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New Carman beef slaughter plant targets spring opening

Rising cost of trucking means the future belongs to small regional slaughter plants, says owner

Construction of Manitoba’s first new federally inspected slaughter plant in decades is steaming along, and its owner expects 50-75 head of cattle per week to start coming down the ramp early this spring.

“The engineers tell me we’re going to be killing cattle by the end of March,” said Calvin Vaags, owner of the slaughter plant being built just north of Carman.

“I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I’ll say April, and then we’ll have a federal stamp in there by the end of May or June.”

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Formerly known as Plains Processors, the new facility will be renamed True North Foods. Ethnic markets looking for halal and possibly kosher-slaughtered meat will be a major driver for the plant that is aiming for 1,000 head per week at full capacity. Vaags also believes that organic and grass-fed products could be dovetailed into similar niches.

In an update at Ag Days, Vaags invoked the dark days of the BSE border closure that began in 2003.

As a rancher running cattle and a feedlot on 2,800 acres, that crisis showed a “definite need” for a local, federally inspected plant that would be able to get commodity beef, elk, bison and small ruminants not just in a box, but out to markets, at least outside of the province and “hopefully” around the world.

Vaags’ foray into the beef retail and wholesale market started with a venture called The Carver’s Knife in Winnipeg at the same time, and led to him becoming Plains Processors’ biggest customer by 2008.

“They wanted me to buy the plant. At first, I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But then they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I ended up owning a slaughter plant as well,” said Vaags.

But six months later, he realized that owning a provincially inspected plant offered a dismal future, and began investigating the possibility of gaining a federal stamp from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Now, plans are in the works for European Union certification, as well as China, the United States, and “any other market around the world.”

With the main building’s insulated precast concrete panel walls up, and slaughter equipment being moved in, Vaags has taken pains to make sure that it will accommodate multiple species and meet international specifications.

“We will be providing a service. We will slaughter the animals, package it to your specs, then put a box around it with your label on it and then it’s your baby again,” said Vaags.

‘Sweet spot’

His goal was to hit the “engineering sweet spot” for the Manitoba market. Not too big and expensive, but small enough to be built on a budget that makes it viable.

The plant’s killing floor and processing line will be able to process even the largest bulls, because Vaags recalls how during the depths of the BSE crisis such animals had to be shipped to Montreal — the only facility that could, or would — handle them.

The design is based on Vaags’ own cattle-handling experience as well as the animal welfare principles espoused by animal behaviourist Temple Grandin.

The plant’s traceability system will be able to track all production right from the CCIA ear tag to the individual packages of meat heading out the door, he added. That way, if a food safety issue arises, it can be quickly pinpointed and specific products recalled in a timely fashion without wasting large volumes of production.

Shipping raw commodities away to be processed by others has long been the default strategy of Manitoba’s agricultural economy, but Vaags believes that the Carman plant with 80 workers is a necessary step towards keeping more value-added profits at home.

“I’m a big believer in small regional plants. Times have changed. The cost of moving animals around is way higher than it used to be. That’s the key that makes everything different,” said Vaags.

He noted that trucking costs to Nebraska, for example, have risen from just over two cents per pound 15 years ago to “a full 10 cents” today.

“Big plants trying to draw 5,000 head per day from a 1,000-mile radius — that’s not sustainable.”

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