the top priority of Tom Meyer, food-safety manager. Mike Bideaux, quality-control supervisor who has worked at Schuyler for more than 30 years, says his department’s biggest challenge is dealing with the high volume and wide amount of products. Porter says maintaining food safety is harvesting’s greatest challenge, however, a battery of leading-edge technologies and interventions ensure the beef remains safe and wholesome throughout this process. After stunning, the plant’s food-safety interventions begin with a hide-on carcass wash and then onto steam-vacuuming, a mid-line organic acid spray, a pre-evisceration 180°F carcass wash, a 180°F neck wash, a post-evisceration organic acid rinse, steam pasteurization, and primal intervention cabinets. Ground beef and trim are subject to mandatory test-and-hold practices.

Employees undergo annual training for food and worker safety. Remote video auditors monitor worker actions.

The plant has achieved ISO 14001 (environmental) and 18001 (safety) certifications. Schuyler’s Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, Helix and N-60 sampling are also employed while real-time video monitoring of animal-handling and intervention technologies take place in the Video War Room.

“We call it the War Room because it’s where we can look at all the action as it happens real-time on four monitor screens,” Gillig says.

One set of cameras are monitored remotely by video auditors based in Huntsville, Ala., at the headquarters of Arrowsight. If a deviation is identified, they immediately send a text message to the harvest manager and Gillig. Within five minutes of an occurrence, immediate action is taken. Whoever’s manning the War Room can view employee actions from approximately 98 percent of all jobs on the plant floor.

“If an employee who is legging [a beef carcass] does not rotate his knife correctly, our War Room monitor can stop the chain by pushing a button,” Gillig explains. “Then she can watch to ensure corrective action is taken, validate that and restart the chain.”

Other screens focus on interventions. “We’re looking at pressures, pH levels, etc. If anything is getting out of deviation or a deviation occurs, panel lights will identify the failure and we get an immediate notification of that prior to doing a visual out on the floor,” he adds.

Distribution

Once products are boxed, they’re processed for distribution. Schuyler’s automated distribution center added 40,000 sq. ft. in 2010. An automated box-handling and computerized-shipping system have replaced a manually operated system. From a savings standpoint, plant managers looked at the turnaround of inventory, the accuracy of loads and safety and efficiencies. “We had 105 employees in our manual [distribution system]; now we’re down to 29 people,” says Rich Brabec, shipping manager.

The Schuyler facility's distribution center added 40,000 sq. ft. in 2010.

The automated storage and retrieval system automates box-handling downstream of the case sealers. It receives and buffers boxes upstream of shipping. As orders are processed, boxes are automatically retrieved in a precise sequence and either automatically palletized or directly loaded on a semi-trailer clean, cold, correct and on time. The new system supports 53,000 box-storage locations and can deliver boxes either as pallets or as a box stream to be floor-loaded and can build mixed SKU pallet loads. The system manages a variety of production and shipping scenarios without interrupting customer delivery schedules. Customized software links the activities of the individual sub-systems while simultaneously integrating them into Cargill’s business system.

“Our system is comprised of a palletized unit load combined with an individual case-pick system,” Gillig says. “From a capacity standpoint, we’re running about 60,000 boxes [per day]; we can go higher than that, but we don’t want to be known as a box storage center – we want to be known as a distribution center.”

Boxes of products are quickly loaded and unloaded into the storage rack area, which towers approximately five stories high, via robotic cranes. This automated system ensures delivering correct orders. “Twenty-five years ago, there may have been 200-300 SKUs at this plant. “Today, we have more than 1,000 SKUs,” Gillig says.

Approximately 80 percent of final product is destined for domestic markets and leaves the plant refrigerated. “International shipping is close to 20 percent of what we make in Schuyler …we’re hoping to grow that a little bit more,” says Brabec, who managed the most recent addition to the distribution center. “About 90 percent of our outgoing loads are palletized.”

Schuyler is the only Cargill plant producing Spencer Beef products for Japan. Cargill reintroduced Spencer Beef to the Japanese marketplace in April 2013 after Japan announced in January 2013 it was allowing imports of US beef products from cattle less than 30 months old.

Some products bound for overseas are frozen. “A Nor-Am Cold Storage refrigerated/frozen warehouse is connected to the plant by an enclosed conveyor,” Gillig says. “Finished product from production travels via a conveyor system directly to Nor-Am, which eliminates multiple handling. All frozen products go to Nor-Am; we only ship fresh, refrigerated from our facility. They’re a good partner.”

Recent capital investments at Schuyler totaled $3.85 million for various projects. Last year, it added a #2 tallow recovery system to its rendering area, which resulted in solid improvements in its waste-water system.

In-plant training

Schuyler employees undergo annual training for food and worker safety. Food-safety training ties into the facility’s HACCP plan, GMPs and the team’s role in ensuring safe, wholesome beef. “Our team reviews their JTP [job task procedures] annually in addition to our monthly training, which covers topics across the facility,” Gillig says. “We complete daily safety checks with our team and spend a lot of time on behavioral-based observations capturing both the positive work habits while identifying the potential risks and correcting these behaviors.”

Ergonomic assists are used throughout the plant and include an automated hide puller and moveable platforms to help split carcasses. “We continue to look at and develop new processes to incorporate more automation into our systems,” Gillig says. “There are areas that with current available technology and our speeds, it is very difficult to trade the skill of our team with automation. As it makes sense to build automation and improve safety for our employees, we will and do look for these opportunities.”

The company’s 75,000-sq.-ft. Cargill Innovation Center in Wichita, Kan., oversees and assists Schuyler in new product development. It features research, development, culinary, lab, pilot plant and distribution capabilities. It supports Cargill beef, turkey, pork and other company businesses.

During the plant tour, plant managers continuously lauded their employees. While on a catwalk high above the fabrication floor at the end of the tour, Gillig grinned and says while scanning hundreds of workers working the lines and tables below, “They make it all look so easy.”

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