Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In the last third of the twentieth century the meatpacking industry became a major force in the social and economic transformation of small towns in the Great Plains. From the earliest days of European American settlement, cattle were raised on the Plains' extensive pastureland. The arrival of the railroad allowed cattle to be shipped to stockyards in Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Winnipeg, Toronto, and other cities to the east of the Plains. The cattle would then be purchased by packing companies and slaughtered in multistoried facilities located adjacent to the stockyards. A hundred years later, cattle are still raised on the Plains, but they are now fattened in feedlots and sold to nearby packing plants. In 1950 the states that extend north from Texas to North Dakota slaughtered 21 percent of U.S. cattle; by 1997 the corresponding figure was 57 percent. Most of this growth has been concentrated in Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

The industry's increasing concentration on the High Plains is attributable to innovations in cattle feeding and meatpacking. In 1950 U.S.-fed cattle production was 4.4 million head; by 1997 the equivalent figure was 13.2 million, with nearly 60 percent of this total being concentrated in Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska. Center-pivot irrigation was introduced to the High Plains in the 1960s, allowing farmers to tap the Ogallala Aquifer and cultivate feed grains. The availability of feed and water attracted the feedlot industry.

The industry's shift to small towns near the Great Plains began in 1961, when Iowa Beef Packers (now known as IBP Inc.) opened its first plant in Denison, Iowa. The company has since grown to become the world's largest red meat producer. The Denison plant, unlike its predecessors, did not use gravity to move the animals through the plant but instead used a "chain" to move individual cattle along a disassembly line. Under this system, workers are stationed along the line and perform the same operation on each animal as it passes by. The fact that workers were required to perform the same task, requiring "less skill" than butchers in the old plants, was used as a rationale by the company to avoid the terms of the industrywide union master contract and lower its labor costs. By locating the plant close to a source of cattle, the company lowered its transport costs and reduced the shrinkage and bruising associated with shipping cattle long distances.

In 1967 ibp opened a plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, to produce a new product, boxed beef. Instead of shipping carcasses to its customers, IBP removed fat and bone at the plant, thereby retaining valuable waste materials such as entrails (to be used for pet food), and shipped vacuum-packaged portions according to retail specifications. This innovation allowed meat wholesalers and supermarkets to lower their labor costs by eliminating their need for butchers. The combined effect of these cost-cutting innovations was to increase the demand for IBP products, and it responded by building additional large slaughter-capacity plants close to feedlots in the High Plains during the 1970s and 1980s. A plentiful supply of high-quality water is an important requirement for these sites, since between 400 and 600 gallons of water are required per head of cattle slaughtered. This need was met by using the Ogallala Aquifer.

In response to IBP's cost-cutting innovations, some competitors demanded wage concessions or closed plants, while others emulated IBP's High Plains location strategy. Communities generally welcomed the packers with financial incentives such as tax breaks and the construction of supporting infrastructure. These changes were particularly evident in Kansas, which experienced plant closures in Kansas City and Wichita, while new plants were constructed in the southwestern portion of the state in Liberal, Holcomb, Garden City, and Dodge City.

The construction of large slaughter-capacity plants and the adoption of the disassembly line led to increases in both worker productivity and injury rates. The most common injury among line workers is carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by the rapid, repetitive nature of work on the disassembly line. By the 1980s meatpacking had become the most hazardous industry in America. The hazardous working conditions and low pay contribute to high employee turnover. Monthly turnover among line workers in established plants averages between 6 and 8 percent. This means that, in the case of ibp's Holcomb plant, 5,000 workers come and go each year.

Most High Plains towns lack surplus labor to meet the demands of an industry with high employee turnover, so packers recruit workers from beyond the local region. In the early 1980s IBP recruited Southeast Asian refugees; in the 1990s Latinos became the target of recruitment efforts. The influx of new immigrants has transformed small packing towns into multicultural communities and provided a host of challenges to local social service providers in the form of housing shortages, increases in school enrollment and crime, and demand for social assistance and special services.

Canada's beefpacking industry has experienced similar changes. Small, ine.cient urban plants have closed, while large slaughtercapacity plants have been constructed in southern Alberta. The packers have been drawn to the province by the availability of fed cattle and water. In 1989 Cargill, the third largest meatpacker in the United States, constructed a plant in High River, thirty miles south of Calgary. Five years later, IBP purchased Lakeside Packers of Brooks, in southeastern Alberta, and immediately announced expansion plans that would result in hiring 2,000 additional workers. High River has avoided many of the social problems associated with U.S. packing plants, as most of its workers live in Calgary and commute to the plant. In Brooks, immigrant families and young adult males from across Canada have moved to the community, straining local services.

See also AGRICULTURE: Cattle Ranching / HISPANIC AMERICANS: Meatpackers / WATER: Ogallala Aquifer.

Michael J. Broadway Northern Michigan University

Broadway, Michael J. "Following the Leader: ibp and the Restructuring of Canada's Meatpacking Industry." Culture & Agriculture 18 (1996): 3-8.

Skaggs, Jimmy M. Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607-1983. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986.

Stull, Donald D., Michael J. Broadway, and David Griffith, eds. Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

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