In 2002, the first mobile slaughter mobile harvest unit was approved for use by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for mobile slaughter has skyrocketed, as there seems to be a higher interest in the service from smaller local farmers who were struggling to get their animals processed in the wake of many plants closing or operating at lower capacities.
Chris Young, executive director of Elizabethtown, Pa.-based American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), said he’s seeing an upswing in mobile slaughtering in a response to the demand for more slaughter capacity and the fact that it provides an affordable alternative to companies considering constructing a brick-and-mortar building.
“COVID put a spotlight on an ongoing issue the industry has had in recent years – we have been losing small slaughter facilities because of a variety of reasons and this has caused a capacity issue,” Young said. “This became a glaring issue when some of the larger plants shut down because of COVID and there was not enough capacity to fill in the gap.”
Bob Lodder, president of Friesla, Everson, Wash., has been part of the mobile slaughter industry for more than a decade.
“Consumers are interested in buying food that’s raised and processed locally, so that’s a factor that has contributed to more interest,” he said. “And then, of course, there’s environmental sustainability. To avoid having to haul animals a long distance, which is costly, it uses up precious resources, and the animals are stressed by the time they get where they’re going. That causes the quality of the meat to go down.”
Therefore, there is a rising demand for mobile slaughter.
“It gives the local farmers and ranchers the ability to get their product to market at a time that is perfect for the animal,” Lodder said.
On the road
Prem Meats LLC, Spring Green, Wis., added a natural harvest division in 2016 because its meat plant didn’t offer slaughtering services.
“We had been contacted for years about why we didn’t offer slaughtering,” said Marty Prem, owner of the company. “After some thought and meetings with our state inspectors, we decided to try a mobile slaughter unit. We built it with anticipations of processing three to five beef and eight pigs per week.”
However, the business grew quickly, and Prem Meats quickly realized the demand for this service was high.
“Our service comes to the farms’ location, harvests the animals and transports back to our facility for aging and processing,” Prem said. “We are the only state-inspected mobile slaughter unit in Wisconsin as of today.”
Currently Prem Meats can process up to 25 beef and 30 pigs or lambs per week and works within a 100-mile radius of its plant. Seven employees are dedicated to the mobile slaughter segment, and prices range from $80 for pigs to $140 for beef and 64¢ per hanging pound for processing.
“The only thing that limits us is the space we have available for hanging and aging the carcasses,” Prem said. “We have completed two additions to keep up with demand; however, we are still at full capacity and each week the demand seems to grow.”
Byron Center Meats, located in Byron Center, Mich., purchased an existing mobile slaughter unit three years ago from a customer who had delivered carcasses to the plant for years.
“We go out about 60 miles or so and do as many as four a day,” said Laura Sytsma, co-owner of the company. “It’s been very busy. We’re typically scheduling a month or two out, and a year ago, demand just exploded.”
Her son Justin and one other employee run the two trucks – one is on the road about five days a week and the other is a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter truck that runs only on Thursdays. The company currently offers the only USDA-inspected mobile slaughter east of the Mississippi.
At each location, the Byron Center Meats mobile unit does just the farm kill or farm harvest and brings the split carcasses back to its brick-and-mortar processing plant for further processing. Costs are $80 per head on pork and $175 for beef, though prices fluctuate based on distance, whether the farmer keeps the guts and other services.
Greg Stratton, owner of Hoosick Falls, NY-based Stratton’s Custom Meats, owns one of the only mobile slaughter units in the Northeast. The company operates within a 100-mile radius of his plant, covering parts of New York and Vermont.
“When I started this, I didn’t think it would become as big as it has,” he said. “My old butcher did the same thing, but he did it on the side. That’s where I got the idea. He helped me get started. I’ve seen that there’s a big need for it.”
He has two trucks that are on the road two days a week, with two different crews doing the job.
“We go to the farm and typically, we do beef, pigs, lambs and goats,” he said. “We do the kill, we scan them, guide them through the whole thing and put the carcass in the back of the truck. And it’s up to the customer to get rid of the remains. So, they can bury them and let Mother Nature have them or whatever they want to do with them, but that’s not my responsibility.”
Coping with challenges
While traditional slaughterhouse operations are mostly the same each day, each stop for a mobile slaughter unit is different and has special needs.
“One major challenge is that we are so booked in advance, any issue with our truck or equipment can cause a great deal of problems and additional work as appointments need to be rescheduled,” Prem said.
Stratton said the biggest challenge is the weather, as the trucks aren’t able to do what they need to when things are really bad. That’s followed by having enough drops on a given day, though that’s hardly been a problem since the pandemic.
He’s had a few people reach out to him this past year about starting their own mobile slaughter operations in different parts of the country, and he’s always happy to talk and offer advice.
“It’s important to buy the right trucks and the right equipment, and try to do it right the first time,” Stratton said. “You don’t want a small crane. You want a crane big enough to pick a beef up. I’ll send people pictures of the drop so they can get some ideas.”
Selling the benefits
Companies offering mobile slaughter services are quick to tout the advantages.
“We really believe that an animal harvested in its natural environment is a better quality,” Prem said. “We do our best to take the stress off the animals which yields a much better product. Many hobby farmers do not have the necessary equipment for transporting animals, so our service takes that issue out of the equation. Many smaller and more rural farmers are so grateful for the service.”
Sytsma said many of her customers use mobile slaughter because it saves time and some just don’t have the time, staff or capabilities to haul animals to a processor.
“It’s proven that this is less stressful on the animal,” she said. “The farmer likes to be able to use that in their story that they’re telling to their customers as well.”