KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Fires at meat processing plants aren’t unheard of, but few have caused widespread disruption of cattle markets as the fire that shut down Tyson Foods Inc.’s beef processing plant in Holcomb, Kansas.
Tyson closed the plant indefinitely following a fire that started on the evening of Aug. 9 in the box shop of the Holcomb plant. The fire damaged conduit and piping systems, harvest floor equipment, and electrical and hydraulic systems. Roughly 1,200 employees were evacuated; a total of 3,800 individuals are employed at Holcomb. Tyson committed to rebuilding the plant in the same location. Until then, 6,000 head of cattle per day — representing 6 percent of total US processing capacity — need somewhere to go for processing.
In a letter to Heath Tarbert, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Colin Woodall, senior vice president – Government Affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) made clear the impact of the Holcomb plant closure.
“The loss of the Tyson plant is causing significant disruptions to the cattle industry due to uncertainty of where cattle will go to be processed,” Woodall said in the letter. “This uncertainty is reflected in the markets. While Tyson has made it clear they will rebuild, we do not know how long that process will take. In the meantime, the industry is working to find other locations to process cattle, and all segments of the industry are trying to calculate their losses and prepare for turbulent times. We need risk management tools and markets that work.”
NCBA asked the CFTC to “…keep an even closer eye on the cattle markets…” to guard against anyone taking advantage of the plant closure to manipulate the market. “We do not have any accusations to make, we simply ask that CFTC remain vigilant.”
NCBA, working with the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) have joined forces to protect member interests, for example, by asking the US Dept. of Transportation (DOT) to waive the hours of service rules for livestock haulers to accommodate longer hauls necessary to move fed cattle to other plants.
“With this plant expected to take cattle every day, our industry must find a place for them to be handled,” NCBA said in a letter to the DOT. “While we expect other processing facilities to take more cattle, many of them are in other states and hundreds of miles away. We must continue to process cattle regardless of the temporary loss of a plant. The cattle scheduled to be processed at the Tyson plant cannot remain at the feedyards for months on end. In order to protect their welfare, these cattle must be processed immediately.”
In a notice to its members, the organization said, “KLA has stressed the impact of the temporary plant closure to state officials, asking them to support efforts to repair the facility as quickly as possible. Requests have been made of key congressional members to assist in clearing any regulatory obstacles that arise. NCBA has asked the National Economic Council at the White House to support regulatory flexibility in the rebuilding process.”
The organizations also secured commitments from the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to provide additional staff to support grading and auditing needs at alternate processing plants.
“USDA is closely monitoring the effects of a fire at a large beef packing facility in Holcomb, Kansas,” said Under Secretary Greg Ibach in a statement. “USDA has been in contact with plant management and other stakeholders since the fire, and we understand production will shift to other plants to accommodate cattle that were committed to the Holcomb facility.”
Ibach added that the agency’s Packers and Stockyards Division (PSD) will continue to monitor cattle prices and procurement activities to prevent any illegal activity.
“If USDA detects any unfair practices, we will quickly investigate and take appropriate enforcement action,” Ibach said. He encouraged producers or sellers to contact the PSD Western Regional Office regarding payment or contract concerns.
“As the cattle industry adjusts, USDA stands ready to assist our customers however we can,” he said.