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'Meat-ings' expose processing hurdles
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'Meat-ings' expose processing hurdles

Wisconsin’s meat-processing capacity is a multi-faceted issue that requires creative solutions, says Danielle Endvick, communications director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. That’s one of the reasons the organization has been hosting a series of “meat-ings.”

“Through the series we’re bringing in the voices of farmers, processors and other stakeholders to explore how we can take creative approaches together,” she said.

The approaches may involve policy, mobile or on-farm slaughtering, cooperative and community investment, creative marketing and labor training, she said.

Two livestock producers and a meat processor described their situations during a December “meat-ing.” Brandon Clare owns JM Watkins LLC, a meat-processing business in Plum City, Wisconsin. He and his family purchased the business in 2013 from the Watkins family, who had operated the business for several decades.

Clare has built his business during the past seven years and said he’d like to continue that growth. But the scarcity of labor and capacity constraints are hurdles. Meat processing is labor intensive; heavy lifting is required.

“People don’t want to do that type of work,” he said.

Even if labor wasn’t a problem, there’s little room to expand his facility. JM Watkins has limited freezer space, he said.

“Most meat lockers in Wisconsin that have been in business for years are located in small towns with limited space to expand,” he said.

With his current facilities he can process about 16 beef cattle per week. With sufficient space he said he could easily process 25 cattle. He’s already booking processing dates into 2022. He has contemplated building a larger facility in a new location, but said his wife questioned that plan.

“How would we staff it?” she asked him.

Then there are costs to consider. One might expect to pay as much as $120,000 for a specialized machine that does one job. Due to the scarcity of human labor a processor may need to invest in that type of equipment.

The labor shortage is definitely a problem in meat-processing capacity, Endvick said.

“The Wisconsin Farmers Union recognizes the shortage and the need to support efforts to train the next generation of butchers,” she said.

In fall 2020 the organization offered scholarships for the artisanal modern-meat-butchery program at the Madison Area Technical College. It’s one of a few such programs in the state.

“We also support development of on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs for meat cutters,” she said.

Ken Schmitt raises beef cattle and sells livestock equipment near Howard, Wisconsin. He primarily sells his cattle as feeders but also sells meat to a wholesaler.

He hasn’t experienced many problems with having beef processed, he said. But he’s seen a processing plant close. He’s heard about processors having limited locker space. He’s also heard of slaughter dates scheduled two years in advance. His processor encourages him to book dates and cancel them if necessary, he said.

“My processor and I work well together, but he shares a kill floor with another processor,” he said.

Some processors have said they’d welcome other processors in their areas because demand is so great, he said.

Jen Riemer of the Riemer Family Farm near Brodhead, Wisconsin, produces grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured pork and poultry. She and her family also raise broilers during summer months and produce turkeys for Thanksgiving sales.

After “de-seasonalizing” their grass-fed beef production, the Riemer family now produces a consistent monthly supply of meat, she said. That helps their processor – AJ’s Lena Maid Meats of Lena, Illinois – be more efficient. When the schedule becomes close to being filled, the processor calls Riemer to do advance booking.

“We’re booked into 2022,” Riemer said.

If she can’t use the booking dates she’ll share them with other farmers, she said.

As a processor Clare said he’d like to have farmers bring in five to six head every three weeks like Riemer does.

“Consistent work is the best scenario,” he said.

For farmers to support expansion of meat processing they need to be committed to providing the volume necessary for the processor to expand, Riemer said. There needs to be a strong understanding that if they need better processing they may need to do some pre-payment. That will help processors know that farmers will “be there” for them if they invest in their facilities, she said.

Endvick said, “Local meat processing is crucial for family farms that sell processed meat directly to consumers or through food co-ops and other retail venues. Having the rural infrastructure in place allows farmers to set their own price rather than having to sell animals through unpredictable conventional markets. It’s an important pathway to ensuring a future for family farms in Wisconsin. We want others to be a part of this conversation and really encourage all who are interested – or who have ideas for solutions – to join us at the upcoming virtual events.”

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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