Over the past 40 years, livestock processing facilities in Iowa have had to diversify in order to stay in business, but a plant in northeast Iowa has found a niche market and is gearing up to provide a delicacy to China. Cedar River Processing in Charles City will process spent hens, or hens who no longer are top egg layers.
General Manager Gary Shank says the timing was just right because they wanted to expand and another company was leaving town. “We started looking about a year-and-a-half ago to find a processor who would process some spent hens with a head on and feet on and nobody would do that,” Shank explains. “So we started looking to see where the most spent hens were in the country, so we started looking in Iowa to find a further processing facility.”
Shank says Cedar River Processing is affiliated with the Charles Austin wholesale meat company of Chicago which has been doing business overseas for years.
Iowa State University Extension Livestock Specialist John Lawrence says partnerships like that are one of the keys to success. He says the Charles City plant has found a niche in a couple of ways. “Iowa being the largest egg producing state in the nation has a large number of spent hens that historically have had a very low value, and have at times have even been a cost of how do you dispose of these animals. And then doing it in such a way in finding a market where they can utilize that product.”
Finding enough animals to keep the facility running is imperative to its success. Gary Shank says they’ve done their homework. “It’ll be slow at first as we get people trained, and then we hope to get to 60,000 birds per day on one shift. And a year or so down the road, we’d like to put on a night shift where we’re killing 100,000 birds per day,” Shank says.
All that processing equals a number of jobs for Charles City. Shank says they’ll initially employ around 60 workers and hope to more than double that number to nearly 140 over the next three years.
Lawrence says Iowa has a large supply of ag resources, but a population of only three million, which is why such international connections are so important.
“So we’ve got one percent of the people, if we only produced one percent of say the pork or once percent of the beef or the chicken or whatever, so we only fed Iowans, it would greatly, greatly limit our economic activity if we didn’t trade outside our state borders. You can take that extensions a step further and say trade outside our national borders to say China.”
The exports of chickens to China from Cedar River Poultry are expected to begin very soon, as the plant is expected to begin processing hens on December 27th.