Tyson Foods Dakota City
Jason Poole (left), complex manager and Steve Stouffer, Tyson Fresh Meats' president at Tyson's Dakota City, Nebraska, beef processing plant. 

Editor’s Note: MEAT+POULTRY’s longtime Contributing Editor Steve Kay first visited Tyson Foods’ Dakota City, Nebraska, beef complex in 1987 and the feature story, “Inside the Green Machine,” appeared in M+P’s December 1987 issue. The story offered a surprisingly candid peek at how then-IBP operated. Exactly 29 years later, Kay returned to Dakota City to tour a complex that is vastly different from what he first saw.

The four-story office block is still the same and gives you a clue that you have arrived at Tyson’s Dakota City, Nebraska, beef complex. Then you get a glimpse of the massive plant hidden behind white-washed walls. But not until you pass a security desk and walk hundreds of yards down spotless corridors do you begin to get a sense that you are entering the belly of a giant.

The complex celebrated its 50th year of operations on Sept. 2 with a picnic for employees and invited guests. Three days earlier, the author joined Jason Poole, complex manager, and Dan Brooks, Tyson senior vice president and general manager of Beef Operations, on a private tour.

IBP and now Tyson Fresh Meats have always regarded the complex as its flagship beef plant. In M+P’s 1987 coverage of the plant, it was described as the battleship of the IBP fleet. The plant then covered 600,000 sq. ft. and dominated the nearby community and the greater Sioux City, Iowa, metropolitan area.

Today, the complex is a startling three times larger, so it might be more appropriate to call it an aircraft carrier. The complex has expanded from 18 acres on the ground to 29 acres. More impressively, the area under roof covers 42 acres and 1.8 million sq. ft. To achieve this and to install the very latest technologies in worker safety, ergonomics and food safety, Tyson Foods has spent $237 million in the past 10 years. Tyson Fresh Meats’ President Steve Stouffer could thus be forgiven for telling the picnic crowd that the complex is “the best, biggest and most important beef plant in the entire world.”

The plant dwarfs its neighborhood more than ever. Dakota City has a population of about 1,900. The complex employs 4,800 people at the plant and in the four-story office. Its annual payroll is $148 million. It locally spent $50 million in fiscal 2015, excluding livestock purchases. Tyson spent more than $2.5 billion in 2015 to buy area cattle to supply the plant.

Then and now

IBP began construction of the plant in 1964. Its total sales that year were a mere $181 million. Today, Tyson’s beef business generates more than $17 billion in sales. But IBP designed the plant to be a monster and to give it a big advantage over its competitors in the production of boxed beef. Plant operations began on Feb. 18, 1966, and it was soon harvesting 12,000 cattle per week. That same year, IBP moved its corporate headquarters to Dakota City from Denison, Iowa, where the company had opened its first plant in 1961.

Some basic facts give an initial idea of the size of the complex. Tyson spent three years building a brand-new slaughter floor, which covers 150,000 sq. ft. It began first-shift operations in February 2015 and second shift operations in March 2015. The old floor’s capacity was 4,800 head per day and the new floor’s capacity is 390 head per hour, which works out to just under 6,000 head per day over the two shifts.

The carcass processing or fabrication floor, which Tyson completely rebuilt in 2006, covers 140,000 sq. ft. The upgrade combined three separate rooms into one. It has nine boning tables, with 1,100 employees per shift staffing the tables. The floor has the capacity to process 7,200 carcasses per day. It can produce up to 1,500 different products or SKUs (stock-keeping units).

Both the slaughter and fabrication floors recover bone, fat, trimmings, hides, offal and all other parts of the animal. Tyson turns these into 250 to 300 allied products that are used in the making of various foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and clothing. The complex’s extensive hide processing and tanning area includes blue chrome tanning. IBP was one of the first beef processors to adopt this process.

All this means a lot of beef to be shipped to customers in the US and all around the world. The plant produces enough beef in a single week to feed the population of Omaha (just under 450,000) for a year, Tyson President Tom Hayes told the anniversary picnic attendees. And the number of hides the factory harvests would provide leather seating for 7,000 automobiles, he said.

The immensity of the facility is even more apparent during a plant tour. What is also clear is that Tyson designed the slaughter and fabrication floors with the following key elements in mind: ergonomics and worker safety, food safety, efficiency and flexibility. The first element is Tyson’s biggest focus so it is no surprise that Stouffer accentuates his putting worker safety as his No. 1 priority as the person in charge of Tyson’s entire fresh meats division.

Tyson Foods Dakota City 2 
The Dakota City plant spans 42 acres and comprises 1.8 million sq. ft. 

Fifty years bigger

A first impression in walking the corridors to the slaughter floor is how Tyson has seamlessly woven the new into the old. Pristine white brick corridor walls were once the plant’s exterior walls. Even the original windows remain. The second impression upon entering the slaughter floor is how Tyson has incorporated openness, visibility and ergonomics into every part of its design.

One element of the new design was to allow Tyson the ability to kill larger cattle than before. Not only have native (Angus, Hereford, etc.) cattle gotten larger and heavier in the past five years, Tyson admits it is harvesting some fed Holstein cattle, which are six to 12 inches longer than native cattle. Its rail today is three feet higher than it was at the old slaughter floor. The slaughter floor also has eight independent drives to move the chain, far more than were used previously. This gives Tyson more flexibility to operate the chain.

Work stands positioned at critical parts of the slaughter floor are adjustable according to the size of an animal. Tyson also introduced different carcass trimming techniques, such as using Whizard knives instead of straight knives. Tyson also keeps breaking down jobs to minimize stress on workers, such as the way it opens up hides. For food safety reasons, there is complete separation between the hide-on and hide-off parts of the slaughter floor, with both a wall and different air flows.

Tyson’s focus on ergonomics is repeated throughout the complex, reflecting its commitment to worker safety. This has improved the overall environment for its team members and has gone beyond any other Tyson plant, Poole says.

Another unique feature of the slaughter floor is that it is accessed from above. Raised catwalks allow Tyson supervisors and others to look down on every work station and be able to quickly get to the floor.

“Supervisors have a great line of vision to the floor, which is extremely important both for worker and food safety oversight,” Poole says. “Supervisors can observe from above for five minutes then go down and make suggestions. The openness of the design means they can easily identify every key component of a job related to food safety and ergonomics.” The spaciousness of the slaughter floor layout also means Tyson has ample room to train staff on the floor.

Sixteen supervisors are on or above the slaughter floor at any one time, observing 350 workers. There are also 13 USDA inspectors on the floor, part of the close to 50 USDA inspectors needed for the plant’s overall operations at two shifts per day.

Upon entry to the fabrication floor, one’s first impression is a sea of concrete and steel, dotted by hundreds of people. Combining three rooms into one allowed Tyson to reduce its water usage by 40 percent, Poole says. All work platforms on the floor are raised and can be cleaned without using water. All utilities come from beneath the floor, piped up from the basement, which keeps everything clean. This eliminated condensation from the building, he says.

The floor’s temperature is a constant 45° F or less, with carcasses entering the floor at 34° F. Air flow is 100 percent filtered and treated with ozone. If the floor has any change in air pressure, air flow is increased to keep the flow positive at all times.