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Beginning livestock farmer etiquette: Building a good processor relationship

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So, you have decided to raise livestock. You can sell meat as retail cuts, requiring a USDA licensed slaughterhouse. Or you can sell animals as halves, wholes or quarters instead of retail cuts. In this second scenario, you sell the live animal to your customers but deliver it to a Custom Exempt slaughterhouse as a service to your buyers. Whichever marketing strategy you choose, communication with your processor is critical. Most slaughterhouses have more business than they can manage, at least from September to February, so they may choose not to deal with new customers or customers that do not know exactly what they want. Ideally, this producer-processor relationship will last for years, so it is worth setting it up for success. This article highlights a few considerations to help you have a long and fruitful relationship with your meat processor.

  • Keep your appointment or give plenty of notice.

The schedule of a livestock processor can look a lot like a jigsaw puzzle, depending on the time of year. This is especially true with the very small and small processors that make up the New York State infrastructure. Even before you call to make your appointment they have identified when and how many hogs, beef, lamb, goat and poultry they can fit on the schedule (based on their labor availability) or in the cooler for a given span of time. This depends on a lot of factors and every change/alteration counts towards their bottom line. The sooner you know a change in your schedule, the more capable they are of filling your slot with another paying customer. If you fail to show up for your appointment, or bring more or fewer animals than the processor was expecting, they may opt to drop you from their customer list.

  • Pick up your meat on time.

Many processors are severely limited by freezer space, so do not assume you can leave your meat there as long as you need to. This goes for customer pick-ups as well; make sure you have communicated clearly ahead of time whether you or your customers will be picking up the meat.

  • Have the buyers’ cut sheets ready when you deliver your animals to the meat processor.

As you are likely familiar, time is a precious commodity and anything that can help save even the smallest increments of time (and potentially frustration) is welcome – includes being prepared with buyer cut sheets and phone numbers for the processor, either when you deliver the animals to them or very soon after. Be sure to use a cut sheet for that specific processing establishment (they each have their own), and educate yourself well in advance on the various cuts that can come from each part of the carcass. Do not expect the meat processor to teach you this information.

Once you’ve educated yourself about the cuts, you may need to walk your customer through the various options to ensure they get the cuts of meat they want. While doing so takes some time, it may also result in a loyal customer due to your extraordinary customer service skills. And presenting this information at drop-off to your meat processor via clearly and concisely filled out cut sheets will almost certainly result in better service and a higher likelihood of getting your animals cut accurately.

  • Be patient with the meat processor if they make mistakes.

When the meat processor cuts your meat differently than you specified, or makes any other mistake, it is frustrating and can cost you money. But approach the situation with as much grace as you can. Likely this mistake was made by a lack of communication. With other services, like a mechanic, you often have flexibility. If the mechanic overcharges you, you can go to a different one because there are probably at least a few more in your area. But meat processing is in a different category of services. We have lost 90% of our meat processors in NYS in the past 50 years, so if you want to be in the business of selling meat, you may need to work harder on the relationship with your nearest meat processor – who may still be hours away – rather than just getting frustrated and moving on. Make sure you communicate clearly and show understanding about the meat processors’ needs also.

  • Adapt your production schedule to the meat processor.

Have you ever noticed how busy community pools are on the hot summer days but if you went back to that same pool in the dead of winter, you would be amazed to find someone swimming? Just like the seasonality of swimming, there is a seasonality to livestock production and harvesting. It makes sense when you think about it: many folks would prefer to thin their herd or flock at the end of the growing season rather than overwintering, and come October and November, many folks are preparing to trailer their harvest to auction and/or the slaughterhouses. This creates a bottleneck in the system and by having a simple conversation with your processor about when their slow time is and/or when it would be best to plan around their schedule (and a little math on your end), you may find it easier and more lucrative for you to bring animals to them during their slower times (plus you’ve now likely earned some bonus points by making their lives easier).

  • Rather than just a few animals a year, design your production system and scale around the ability to bring animals to the meat processor on a regular schedule.

Meat processors appreciate regular business, because it helps them pay their monthly overhead costs and have more stable, predictable cash flow. This strategy is not feasible for very small farms, but if you are contemplating scaling up your livestock enterprise, plan for regular year-round harvests to lock in a schedule with your meat processor and keep both of you happy.

With a little bit of forethought, planning and effort, you can have a long and fruitful relationship for years to come with your livestock processor.

by CCE Livestock Program Work Team

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