Mobile slaughter units are rarely more than a pipe dream

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Farm and Dairy file photo.

Wouldn’t it be great if the slaughterhouse could just come to the farm?

The possibilities of a mobile slaughter unit are often talked about as a solution for farmers grappling with processing issues. Many local butcher shops are working at capacity. Farmers truck their animals great distances just to find the nearest open federal or state-inspected facility, in order to be able to resell their meat.

A mobile red meat slaughter unit would fix a few of these problems at once, in theory. It would make the process less stressful for animals and farmers, alike. It might also ease the burden on processors by providing farmers more options.

In reality, it’s cumbersome and complicated. That’s why there are less than a dozen state or federally-inspected red meat mobile slaughter units in the entire country.

“They’re incredibly hard to break even and process enough animals to make a profit,” said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, extension specialist at Oregon State University and director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, which is housed at Oregon State.

Cost prohibitive

There are a lot of reasons why there are so few mobile slaughter units on the road. Much of it comes down to cost.

First is the initial cost of purchasing and outfitting one of trailers or trucks. Thistlethwaite said a rough estimate to buy a trailer is about $250,000. That’s just the facility and doesn’t include the cost of equipment. A mobile slaughter unit needs to have everything a brick and mortar facility has to meet federal or state regulations. It also needs to be able to travel safely down the road.

There are several companies out there that sell mobile slaughter units. A person building their own could do it for less, possibly.

msu costs chart
A table from the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network business planning guidebook, published in 2011, shows the start-up costs for a mobile slaughter unit. This does not include labor, the cost of running a brick and mortar shop and other operating costs. (Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network)

Second is the cost of operation. A processor can’t handle as many animals in the mobile unit, due to the smaller space. They typically have to drive from farm to farm during the workday.

Mobile slaughter units need a stationary shop in order to store and break down the animals. There’s typically just enough cooler space in a mobile unit to hang carcasses from that day’s work.

To provide this service to farmers, processors need to charge more per pound or per head. If the processor is in an area where producers are willing to foot the extra cost to get the service, that’s great. In most cases, though, that’s not what happens.

“When a solution creates more cost than the alternative, then it’s not a viable alternative,” Thistlethwaite said.

On top of that are the unknowns that come with traveling to different farms. Does the farm have enough space to accommodate a semi trailer or large box truck? What are the animal handling facilities like?

The units need to have full hook-ups available at the farm, or carry all of that stuff on the trailer or truck: hot water, electricity and a place to dump or store waste water.

Some mobile units come with a portable “knock box” or “stunning box,” a small stall to keep the animal still while it is rendered insensible. If a farm has a squeeze chute, that can also be used. The slaughter team needs to be prepared in case none of those things are available. They need to make the first shot count in order for it to be a humane kill.

For U.S. Department of Agriculture or state-inspected units, an inspector must be on hand to witness all kills. Regulations require inspectors to have a separate office and bathroom facility from the rest of the processing facility.

Success story

There is one example people can look to for a success story on making a mobile slaughter unit work. The Prems, in Wisconsin, seem to have it figured out.

Marty Prem and his brother, Terry, run Prem Meats, a retail meat market, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The siblings bought the business from their parents in 2010.

After they took over, the brothers built a new facility closer to a main road to get more business. Things picked up significantly. They added on. Then, they started looking at providing slaughtering services, too. But the township and the neighbors weren’t keen on having a slaughterhouse in the area. The Prems, too, weren’t enthused about running a traditional slaughterhouse.

“I’ve been to enough of them to see how worked up the animals get when they’re brought into an unfamiliar place,” Marty Prem said.

So, they turned to a mobile unit. They bought a 26-foot refrigerated box truck and built it all themselves. The front third is a hanging cooler, and the back two-thirds is for processing.

workers clean out mobile slaughter unit
A worker with Natural Harvest LLC cleans out the mobile slaughter unit. Natural Harvest LLC is an offshoot of Prem Meats, a retail meat market in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It’s one of very few places to operate a state-inspected mobile slaughter unit. (submitted photo)

It was a struggle working with the state on the various regulations. They also worked through local and county regulations. Some places it was OK to dump waste water on the ground. Other places, where that wasn’t allowed, they needed to haul it themselves. So, they installed a holding tank on the truck that they empty at their shop.

The first state-inspected truck was on the road in 2016, named Natural Harvest LLC. The goal when they started was to do three beef and five pigs a week, with two staff members. Now, they do anywhere from 20-30 beef and up to 35 pigs a week. They have seven and a half employees devoted to the mobile slaughter business.

They’ll travel up to two hours away if there are enough animals at the farm to make it worth the trip. They book farms by certain regions on certain days to cut down on travel time. In the summer, they’re on the move five or six days a week, stopping at up to four locations if they can line things up the right way. Things are slower in the winter. They added a second truck, one that is just to be used for custom-exempt processing.

It is more expensive for their customers. Their fees are anywhere from $30-50 more per head for beef and $10-20 more for pigs, compared with other local processors, Marty Prem said. The processing fee is about five cents higher per pound.

Prem said they’re booked out until the end of 2022. They stopped taking reservations for the time being. It’s something farmers see as worth it.

“The farmers love it,” he said.

Dream scenario

The Prems’ story, unfortunately, is much more of an exception than the rule. In other areas, the costs, the demand and the logistics of it all don’t work out as well.

“A lot of people talk about mobile slaughter. I get calls nonstop,” Thistlethwaite said. “In the five years I’ve been working for the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, I think maybe two mobile slaughter units were purchased and started. I think both are parked now as a stationary unit.”

Where else do mobile slaughter units work? Islands, Thistlethwaite said, “where the cost of taking animals on a ferry is cost prohibitive.”

They also work for farms with farmed wild animals, like bison, deer, elk or yak. These animals don’t load well onto a trailer, so transporting them to a facility may not be an option. Some operations like these have their own mobile slaughter units just to be used for their animals.

Thistlethwaite laid out a dream scenario that would make a mobile slaughter unit work and be profitable for the operator.

“If you had like five core customers each within like less than 50 miles of each other, who had a solid number of animals and needed consistent year round slaughter and would supply all the animals for that truck, so they know exactly how much volume they have,” she said. “Those five farms have really good handling pens, hot water, septic system, everything that the truck needs to come and hook up to.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Gosh we would kill for a MPU in our region in WV! This is the best scenario for farmers and for their animals, but the start up cost is crazy! We have dabbled in the idea a few times, but also have not been able to make it yet work it on paper. Maybe when we start harvesting 20+ bison we will have the capital to get one that we can use as well as go to other farmers.

  2. My grandfather did this during the late 1920s and 30s with a horse and wagon during winter months. He mostly did pigs and took his own kettles. I have a couple of his knives and his ‘steel’. My dad said that his dad would come home late in the day dog tired with ice all over him sometimes. The horse knew the way. We have to appreciate how hard farmers like him worked to keep their farms during those years. Any side job helped. And I’m certain there are many that work just as hard today to pay the bills. I can understand how a modern kind of mobile butcher would be good but also see the downside. Nice article.

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