The flames may be out, but the aftershocks of the fire at Tyson Fresh Meats’ Finney County plant near Holcomb, Kansas, are just now starting to be felt.

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An aerial view of the Tyson plant near Holcomb, Aug. 11, facing east. The fire affected the west portion of the building and broke out in the box shop. (Drone photo by Ben Rumbaugh.)

According to the Garden City, Kansas, Police Department, the fire started around 8:30 p.m., Aug. 9. A 911 call from the Operations Manager stated the fire started on the west side of the building, where the processing begins, in the box shop.

All available firefighers from Holcomb Community Fire Department responded and Garden City Fire Department brought extra trucks to the scene to assist along with the Tyson Haz-Mat team. Finney County Emergency Management and Finney County Sheriff’s Office were also on scene. About 20 hours later, crews were mopping up the last bits at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 10. A reported 1,200 Tyson employees were evacuated quickly and no injuries were reported to firefighters, employees or civilians. 

Tyson released a statement Aug. 12, stating it will rebuild the Holcomb facility but that officials are still assessing the damage and it’s too early to establish a timeline of when the process will begin. Right now, the plant is working to clear the damage. As yet, the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

“This is a difficult time for our team members and their families and we want to ensure they’re taken care of,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats in the release. “Today, we will notify our full-time, active team members that they’ll be paid weekly until production resumes.” Tyson team members may be called on to work to help with cleanup and other projects, but all full–time active employees are guaranteed pay, according to the statement.

The Kansas Livestock Association sent out a news release Aug. 12, stating that fed cattle processing capacity will be strained.

“The plant operated at about 6,000 head of fed cattle per day, leaving a shortfall in the national packing capacity of 30,000 head for a  five-day work week,” according to the KLA statement. CattleFax estimates that this one plant accounts for about 6% of the total U.S. fed cattle packing capacity and 23.5% of the total Kansas fed cattle packing capacity.

This is one of six plants Tyson operates in Kansas. The Holcomb facility employs 3,800 workers in multiple shifts. Tyson’s millions of dollars in payroll has an immediate and deep economic impact each year in Finney County. But it also is a major processor of the region’s beef cattle.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly sent Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to the site to meet with Tyson representatives, local government and economic development officials to coordinate support, according to news reports. Both Commerce and the Department of Labor have rapid response resources available to assist employees and businesses in situations like this.

Stouffer said Tyson has some redundancy built into its system to handle emergency situations like this, to keep the supply chain moving. Still, according to some in the cattle marketing business, this one plant may take 4.5% of cattle kill capacity offline indefinitely and those other plants absorb the capacity. As of Aug. 12, live cattle and feeder cattle contracts were already dropping.

“Based on CattleFax analysis, shifting the supply to other plants in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa will mean capacity in those regions needs to run 8 to 8.5% higher,” according to KLA’s release. With total U.S. cattle on feed in the yards right now at 11.5 million head July 1, and Kansas with 2.4 million of those head, this growing supply is going to need some place to go and quickly.

“Potential market impacts predicted by CattleFax include a possible loss of currentness in the cattle feeding segment, cattle feeders could lose some market leverage and all classes of cattle could see more price risk,” according to KLA. One solution might be if those plants dedicated to harvesting cows and bulls could switch to processing fed cattle. Also, if other plants have the cooler capacity and labor to process cattle over weekends they might be able to handle the extra cattle.

“Over the weekend, KLA asked NCBA to make the Commodity Futures Trading Commission aware of the situation,” according to KLA’s release. “NCBA made contact with the regulatory agency and contacted the office of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to apprise USDA of the plant fire.” 

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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