IF it's complicated to get your livestock to an abattoir, how about have the abattoir come to you?
That’s the principle behind Mobile Slaughter Units (MSUs), a concept much discussed in Australia but actually in use in the United States.
Pilbara grazier Annabelle Coppin went to study MSUs in the United States in 2009, seeking a solution to the 2000 kilometres between her family’s Pilbara, Western Australia, cattle station and the nearest abattoir, at Gin Gin near Perth.
Ms Coppin travelled on a George Alexander Foundation scholarship and comprehensively wrote up her experiences in a International Specialised Skills Institute report.
Six years later, Ms Coppin still thinks MSUs could play a role in the Australian beef industry - and still thinks, as she thought in 2009, that red tape is the main hurdle to their development.
“If I wanted to develop a mobile slaughter unit, I’d have to employ someone for 12 months just to deal with the regulations,” she told Fairfax Media this week.
On principle, though, MS Coppin found that MSUs could fill in some of the cracks that many Australian livestock producers grapple with at the processing stage.
The MSUs she studied were housed in insulated trailers hauled by a prime mover. Sometimes two units, a slaughter unit and a chilling unit, are operated in tandem.
On average, the MSUs she saw could put through ten cattle in an eight-hour day with two people.
A related concept, Modular Slaughter Units (MOSUs), sacrificed mobility for throughput by housing the slaughtering facilities in containers that are only moved seasonally. MOSUs have a daily throughput of about 50 head of cattle.
Limited economies of scale mean that MSUs/MOSUs can’t financially succeed merely as alternative slaughterhouses, Ms Coppin said. They have to be part of a vertically-integrated program that generates extra value from the meat.
MSUs in action
On Lopez Island, near Seattle in Washington State, the Island Grown Farmers’ Co-operative (IGFC) multi-species MSU services an area where land values have soared because of proximity to urban centres, but there is strong demand for paddock-to-plate grassfed meat.
Island Grown Farmers’ Cooperative MSUs also operate at Arlington, and have a cut-and-wrap processing centre at Bow.
The co-op uses several MSUs made by Bruce Dunlop of Lopez Island Farm since the early 2000s.
The 36-foot (11-metre) base unit currently advertised on his website has daily throughput capacity of eight cattle, 24 pigs or 40 sheep per day, with two butchers on board.
The on-board freezer holds about 3600 kilograms of carcasses. The cost is US$210,000, without the prime mover.
Ms Coppin found that few of the MSUs she studied had been funded from the ground up by private enterprise, with the exception of Thundering Hooves. Most had been floated with substantial contributions from State governments or other grant money.
The Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-operative, also in Washington State, bought its 45ft (13.7m) unit in 2009 with $230,000 in government grants, plus another $100,000 from the co-op for equipment.
The unit can process 30 sheep, 20 pigs or 10 cattle in an eight-hour day.
Processing is provided to co-op members at a not-for-profit rate, which in 2009 was $100 per head for cattle, and $50 for pigs and sheep. Transport to a processing facility is included in the fee.
Tackling Australia's red tape
Her survey of MSUs left Ms Coppin positive about the potential of the concept in Australia, but uncertain about where to start against the wall of red tape.
Like most beef producers, she is time-poor, and has decided that what time she has is better invested in areas like livestock genetics than a project that will consume vast amounts of time for an uncertain result.
But Ms Coppin still harbours a dream of putting a third of her family’s annual turnoff (the Coppin family’s stations muster about 10,000 head a year) through an MSU.
It would return some marketing control back to the family, she said, and it might also mean they had a chance to ensure that unlike now, “Pilbara steak is available in the Pilbara”.
MSUs are not going to resolve any of the beef industry’s structural issues, she added, but they are another tool for a sector that’s running out of levers to pull.
Mobile slaughtering without State support
The mobile slaughterhouse that most interested Ms Coppin during her 2009 study of the concept was Thundering Hooves, an MSU started by Joel Huesby in 2007 to support his high-end meat processing business in the Walla Walla district, Washington State.
Unlike most of the other Mobile Slaughter Units (MSUs) Ms Coppin surveyed, which were built with help from government grants, the Thundering Hooves unit was bootstrapped from within the existing business.
Mr Huesby built the 16-metre MSU himself. It was capable of processing 20 cattle or 60 sheep or goats in a day, and appeared extremely successful - for a time.
When Ms Coppin spoke to Mr Huesby in 2009, he was bullish about the future and spoke of considerable expansion potential.
But in March 2011, the Seattle Times reported that those ambitions had broken the Thundering Hooves business.
In 2010, the operation had seen a 350 per cent rise in demand for its beef, chicken and pork, and it had borrowed to expand capacity.
The timing was unfortunate, as that also marked the point at which livestock prices, particularly for beef, began to soar into record territory.
Unlike a large conventional processor, a small mobile processing business has little ability to stash away financial fat in good times to buffer it in hard times.
Mr Huesby told the Seattle Times that the company’s original vision became obscured when demand exploded. “It got away from that, in part, because you get dollar signs in your eyes and, in part, you get massive demand,” he told the paper.
“The ability to finance that growth needs to come from earnings, not additional debt,” he said. “The growth has to come much more measured and disciplined.”