At around 7 a.m. Thursday, KB Quality Meats owner Kevin Barnhill was preparing equipment and tables for a busy day of processing livestock into ground beef, bacon or bulk buys of meat.
"The way it works for us right now, for every one we get on the table and we're boning out, we're putting another one in the cooler on the backside just behind it," Barnhill said.
It's usually busy at the Blair business, he said, but even more so now that COVID-19 has affected production at meat processing plants in Nebraska, the Midwest and the U.S. Due to the slowdown in production, farmers are looking for places to send their animals to harvest — the industry term for slaughter — and be processed, which has increased the workload and filled up the books for small meat lockers like KB Quality Meats.
"Our next available appointments are in March. It changes every day," Barnhill said, noting he has a waitlist in case of cancellations. "I wish I could do more. I feel really bad. There's a lot of guys in this area that have livestock we'd sure like to help them with."
Barnhill said he does have several farmers around the Washington County area he works with, several new over the last few weeks, and he's been trying to match up their harvest-ready livestock with new customers look for bulk buys of meat.
"What we've seen a huge chunk of is people from Omaha or surrounding areas who've never bought halves and quarters or whole hogs before, because of the news about meat shortages, they've scrambled around to buy them up," he said. "I've been buying some cattle from the local farmers to fulfill those orders."
Those orders are sold out of The Blair Meat Market, the retail side of Barnhill's business. For cattle, Barnhill said he uses whole muscle rather than trimmings for ground beef. He also said he doesn't cut ribeyes, rather, all the meat is processed into ground beef.
"That makes sure we can keep ground beef for our customers," Barnhill said. "That's one of the reasons we haven't run out of ground beef. Why our ground beef pricing hasn't changed is we have alternative sourcing. We can do that, other guys can't. They all depend on those distributors and packers, and we don't."
Barnhill said that's good for the surrounding community because meat prices have gone up due to increased demand, but there's less meat available to meet that demand due to plant slowdowns.
Earlier this month, a Tyson pork plan in Madison and Cargill beef plant in Schuyler announced that they would temporarily shut down production to deep clean. Plant closures slow down the large supply line of cattle and hogs, and in the case of hogs, too much of a slow down can put farmers in a position where the need to euthanize their animals. Larger meat plants will only take hogs that fall within a certain size and weight.
Even when plants have remained opened, employees who become sick as well as safety precautions and social distancing measures for COVID-19 stand to slow production.
"It's just the way modern agriculture is, they've got a supply chain to make sure these big plants are full," Barnhill said. "It takes a lot of people to supply those plants."
Smaller meat lockers, like KB Quality Meats, can only do so much to help farmers looking for places to harvest and process their animals.
"There's only so many hours in a day. I only got so much cooler space to hang them," Barnhill said. "We're already working six days a week."
As a federally inspected business, Barnhill said he has certain hour requirements he must fill. From 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. are federal hours, where animals are processed and inspected for sale.
"Some of my customers will re-sell at farmers markets," Barnhill said.
Between 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Barnhill said he and his employees work on animals that are not for sale.
"Usually, we'd only bone cattle and hogs during federal hours, but we're doing it all day," he said.
KB Quality Meats is booked every day until March, Barnhill said, and some people are even calling to book dates into November of 2021.
"If I'm booked in March, those animals are not ready to harvest right now, those are not market-ready animals," he said. "Those are animals, in the case of hogs, they may not even be born yet … A lot of my local farmers I work with are thinking forward."
But it's not just KB Quality Meat, Barnhill noted, which is booked so far in advance.
"I talk to a lot of different guys, every locker in Nebraska is like I am, everybody's full," Barnhill said. "You got guys that have market ready animals, they have to harvest. They have no options … It kills me because I'd love to do more, but I don't have the staff or the space. There's only so much I can do."