Northern Beef Packers could export product by March

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Farm Forum

ABERDEEN – An official from the new Northern Beef Packers processing plant in Aberdeen made a short but important statement on Feb. 15 during the South Dakota Farmers Union state convention: “I would like to start off by saying, we’re open,” said A.J. Munger, who got a large round of applause at the short comment. Munger is the new Director of New Business Development, Pricing and Marketing at Northern Beef Packers. “It’s been a long road. It’s been a rocky road at times, but with a lot of perseverance, and help from the community we’ve been able to open our doors and it’s been a good start.”

After suffering a number of setbacks, Aberdeen-based Northern Beef Packers started harvesting cattle last October. Right now, the plant processes 300 head per day on average. The plant is now owned by Korean and Chinese investors and getting to this point has not been easy, Munger said.

“It’s quite a task building a beef processing plant from the ground up,” Munger said. “One of these plants hasn’t been built in the last 35 years, so it’s been quite the challenge to go out and find the expertise that it takes to get one of these plants built and up and running.”

The plant is still working out the kinks, making sure all of the systems “talk to each other,” Munger said. “We’re getting pretty close, and we should start adding production here in the next few weeks.”

The company is working to expand its market. They’ve started working with high-end distributors in Chicago and New York City, Munger said. They’re still finishing the necessary paperwork, but Munger says Northern Beef Packers could be exporting meat to other countries by the end of March.

“We’ve got some good feedback from our customers who we ship our beef to,” he said.

Munger said they’ve gotten much of the cattle they process from within 20 miles of the plant. As they increase production, Munger said he’s confident that the majority of cattle will come from local sources.

“Our studies have shown that there are enough cattle within 200 miles of the plant to meet all of our needs,” Munger said. And he said it’s quality beef

they’re processing. “We didn’t build this plant in Aberdeen, South Dakota, by mistake. We built it right in the middle of prime cattle country, and so far our grading quality has been excellent.”

The plant will also be working with the South Dakota Certified program, selling beef that were born, raised and slaughtered in the state.

The 420,000-square-foot plant is known as a regional packer, more of a niche-market plant as opposed to major packers. “We don’t focus as much on quantity, we want to focus more on quality and producing that quality product,” Munger said.

There are approximately 10 regional packers in the country, Munger said, and the Aberdeen plant is the most northern regional packer in the U.S. Munger says Northern Beef Packers has over 400 employees right now with plans to increase that number to 600 in the short term. Most of the production employees are making anywhere from $12 to $18 per hour starting out for employers. “Those are at or above of industry averages,” Munger said.

They have the capacity to process as many as 1,500 head of cattle per day on one shift. Munger says with some capital improvements it could be possible to move to 1,800 head per day. That’s on one shift. If they would move to two shifts they could double the production.

Munger said they’re focusing not only on quality cuts but on safety, trying to stay out of what becomes a major news story if there is a recall.

“We wanted to make sure that we would have one of the safest plants in the country. Food safety is becoming an increasing issue across the beef industry. It seems like every other month you’re hearing about recalls. So we take great care in making sure that all the bugs stay off the meat,” Munger said. “We’ve put in an industry-leading number of food safety interventions. We also have an individual carcass ID system set up in the plant. What that allows us to do is that at any given time we can track where a carcass is in our system.”