Small Versatile Meat Plant

In 2020, after coronavirus outbreaks forced large processing plants to reduce capacity or shut down, farmers needed places to go with their animals. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent hundreds of millions supporting new meat and poultry processing facilities, relieving bottlenecks, and supporting facility expansions. This plant in Colorado, opening in the fall of 2023, is a recipient of those grant funds.
The cattle arrive in stock trailers and semi-trucks. The semi trucks back up to a wide unloading dock with a ten-foot level dock area between the truck and the steps. The level area is a critical safety feature. If cattle come off the truck quickly, the level area allows them time to slow down. Obviously, to keep them from tumbling down the steps. A popular feature is the drive-thru stock trailer chute. It makes unloading cattle easy, with no trailer backing necessary.
The steps on the truck ramp and all floors throughout the facility are deeply grooved concrete (see pics). Like us, cattle fear falling. Slippery floors cause anxiety and fear, making cattle feel vulnerable and helpless to move away from threats. Broom-finished concrete floors are easy to clean, but the hazard they pose to cattle and the bruises incurred when they fall is a costly problem. “Falls” on slippery floors are criteria measured during Humane Handling Audits in U.S. and E.U. Slaughterhouses. According to the American Meat Institute Guidelines, 1% or fewer falls where the body touches the ground are acceptable, more than 1% is not OK, and 5% or more indicates a severe problem. Slippery floors are the second most common cause of audit failures.
The alley where cattle enter the building is twelve feet wide. Alleys or lanes under twelve feet are risky for handlers when cattle turn back. In a twelve-foot-wide lane, a handler can move to the side enough to avoid getting trampled. Another safety feature is the fourteen-foot pen gates that open on an angle across the alley, preventing the gate from being pushed back on people. Cattle pushing gates back on people is the number one cause of injuries in the cattle business, so all three pens have in-and-out gates on angles, preventing cattle injuries by eliminating a 90-degree turn where cattle tend to pile up in the corner. Install a “belly rail” on the gates for additional safety in high-speed systems (see pic).
A full load of fat cattle is about 45 beasts. In this plan, three primary pens hold 60 cattle on the standard 20 square feet per animal. If two large trucks arrived simultaneously, the first truckload of cattle could move through the pens and into the alley leading to the crowd pen. In this scenario, six cattle could stage in the single file chute with the slide gate closed, eight more in the crowd pen with the gate half-closed, and the rest in the ally. The second truck then unloads into the pens. On busy days with several produces dropping off small numbers, the twelve-foot alleys could also serve as auxiliary holding pens, nearly doubling the holding capacity.
The fences are standard pipe and rail with schedule 40 gates. The fences in the alley leading to the crowd pen have ten-gauge steel sides, sixty inches high, with a two-foot wide bar grate catwalk on the outside. Blocking the animal’s vision with solid steel sides prevents cattle from seeing people or other distractions that cause balking. The 30-degree funnel leading into the single-file race naturally merges the cattle into the race, six animals one at a time. The slide gate has see-through rails so the cattle in the crowd pen see where the first group went and follow when their time comes (see pic).
Cattle restrainers with head holders can almost guarantee a single-shot kill, an important consideration. Furthermore, maintaining captive bolt stunners is a critical and often neglected system component. A captive-bolt stunner fires a retractable bolt against the animal’s head and into its brain, rendering it immediately unconscious. Captive bolt stunners require thorough cleaning and close inspection of the seals and gaskets regularly. The guns, designed to fire in a clean state, lose some of their speed and impact after repeated use—even the sound changes from a sharp crack to a dull thud, a good indication the gun needs cleaning. I recommend keeping a cleaning log and storing the ammunition in a dry cabinet with low humidity to keep the shells from misfiring. Only bring out the shells needed for the day.
It’s essential to do this job right. Designing a facility that helps the cattle move through the system without pain or distress is good for the animals and the people. But it’s just a start. The physically demanding work at increasingly higher speeds has made animal slaughter one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. For slaughterhouse workers, physical injuries are only the beginning. When you move into daily numbers that exceed a certain threshold, there is something unique to slaughterhouse employment over and above stressful conditions. Because the human brain has difficulty witnessing or participating in the killing of large numbers of animals, slaughterhouse workers often resort to harmful coping mechanisms. When choosing the person responsible for pulling the trigger, it’s vital to monitor their mental health, rotate employees in high-stress jobs periodically, and educate them on how the process works and the importance of doing it right. I discussed this in a March 15, 2023, post titled “Stairway to Heaven.”
As an aside, I believe that elevating employees who daily move live animals through the system with higher status and pay and job titles like “Cattle Welfare Managers” and Supervisors.” I have seen how this can go a long way toward keeping positive attitudes under challenging conditions.
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