When employees at meat processing plants across the county tested positive for COVID-19 production lines came to a halt and the industry stalled. The fear of potential shortages sent people looking for alternate sources for meat, resulting in a backlog at area lockers.

To alleviate some of the backlog, Brad Dieckmann, owner of Diecks Inc. Clay Center Locker said he plans to reopen the Junction City facility. The intention is to have it in operation the first week of June.

Dieckmann previously processed meat there from 1998 to 2003. However, when the hog market crashed, they lost about 80% of the business they did at that location, he said.

“The hog farmers went out of business so we consolidated everything back to Clay Center at that time, he said. “Now with this going on, we’re looking to not only reopen temporarily but would like to operate that as a full processing plant all the time.”

When it goes into operation, they plan to move the cattle that go into ground product to the Junction City facility to ease some of the load at Clay Center.

“Eventually we will go into a full-blown processing facility with a retail outlet,” he said. “We will actually put our retail outlet back in there.”

While working on reopening the Junction City facility, he is also remodeling a former Dollar General store in Clay Center into an 8,000-square foot process product division. Cooked product, such as snack sticks, jerky, summer sausages, ham and turkeys will be made there. The intention is to have it open in September.

Once the Junction City facility opens, Dieckmann said he expects to double the volume of meat processing he is doing now.

“We do 80 to 100 head a week [in Clay Center] and we’re looking to do about the same numbers [in Junction City],” he said.

To make it work, he needs to hire a few new employees but they have to have the knife skills needed to work in the meat-processing industry.

Meat cutter is not a job skill they can simply call down to a temp agency and hire someone, said Jason Becker, a co-owner of First Choice Meats Inc. in Herington.

Like Dieckmann, he is running at full capacity but does not anticipate trying to increase production at his facility. He and his partners are involved in farming and cannot devote more time to the locker.

There is also the ever-present concern about the virus.

“When this thing first started coming around, my concern was if we start going nuts, and we’ve got so much to do, that if we have one little breakdown of one person not showing up, we’re going to be behind,” he said. “My concern was, what happens if I come down sick and want to self-quarantine for 14 days. We can’t just hire somebody from a MANCO or a temp service to come in and run a meat saw.”

Running at capacity

Fear and rumors of a pending meat shortage, has people reaching out to the small processing plants and farmers for help. Dieckmann said by early May he was booked through the end of 2020 and Becker said they are booked into Feb. 2021.

“Normally we would only be booked out two and a half to three months for custom processing,” Becker said.

He is seeing new customers and a change in buying habits from his regulars. For example, one customer who usually purchased five packages of meat at a time — just ordered a side of beef.

“That’s about $1,400 and normally he squirms over spending $25 on hamburger,” Becker said. “There’s people that normally wouldn’t buy more than five pounds … at a time, now they’re wanting whole hogs and half of beef because their faith in our supply chain has been shaken pretty good.”

But the small plants do not have the resources and space to meet the sudden influx of need, Dieckmann said. It’s a problem that has been decades in the making as the family farms started vanishing from the landscape.

“I grew up in this industry — I’ve watched a lot of small-town meat processing plants close over the years,” Dieckmann said. “The first five years I was in business, from 89 to 94, there were six plants that closed within a 60-mile radius of me.”

With four major players in the meat industry now controlling about 80% of all the world markets of slaughter, the shutdown of even one plant stresses the industry. Any one of the larger plants will slaughter more cattle in one day than what he does in five years, Dieckmann said.

Seeing what is transpiring, he said if there was one thing, he could have done different, he would have followed the lead of the stores that limited how much toilet paper a person could buy.

“We have people calling in for 100, 200, 500 pounds of hamburger,” he said. “Everybody is just buy, buy, buy. How crazy this is — we actually started grinding hamburger for franchise restaurants this week because they can’t find hamburger from their suppliers.”

Bypassing the grocery store

The fear of not having a supply of meat available in the store is sending people looking to buy a cow or pig to ensure they will have their BLT’s and cheeseburgers. But buying a pig or a cow should not be an impulse purchase.

Before purchasing meat in bulk, people need to make sure they have place to put it, said Chuck Otte, Geary County extension agent. Household refrigerator/ freezer combos will not suffice.

“You’ve got to look at the capacity of that freezer,” Otte said. “It may be two, three, four cubic feet and you may be getting eight cubic feet worth of meat. Get a one-pound package of hamburger and see how many of those you can put in there, that’ll start to give you an idea about how much space you’ve got.”

Someone contemplating purchasing a whole or portion of an animal will need about a 10- to 20-cubic-foot freezer, Otte said.

“People don’t realize how much meat that is,” he said. “Go look at how big that animal is — right about half of that is how much meat you’re going to have.”

If people don’t already have the freezer, they may have trouble finding one as many places are reporting them out of stock or on back order for several months.

However, it the space is available and someone wants to stock up, they can either go find a farmer themselves or they can call a processor and leave it up to that facility to take the from start to finish.

If they buy a live animal, they need to ensure they have a place to send it. With local processors backed up until next year — that might be difficult.

“There’s a lot of things you can learn by going on to YouTube, but I’m not sure that that’s one that you want to really try,” Otte said. “I really think a lot of times people are better off to just make arrangements with a local producer and develop a level of trust with them.”

Going through a processor and having the meat cut from the animal is going to be different than choosing from packaged meats in the grocery store cooler.

“That’s where you need to understand where the different cuts of meat come from,” Otte said. “Do you want roast — you want a rear quarter. If you want brisket and flank steak, you get a front quarter.”

People also need to realize is that if they buy a 300-pound hog, they are not going to have 300 pounds of meat when it’s done. After it’s cut and trimmed it will be 180 pounds of meat, Otte said. Also, the cost of purchasing the animal does not include the labor of butchering it, which can sometimes exceed the price of the cow or pig.

Having communication with the processor will help that person understand what the customer wants.

“You buy it by the by the side and then we cut it however you want,” Becker said. “I’ve got 200 cow/calf pairs. I fatten a few a yearn not a lot and I’ve got a partner that fattens a few. But typically, we go to a feedlot west of town … I go out and hand pick one out of their pens. I haul it in here and we process it and basically all you got to do is come in and pay for it and pick it up after it’s cut. I take care of everything else.”

The person cutting the meat will need to know what cuts the customer wants so they can choose the right animal for that person. For people who are new to the experience or working directly with fresh cut meat, it may be easier to let the processors do all of the work.

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