Abattoir heads down a bloody, bumpy road

The blood and guts weren’t so bad. But the smell of bile and rotting compost was enough to turn even the toughest of stomachs.

The blood and guts weren’t so bad.

But the smell of bile and rotting compost was enough to turn even the toughest of stomachs.

“Want to come over for some bison burgers?” said Cliff LaPrairie as he walked away from the territory’s new, $175,000 mobile abattoir.

Wednesday was the fifth wheel’s trial run at the LaPrairie ranch.

And farmers are already questioning the viability of the government’s newest toy.

“It should be free,” said LaPrairie.

 “The government should go all the way and it should be free for the farmers to come out — that would make it accessible.”

Hanging in the shiny, stainless steel slaughter room, one of LaPrairies’ 150 bison was being butchered.

The process involved three workers gutting and quartering the animal, as green bile poured out of its skeletal, sinewy nostrils.

Insulated and designed to run through rain, sun, sleet and snow, the abattoir has three compartments: a slaughter room, a unit for transporting meat and a mechanical room.

It also comes with a supply of water that can be refilled on-site if a farm has potable water that has been tested.

This is a training operation, said agriculture branch development officer Kevin Bawers.

“We’re discovering the abattoir’s attributes and limitations — what needs to be done for it to operate more efficiently.”

But its efficiency is not the foremost issue.

“It costs us $100 an animal to get that done,” said LaPrairie, pointing at the splayed bison carcass.

“And his mileage in and his mileage back, plus $70 hour to clean up and everything.

“We normally do it ourselves and we’re standing around here and I still have to pay my hired hand and we can’t touch the animals.”

To use the abattoir, farmers are charged $100 a head for bison and beef, $75 a head for elk, $40 for hogs and $30 for goats and sheep. It won’t process poultry.

On top of the slaughtering fee, farmers have to pay $1.30 a kilometre to have the abattoir brought to their farm, and an additional $1.30 per kilometre to have the slaughtered meat taken to a butcher’s for cool storage.

There is also a standby fee of $70 an hour, if the farmer is not ready and the abattoir sits inactive.

And, finally, the farmer has to have the proper set-up and permits to appropriately dispose of all animal waste.

“We had to go dig a pit for the gut piles,” said LaPrairie farmhand Byron Beaudry.

“It’s lucky we have a Bobcat and a backhoe,” added Virginia LaPrairie.

“Because that hole had to be eight feet deep, and we hit permafrost at six feet.”

The LaPrairies purchased a permit to dig the hole, it had to be confined by an electric fence, and it had to be inspected by a government official before it could hold the waste.

“We spent a whole day digging, then .putting in the posts and the fence,” said Virginia.

“And everywhere the abattoir goes, that will have to be done.”

But waste disposal is not the biggest problem.

The abattoir doesn’t have a cooler, or a place to store the meat, said Virginia.

“And, usually, these units go together.”

“I don’t know why they didn’t so that — it’s a stumbling block everybody knew about,” added Cliff.

After being slaughtered and quartered, the bison has to age for 21 days in a cooler with controlled temperature and humidity, said Virginia.

“So, there is still the big cost of going to Stacey’s (Butcher Block) or Yukon Meat and Sausage to hang the meat, then cut it and wrap it.”

To make the abattoir practical, we’d have to slaughter four or five animals in a day, but there’s no place to put them, said Cliff.

The butchers in town can only handle one or two at a time, he said.

With the added cost of mileage, waste disposal and standby time, the abattoir just isn’t viable, said Cliff.

“It’s just thrown 50 cents a pound right on top of (the price of bison meat) to do two animals.”

Unless stores are willing to pay more money than they’re paying now, it just isn’t practical, he added.

The abattoir was designed to help livestock producers gain access to the commercial market.

“It’s two services in one,” said Bawers.

“It’s an inspection service and it offers the farmer the chance to transport the inspected meat in an inspected transportation unit.”

Both are required if meat is going to be sold commercially in the territory.

But it will take more than the abattoir to gain lucrative access to this market, said Cliff.

“I don’t think restaurants and hotels will be willing to pay the extra price — it just remains to be seen,” he said.

“When a truck brings 30 tonnes of meat in from down south, how are you going to compete against it? — You can’t.”

The territorial government has budgeted $30,000 annually to operate the abattoir, but costs are expected to decrease as use increases, according to a government release.

And an Energy Mines and Resources report found there is an annual Yukon demand for 6,000 beef, 12,000 hogs and up to 200 head of both elk and bison.

But there aren’t enough animals in the Yukon, said Cliff.

“I have 150 animals, but I don’t know anybody else who has more than 20,” he said.

“So, that’s not going to keep the abattoir active, and a farmer’s not going to turn around and slaughter 30 animals — if he’s only got 30 animals, he might do five.”

The LaPrairies don’t foresee using the abattoir in the future.

It’s too costly, said Virginia.

Living more than 50 kilometres from MacPherson subdivision, where abattoir operator Art Lock lives, the cost in mileage alone to LaPrairie ranch, round trip, is more than $130.

“The mileage fee was unexpected,” said Joan Norberg of Grizzly Valley Farm.

“Basically, you’re penalized the further you live away from Whitehorse.”

Norberg was hoping to use the abattoir to help with some of the slaughtering work on her farm. But the additional fees have made it unfeasible.

“It would work out to be about a fifth off what I make on each animal,” she said.

And this is too much.

“If I had a herd of 30 pigs, then maybe it would be feasible, but as it is it’s not viable,” she said.

The abattoir might spur some farmers to get more animals, said Cliff.

“But whether that happens or not, I don’t know.”

Over the last two years, elk farmer Wayne Grove has pared his numbers down dramatically.

But the abattoir has opened more doors, he said.

“Now we have to build our numbers up so we can feel comfortable supplying hotels with a constant supply of meat.”

Tourism operators have been hoping to get elk and bison meat for years, and now it’s possible to supply them with it, said Cliff.

“The abattoir came because of all the calls farmers were getting from restaurants, hotels and wilderness people who want grass-fed, natural meat,” said Virginia.

“So, we’ll have to see how things progress and stay positive.”

When animals are put in trucks to be driven to slaughter, they’re stressed, said Cliff.

And in the slaughter yards, they’re stressed.

“But here, the animal looks at you, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, then he’s dead and done with — no stress, nothing.

“Now, what’s better for the animal?

“When they come right out here and do it, there’s no comparison.

 “And, the government’s spent more money more foolishly than this,” he added.