The truck and trailer are hooked up, two pigs are loaded and you’re about to pull out of the driveway to head to the processing facility. You think that maybe you should give them a call to let them know you’re coming, right? Actually, you should have made that call months ago—pretty much the day you knew you’d have pigs for processing—because small-scale livestock processing plants are booked solid for much of the year. After the stress of a drive with the truck and trailer, you’d probably be turned away if you didn’t make an appointment ahead of time.
Understanding scheduling, transportation and arrival, and cuts of meat are all necessary elements to completing the life cycle of meat animals on your farm, and your understanding of these will make your relationship with your processor a good one. When you bring meat animals onto your farm, make a call to processors in your area to find the one you’d like to work with. You’ll learn about policies and procedures and find someone whose management style fits yours.
Get To Know Your Meat Processor
It’s great to find a processor that can give you personal service, even if you are not bringing them a shipment of animals on a regular basis. The more your processor knows about your farm, the better they’ll be able to offer services and knowledge.
“For a new farmer, a full plant tour and a sit-down with the plant manager sounds reasonable, and even expected, but from a processor’s point of view, this is time-consuming and logistically impossible to do for everyone that requests it,” says Casey McKissick, owner of Foothills Deli and Butchery in Black Mountain, N.C. McKissick is also a member of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network advisory board and program director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Center of Ecological Farming System’s NC Choices, which promotes the local, niche and pasture-based meats in the state.
However, some processors, like Mike Smucker of Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, Pa., are still are able to make the personal effort.
“We typically like to meet with people, especially first-time customers,” Smucker says. “When we’re starting out with someone, we like to get to know them, what their business is, how the animals were raised, things like that.”
As the demand for small-scale processing continues to increase and processors get busier all the time, this personal service becomes less common, but it does still exist.
Schedule A Processing Time In Advance
The idea of eating seasonally makes sense when thinking about fresh produce, because in many parts of the country, tomatoes won’t grow in February and lettuce is difficult to come by in August. Meat is seasonal, too, though—particularly pasture-raised meat—so the season for meat processing is a busy one.
Smucker says customers need to make an appointment with him one to two months ahead of time during the summer and fall, but during winter and early spring, he might be able to fit in a small processing order in two to three weeks. Depending on processor and producer demands in your area, you could have to make an appointment as early as nine months ahead of your anticipated processing date.
In your initial dealings with the processor, you’ll learn scheduling policies and procedures. Many have hard-and-fast schedules and expect you to abide by them or find a new processor. Some, like Smucker’s Meats, are less rigid, offering a cancellation list so they can work in a few orders at the last minute—though they’d of course prefer that you keep the appointment you set. Smucker says this helps keep their labor requirements steady and provides some flexibility for their customers.
With a processing date on the calendar, be sure you understand the hours open for drop-off, the exact drop-off location and who you need to speak with when you arrive.
A challenge for small-scale farmers who process just a few animals each month or each year is accurately predicting when their livestock will be ready for harvesting.
“A very important part of growing animals for meat is understanding each species’ life cycle and nutritional needs, and having a pretty good idea of when the animal is ready to go to market,” McKissick says. “Unfortunately, sometimes new farmers are prone to growing and finishing the animals before having a solid marketing plan. This leads to higher than needed/expected costs and stress on the part of the farmer to have the animal processed earlier or later than expected.”
Know What Meat Cuts You Want
Upon selecting a processing date, you should be offered a cut sheet, which is pretty much a menu your processor uses to outlines your option for breaking down and packaging your livestock into meat cuts.
“A farmer needs to have a better-than-elementary understanding of what their animals look like inside and how they break down, as well as what types of cuts, portions, packaging and ground products their customers are likely to buy [or the farmer would like to keep for himself],” McKissick says. “Of course, the farmer also needs to know what services and packaging the processor offers, as well as how much it’s going to cost. It’s the processor’s responsibility to communicate this effectively.”
Smucker cautions that different processors use different names for the same cut of meat—for example, a rib eye is also known as a Delmonico steak or a market steak—so it’s important to identify which cuts come from which muscles. Ask questions until you are comfortable with understanding all that’s being discussed. Once cuts of meat are taken, you can’t put them back together.
Cutting options for all livestock could include:
- primal cuts
- ground meats
- bone-in and boneless cuts
You also need to specify whether you want to receive the meat fresh or frozen. Your choices will be dependent on whether you plan to take your meat for further processing elsewhere or at home, orders from your customers, and personal preference. A lot of confusion comes from farmers expecting to bring home more meat than their animal provides, and that often leads to processors getting accused of taking a farmer’s meat.
Know Your Meat Pick-Up Time
Be sure you also have an understanding of how long it will take for your meat to be ready to pick up, and pick it up on time. Processors have limited aging and freezer space, and they don’t want to hold products longer than necessary. Smucker says depending on your order, it could take from one to six weeks for completion. Your processor will let you know what to expect ahead of time.
Throughout the whole experience of livestock processing, “communication really is just huge,” Smucker says.
There are a lot of variables to raising and processing meat animals, and a good partnership between you and your processor can remove some of the stress from at least part of them.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.