Tyson Plant Fire Sends Ripples Of Uncertainty Through Western Kansas, Cattle Industry

Aug 22, 2019
Originally published on August 22, 2019 5:49 pm

GARDEN CITY — Ali Abdi usually cuts meat at the Tyson plant in Holcomb, and was at the plant when a fire broke out and destroyed part of the structure.

He didn’t see it as he and the other workers evacuated, but, he said, “Yes, I was scared.”

Abdi, a Somali refugee who moved to Garden City five years ago, is one of several employees cleaning up the damage. Tyson hasn’t said when the plant will reopen — it could be months. And that uncertainty has a ripple effect on area feedlots, livestock drivers, Garden City itself and even Garden City Community College.

The Holcomb Tyson plant processed approximately 5,600 cattle per day, which represents 5% of the beef processed in the U.S. and nearly a quarter of cattle processing in Kansas. No cattle died in the fire, Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said. 

Tyson also operates beef plants in Texas, Nebraska, Illinois and Washington state and will transport cattle destined for Holcomb elsewhere.

“We will leverage our entire supply chain to meet customer demands for our products,” she said.

But without a large number of trucks hauling livestock to feedlots and the Tyson plant itself, Garden City and Finney County will lose out on truckers fueling up their vehicles and themselves, County Administrator Randy Partington said.

Additionally, when livestock truck drivers take longer routes, they face “hours of service” regulations, requiring 10 hours of rest for every 14 hours of driving, according to Colin Woodall, senior vice president of government affairs with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 

The association has asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for an exemption, but as of Wednesday, the request had not been granted. Woodall said he’s not sure when the government may have an answer.

“Every day is opportunities lost here as we're trying to move cattle to the other plants in order to pick up the slack and try to recover in the market as best we can,” Woodall said, adding later that if the exemption doesn’t come, that “ultimately just slows down the movement of cattle and then you get cattle that are stacking up and these feedlots and they need to be moved.”

For feedlots, time is money. If cattle spend more time in feedlots, it costs the operation more money, according to Clint Alexander, an animal and food science professor at Garden City Community College.

“Now they're going to worry about the overall cost of things going up, because (the cattle) may spend more time on feed, you're going to have a higher percentage of health products that might have to be used, especially in this heat …” he said.

The Kansas Livestock Association is also working with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and federal regulatory agencies on waiving rules that would keep cattle moving to other plants. It’s also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure more meat inspectors and graders are available where more cattle are being processed, KLA spokeswoman Scarlett Hagins said.

After the fire, the price of boxed beef went up and the price of live cattle went down, Hagins said, and “created a lot of uncertainty in the market,” she said.

“We're seeing some improvement there and it's kind of starting to get a little more leveled out than it was … right after the fire.”

Meat team sidelined

Earlier this week, the Holcomb plant’s parking lot was full of cars, disaster cleanup crews and a large crane that towered over the plant.

All of the full-time employees at the Tyson plant are getting 40 hours of pay per week, Croston said, but  part-time employees are not being compensated.

“There will be opportunities for them to work during the reconstruction,” she added.

Across town at Garden City Community College, Alexander coaches the school’s meat-judging team, which has won a national championship and several awards. The fire is having a major impact on the team.

“... (W)e practiced at Tyson quite regularly and obviously that's not available anymore,” Alexander said.

He also said that in September, 100 to 150 students from as many as 15 schools were expected to attend a Beef Empire Days contest at Tyson.

He hasn’t found another meatpacking plant to hold the competition, and in the last 30 years, Alexander said he only knows of one other time the competition was cancelled. 

The GCCC program also runs a business matching ear tags from cattle heads to tags on carcasses. Alexander said the feedlots paid for the carcass data service, which brought in $4,000 to $6,000 per month.

“That was a good income for our program. And now we've lost that for a couple months,” he said.

The effect on the city

On Tuesday, Garden City commissioners voted on a resolution that declared no “financial emergency” existed due to the Tyson plant.

The city uses a set of financial guidelines to assess a “financial emergency” — it can be triggered if the unemployment rate increases by 2 percent should a major employer leave or if repairs from a catastrophic event costs a city department more than 20 percent of its budget. 

Garden City Manager Matt Allen said the city began discussing steps to take after the county’s largest employer caught fire. Had the plant not reopened, city officials would have looked for ways to reduce spending by not filling open positions and putting off approved expenditures and while finding new sources of revenue.

“We knew we weren't dealing with a long-term closure of the plant or employees not getting paid,” Allen said.

For now, Finney County has not been financially impacted by the fire, but could see a reduction in sales tax revenue in the coming months.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and  the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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