Mobile slaughter trailers may blaze new path for meat processing

Candace Krebs

Livestock are routinely trucked to slaughter plants. Now, agricultural leaders are looking into another option: mobile slaughter trailers traveling to the livestock.

The idea has people talking around the country.

“At the National State Departments of Agriculture Convention recently, this topic came up more than once,” said John Stulp, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. “I really think it’s a niche that can grow.”

A high level of interest was evident when the Colorado and Wyoming agriculture departments, along with the land grant colleges in the two states, teamed up to present a workshop on mobile slaughter at Colorado State’s Taylor Conference Center. Modeled after a seminar held recently in Maryland, the event drew 150 people, about three times more than what the attendance organizers initially anticipated. Participants came from multiple states, including Ohio, New York and California.

“We want to connect people and also help them understand the rules and regulations,” said Tim Larsen, senior international marketing specialist for the Colorado ag department and lead organizer.

Presenters talked about the challenges as well as the potential benefits of mobile slaughter. Jim Bennage, chairman of the Wyoming Board of Agriculture, said the idea of having a unit in Wyoming was especially attractive because no USDA-inspected plants are operating anywhere in the state.      

But the hurdles include questions of ownership structure, maintenance, scheduling and where to send the carcasses for further processing. Finding personnel to operate the units can also be difficult.

Several representatives from the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA gave lengthy sessions explaining the application, approval and food safety oversight processes for mobile trailers. Among the requirements are a water source at every slaughter location (which is tested regularly and meets “drinking water standards”), an approved waste water removal system, adequate and humane handling facilities, a written sanitation plan and a written food safety plan.

The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points inspection protocol is complicated enough that FSIS officials advised tapping the help of a knowledgeable consultant to write a plan.          

In addition, every bovine processed creates 400 to 500 pounds of waste material that requires proper disposal. Specific requirements vary among local and state governments.

“Regulatory requirements are changing constantly,” summarized Harvey Hunter with FSIS state outreach and technical assistance. “Get some help.”

Kim Antonelli, who owns Holy Cow Packing Plant in Silt, wasn’t daunted by the regulatory presentation.

“It’s expensive but it’s achievable,” Antonelli said. “It’s amazing the money that’s out there to help you out.”

Antonelli was recently awarded a $10,000 rural development grant to study the feasibility of building a local facility to replace one that burned down. He’d like to eventually have a small packing plant and a mobile processing trailer.

“This is really neat,” he said. “There are times when the producer can’t get that animal to you. That’s a service we could provide to them.”

Bruce Fickenscher, CSU extension agent for Kiowa County, was also at the meeting to gather information. He has been fielding calls about the concept and is currently conducting an online survey to gauge interest in the idea of the Extension Service and Southeast RC&D Council working together to start a mobile unit and a cut-and-wrap facility in the area. (The survey is open through Oct. 22. Interested parties can fill it out at

“A processing facility at Haswell recently closed,” Fickenscher explained. “Jensen’s (at Fowler) is the only USDA-inspected plant in our area. A two-week wait to slaughter an animal is the minimum.”

Financial feasibility questioned

Steve LeValley, a sheep and wool specialist at CSU, recalled that 20 years ago sheep producers studied using a mobile unit to harvest sheep in the Montrose area, but concluded that it wasn’t economically feasible. He said the idea warranted careful consideration of the costs.

Montana Canterbury, who runs the cattle operation for Maytag Mountain Ranch at Hillside, said he was intrigued by the concept, but also wondered whether it would make monetary sense for producers and operators. He processes 50 to 60 head of grass-fed cattle a year at a cost of between $60 and $70 a head.

“We have to be able to sell our beef affordably,” Canterbury said.

At the Fort Collins workshop, the audience had a chance to hear from a couple of the original pioneers who put prototypes into practice.

Pati Mortinson and Terrie Bad Hand are co-directors of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation, which received the second grant of inspection ever awarded to operate a mobile unit. (The first was granted to a cooperative of producers on isolated San Juan Island in Washington State. A total of nine have been granted so far with seven said to be in operation.)

The Taos group relied on $200,000 in grant money to build the unit — which was on display — and also raised additional money to build a small cut-and-wrap facility. In their case, the project was part of a bigger vision of developing a community food model, comprised of operating a community kitchen, hosting educational forums and eventually offering a meat cutter’s school and internships.

Prices range from $35 and up for slaughtering an animal and 75 cents a pound to cut and wrap, plus another 5 cents a pound for product labeling.

They already deal with nine different regulatory agencies; to avoid further complexity, the mobile unit doesn’t operate beyond the New Mexico border, though producers from neighboring states like Colorado can bring their livestock to the trailer for processing if they have the appropriate health papers for crossing the border. The unit has a satellite processing station in the San Luis Valley.

Cheryl Ouellette shared her story of organizing the Puget Sound Meat Processing Cooperative in Washington State. The co-op sold membership shares to raise working capital, while a local conservation district bought the rig.

“Nonprofit is probably the best option. They don’t make money,” Ouellette cautioned. “The grant process didn’t work for us.”

Ouellette invested two years in working diligently on a grant she never received. Still, she said sales were up, and no meat produced through the system had ever tested positive for E. coli.

“There’s zero contamination,” Ouellette said. “We can give people a better product. We can give them a product that’s safe.”

Another cooperative of producers is forming to the north, and Ouellette said her group is considering sharing the trailer on an alternating basis.

The rigs typically operate within a radius of 50 to 100 miles. The one in Washington State charges mileage for traveling longer distances. At full capacity, a mobile trailer will slaughter up to approximately 10 head of cattle a day. Multi-species processing is allowed but cooler space is a limiting factor. Poultry processing is not permitted in the same trailers.

Also displayed during the workshop was a unit built by the Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition that is awaiting a grant of inspection.

Some officials credited an attitude change at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with providing an opportunity to get mobile processing further down the road to successful adoption on a wider scale.

“Our mandate is to help small and really small processors stay in business and get into the school food programs,” said Beatrice Herbert, a program specialist with FSIS who assists with agency outreach.

Commissioner Stulp complimented the enthusiasm of federal officials.

“You can tell when they want to see something work,” Stulp said.