Company plans to locate $1.1 billion meat processing plant in Cheyenne

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By Kevin Killough, Energy Journalist
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Cheyenne could be home to a $1.1 billion meat processing plant, a boon to the city’s and state’s overall economy, perhaps not so much to Wyoming’s small ranchers.

Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins mentioned the potential in his latest weekly update, and from both the buzz and the news generated across the state, Wyoming ranchers say it might not be of much benefit to them.

Collins said today that the company eyeing Cheyenne for a huge capital outlay was looking to buy around 400 acres for the facility, which would process around 8,000 animals a day. A quarter of these would be buffalo and the rest beef.

When fully operational, the plant will employ approximately 2,500 people.

Wyoming Branding

Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, had a lukewarm response to the news.

While the state needs more processing capacity, Magagna said a plant this size would dilute the marketability of Wyoming beef.

In 2018, Wyoming ranked 24th in the nation in cow numbers, with 1.32 million cattle and calves in producer inventory. For comparison, Texas, which was No. 1 place, 12.5 million creatures.

Magagna said Wyoming producers are trying to brand cowboy state beef to achieve the premiums that make small beef operations here economical.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a factory that has the ability that we’re talking about here to retain that identity,” Magagna said.

In other words, many Wyoming ranchers cater to niche markets at butcher shops and high-end restaurants rather than filling Wal-Mart cases with meat.

State Senator Ogden Driskill is a sixth-generation Wyoming rancher and his family owns the Campstool Ranch at the base of Devils Tower. It’s a pretty big operation for Wyoming, and while they sell to small stores and high-end restaurants, they do a bit of processing with JBS Foods in Greeley, Colorado.

“The beef that comes out of Wyoming is defined as the best in the world – not just in the West, but in the world. It really deserves special marketing and packaging, and it should bring high prices,” Driskill said.

processing capacity

Driskill said it would be a positive thing if the company behind the proposed plant was outside of the big four packers — JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef — which handle about 80% of beef in America.

With more competition, big packers should bid for Wyoming beef, Driskill said.

“Right now, they’re not doing that. They basically define the markets and tell us what we’re going to take,” he said.

Collins declined to name the company interested in Cheyenne, but Western Legacy floated the idea of ​​building a $1.1 billion plant that employs 2,500 people in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Meatating Place, an industry publication for the red meat and poultry processing industry, reported that Western Legacy was considering locations other than Rapid City.

In February 2020, the Wyoming Business Council released a study of Wyoming’s meat processing capacity that estimated total annual processing in the Cowboy State at just over 21,000 animals per year. The proposed Cheyenne plant, if it became a reality, would do so in days.

Magagna said that with federal funding, about half a dozen small processing plants have come online in the past two years, which has helped reduce some of the wait times among processors, who book sometimes months in advance.

“We’re interested in seeing something on a larger scale, but we certainly hadn’t thought of something on the scale of what this [proposed Cheyenne] the factory would be,” Magagna said.

At 2.9 million cattle processed per year, the proposed plant would primarily process livestock from out of state.

“They’re coming from Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska. They’re going to have to come from a lot of different places to be able to put that many creatures in a facility on a daily basis,” Collins said.

Other challenges

Collins said the plant as presented in informal conversations he had with company representatives would not have kept the animals outside. They arrived by truck and went directly to processing. This would alleviate the odors that often arise from large slaughter operations.

He said the plant’s power demand would not be too difficult for Black Hills Energy to meet, but water is another story.

At about 3,000 acre feet of water per year, that would take up a large portion of Cheyenne’s future water resources. That’s the amount of water it would take to flood 3,000 acres per foot of depth, or nearly 1 billion gallons.

Cheyenne is now allocated 22,000 acres of water per year, and the city uses 14,000, Collins said. The plant would take 38% of the surplus, leaving much less available for future growth.

Job creation

The company told Collins that the plant, when fully operational, would employ some 2,500 people. While this would create many employment opportunities in Cheyenne, it would also place many demands on city housing and other services.

Even if all of these questions could be answered, the company would need to obtain federal permits from the USDA to sell beef outside of Wyoming. As with all federal permits, this would be a lengthy process.

Collins pointed out that so far the company has just pitched the idea and made no formal commitments or demands.

“Literally, I had a meeting with them and just recorded what I learned,” he said. “And that’s it. I haven’t had any further contact.

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