Pete's Comments: More technology, now!

Modern beef packing plants require a tremendous workforce with workers frequently doing repetitive tasks very quickly. This could be an opportunity for increased automation. Pictured, workers at the L & H beef slaughterhouse in San Antonio, Texas on June 10, 2008 process beef carcasses.

Last week on our annual WLJ ranch tour, which took us to the Ozark-Osage region of the country, we learned a lot! You can read about it on the front page of this issue. We visited one of Tyson Foods’ chicken incubation facilities. I almost felt like I was committing treason to the beef industry. However, we found the facility fascinating. Aside from controlling the genetic inputs on these chickens, Mother Nature must take over on the hatching process, which takes 21 days. Tyson hatches about half a million chicks a day in this facility and it’s all done with state-of-the-art technology. The vast majority of these chicks are never touched by humans until they reach the growers. The processing of a finished bird is also automated to a high level.

After seeing all this technology at work, it crossed my mind that the beef processing industry is way behind. I sure hope that the packing industry is putting their current massive profits to good use and developing more ways to process cattle.

We all know that labor is a huge issue for the packing industry and they desperately need to address the issue going forward. It may, someday, limit the capacity of our beef production just because we can’t get the labor to do it.

Most other meat-processing industries have developed mechanical and automated methods of processing. The dairy industry has developed automatic milking machines. The tree fruit business is working on automated apple pickers and a variety of crops are searching for more efficient methods.

Congress can’t seem to get their act together to address the farm labor situation and it’s amazing to me that packers are able to attract enough workers to get the job done. Let’s face it—it’s a miserable job. It’s either real hot or real cold, depending on if you’re on the kill floor or the fabrication floor. It’s repetitive and the turnover is huge.

Technology will play a major role in agriculture in the future and it’s not a question of if it will happen but rather when, and can we get it soon enough. The beef industry is a growing business again and the world is rapidly wanting more U.S. grain-fed beef.

The problem for beef packers is the huge inconsistency in cattle size, from a 500-pound heifer carcass to a 1,000-pound steer carcass and everything in between. Most other meat species are much more consistent in size and are currently able to utilize more technology.

I remember 30 years ago, Bob Peterson, CEO of IBP beef packers, telling me that if their employees have to push it, pull it or lift it, we’ll find a way to automate it. For the most part they have done a good job of automating beef packing plants, more in inventory management technology and shipping. But there are huge amounts of manual labor required to run a modern packing plant. I believe JBS in Greeley, CO requires about 850 people to operate every day. The human resources guy certainly earns his pay.

I’m certain that the major packers are all looking very closely at adding more automated steps to the processing line. Just think: If you could convert 40 percent of the workforce to automation and robots, it would certainly revolutionize the business.

There will always be a need for people on the slaughter and fabrication lines to make those decisions a robot with artificial intelligence can’t make. People would be the quality control element that would spot bruises and other carcass defects.

For JBS, this is high priority. They already have lamb processing automated in Australia and they recently bought controlling interest in Scott Automation & Robotics, a New Zealand company that has been working on automated meat processing for quite some time.

If there is a will, there is a way, and I’m confident it’s just a matter of time before we see this technology applied. If Google can develop self-driving cars, we can certainly automate a beef packing plant and you don’t need to automate all of it, but 60 percent would be a good start, especially on the heavy lifting parts like the initial breaking of the carcass.

With the labor issues and extremely high profitability that packers are dealing with, I would have to assume they are moving down this road at a quicker pace. It appears that other major meat producing countries are way ahead of the U.S. packing industry, utilizing these new technologies on the processing floor. — PETE CROW

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