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Beef plant officials describe their recent progress, hardships

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The glistening equipment and washed floors in one part of the federally authorized slaughterhouse owned by USA Beef Packing LLC give way in time to the more realistic aspects of the business where, in another part of the plant, workers cut up large carcasses and prepare beef for packaging.

USA Beef Packing Plant Manager Fernando Rios and employee Gloria Rodriguez discuss chilling beef carcasses prior to processing them into smaller portions during a Tuesday morning tour of the plant given for members of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. and the news media. Gov. Susana Martinez plans to visit the plant Wednesday, Oct. 4, at noon to commemorate the opening of the facility, which began initial operations in late August. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

“It has been really rough for us,” said owner Jose Madrid about the past month of “test” operations, “not, per se, because of the facility itself, but because of employees. We have been having a lot of rough patches with employees. … It is a demanding job. It is very, very hard labor, very, very intense. … You can have all the equipment in the world and all the facilities in the world, but if you don’t have the right people, then you don’t have much.”

Few local workers are skilled in the work, he said, which has led the company to bring in experienced trainers from other states. But USA Beef Packing management say they are committed to using local workers and are training them, even though the plant now has more employees than its production requires.

Keeping workers is another matter. Of the 10 trainees hired the first week, five are no longer there.

“This type of work is not for everybody,” Madrid said, who has 28 years of experience in the industry and runs an El Paso equipment company serving the beef processing industry.

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Madrid talked with about a dozen members of the news media and the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. during a Tuesday morning tour of the facility at 3845 Cedarvale Road.

Economic Development Corp. President John Mulcahy described the business as the hardest project “he could have imagined.” But he and Madrid also described progress so far.

The successes for the business that they described include significant renovation and upgrades to the plant that used to be operated by Pecos Valley Meats, a contract for a new lagoon for waste that will allow for more cattle to be processed, approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to operate as a federal slaughterhouse and beef processor, a pending agreement to export beef to Mexico, approval of its facility and operations by an insurer, and the installation of a cattle restraining system intended to ensure humane stunning and unconsciousness of animals prior to killing that USA Beef Packing staff say has been approved by the USDA.

USA Beef Packing also has agreed to participate in a non-mandatory USDA program to ensure humane handling of cattle prior to slaughter, Madrid said.

The facility includes some high-tech features, including a camera and tagging system that tracks what happens to the cattle from the time they enter the facility until the carcasses are boxed.

Mulcahy described the plant, the only large-scale beef processor in the state, as important to the economy.

He said that the state now slaughters only about 300 cattle a month, while information from dairy owners and beef producers indicate that they have to cull about 30,000 head a month from their herds and operations. Those dairy cows and cattle are instead being shipped six to eight hours away to other states for slaughter.

“We are losing all that money, all those revenues,” Mulcahy said. “This is a good thing for cattle. This is important for jobs.”

A public comment period occurred this summer regarding the water discharge plans of the plant. Eight emails and letters were sent to the New Mexico Environment Department, with five individuals expressing concerns about possible environmental problems and two of the five saying that they worried that horse slaughter, which is outlawed in New Mexico, would occur at the plant in the future. The Environment Department issued a groundwater discharge permit to USA Beef Packing after reviewing the comments.

A public hearing also was held in March by the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. The county is administering the $400,000 in state Local Economic Development Act funds that USA Beef Packing will receive if it meets certain criteria regarding investment and hiring. No opposition to the business was voiced at that hearing.

Plant Manager Fernando Rios said that neighboring businesses and property owners have been supportive. He added that people are welcome to tour the facility if they make arrangements.

“We want to be open about our operations,” he said.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.