Beef processing in the United States sets a worldwide standard for quality. In large packers, processing is accomplished with quickly and with finesse, but the real novelty comes in the form of the few independently owned custom processors who uphold the same standards while feeding rural communities.
In Herington, Kansas, First Choice Meats butchers everything from Prime-grading feeder steers to mountain goats and everything in between to the satisfaction of local customers. Opened in the late 1950s and acquired by the owners Jason Becker, Tobyn Granzow and Mary Anna Granzow in the 1990s, First Choice Meats has borne witness to the evolution of livestock genetics and protein quality in the heart of cattle country.
“When we first started doing this in 1992, we would process three or four beef a week and maybe 20 hogs, and now it’s the exact opposite,” Becker said. “At the time, hogs were cheap eating and so people would sell their beef and keep the pork to feed their families.”
The dynamics of the meat processing industry have changed with the change in production practices, Becker said. As cattle markets changed and individual hog operations faded from popularity, beef processing at individual processors went up and the quality of the beef processed increased.
“The majority of the cattle that come through will grade Choice and we’ll get maybe three a year that grade Prime,” Tobyn said. “We get some really great beef coming through but we also take some where processing is the only option to get use out of the animal.”
For Becker, the most dynamic change over the course of his time in the custom processing plant has come in the quality and uniformity of beef that comes through the business.
“The beef genetics have changed so much since I’ve been doing this that it’s crazy,” said. “It used to be that a 1,200-pound steer was a big steer and if they got any bigger than that they would just be a ball of fat, but now we have 1,600-pound steers that you could put another 150 pounds on.”
Luckily, First Choice Meats avoided the problem many small lockers encountered with the increase in carcass size when they redid their rails soon after taking over the business. Today, the small custom processing plant processes primarily cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, with wild game when in season.
“There’s just not a lot of lockers left, and so we do have people coming in from a wide area,” Becker said, “and some of that is just their personal preference to come to us as well.”
Attention to detail and careful handling are key to a successful custom processing business.
“Every quarter of every beef that we do, we take instructions on,” Becker said. “We don’t do just a standard cut — everything is to the customer’s specifications.”
In addition to custom processing, First Choice Meats maintains a small retail meat case and catering business. The processor offer some unique smoking and curing options for their customers, as well as offering pulled pork or roast hogs for local events.
“Most of what we do, as far as retail, is Certified Hereford products and things we get through distributors,” said. “It’s hard to manage a small meat case on site because during grilling season or say Valentines Day you have to cut four or five sides just to get enough ribeyes.”
Becker said the plant has seen a resurgence in business over the last 10 years or so, thanks to producers trying to add value to their cow-calf operations by direct marketing their beef.
“We’ve got a lot of people now who raise their own beef and are trying to sell them as sides and quarters,” Becker said. “We’ve got more and more people who are getting into farmers markets, registering with the state and selling into bigger outlets like Manhattan and Kansas City.”
For those kinds of outlets, First Choice Meats is a bridge between farm and table for beef producers and consumers, as well as offering an opportunity for top producers to capitalize on a premium product.
“A lot of people want to know where their beef comes from,” Becker said. “We go through phases where there are health-conscious people who are willing to pay more to get their beef directly from the source.”
Becker said first and foremost First Choice Meats focuses on meeting the needs of their producers and customers.
“We don’t try to sell them on a specific cut or product, you just try to fill their needs as best you can,” Becker said.