A large-capacity USDA-certified meat processing facility proposed south of Cortez has been approved by the Montezuma County commissioners.
Rocky Mountain Meats will build and operate the slaughterhouse and packing operation at 7429 U.S. Highway 160/491.
Commissioners voted 3-0 on Tuesday to grant a special-use permit and to rezone the property to commercial industrial. The approval is conditional on dust control measures on the access road and Colorado Department of Transportation signing off on the historic highway access.
The project complies with the land-use code, said Commissioner Jim Candelaria, and “will support agribusiness” in the area. The highway corridor is a commercial-industrial overlay zone intended for this type of business, said Planning Director Don Haley.
Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer, who is also an agriculture veterinarian, said the company’s operations in Hesperus and New Mexico have a good reputation.
“They build top-of-the-line facilities and do things correctly. I have no doubt he will do the same with this project,” he said. “It is an asset to the community and will supply jobs.”
Company representative Chad Foutz said the facility will have the capacity to process up to 200 cattle per month. He said it is needed to meet his customer demands at Cross Creek Ranch Premium Meats, a wholesaler and ranch based in Hesperus.
There is a lack of processing facilities regionally and nationally, Foutz said, and he is forced to ship his cattle to Wyoming and elsewhere for processing.
Foutz plans to process about 20 animals per month at the facility. It will initially employ about five people. All animals and meat packing operations will be contained indoors, and the plant will be inspected regularly by USDA. There will not be a feed lot.
Foutz promised that half of the processing slots beyond his needs will be reserved first for Montezuma County ranchers who want to process their animals at a USDA facility, which allows the meat to be sold commercially. County slots not filled will go out to the open market.
He said the totally enclosed modern plant is designed to control noise and odors.
Mitigation efforts include: animals being held inside, dim lighting to calm the animals and prevent baying, insulated walls, a cooled facility to 40 degrees to prevent odors, blood stored in a separating tank and not in evaporation lagoons, and guts getting frozen and sent to the landfill to prevent odors.
“Our goal is to have no noise or odors,” Foutz said. “When you stand outside of it you will not have any idea what is going on inside. We want to do a really good job with it, and will use best practices.”
A previous question about whether there is adequate water for the operation has been resolved, Haley said.
The slaughterhouse facility requires 50 to 100 gallons to process each animal, or about 10,000 to 20,000 gallons per month at full capacity.
The property has an existing 5/8-inch tap from Montezuma County Water District No. 1.
It was previously reported that the former trucking company at the location used 2,500 gallons to 3,500 gallons per month. A water district official reported it could be a challenge to provide more because of pressure and supply issues.
But an engineer’s audit of usage in the past five years showed that in some months 25,000 gallons was used from Water District 1 at the property, Haley said, which would be more than adequate for operations.
Foutz said he will draw water in the middle of night to fill cisterns in order to minimize pressure loss for others on the District 1 system.
The company is working with the water district to secure adequate supply, and as a back up Foutz said it will fill up a water truck at a local water dock. USDA meat processing facilities rely on pressurized hot water for operations.
An engineered septic system specifically designed for meat packing plants is required.
Company officials said if found to be cost-effective, they hope to connect to the sewer line of the nearby Cortez Sanitation District system on the other side of the highway.
A pre-treatment system inside the plant will collect the blood which will be milled for use as fertilizer product for farms in New Mexico.
In the beginning, the guts will be transported to the Montezuma County Landfill. But the future plan is to process the guts into fertilizer using a high pressure steam system that turns it into liquid. County Administrator Shak Powers said animal entrails from the facility can also be used at the landfill’s commercial composting operation.
Opponents and supporters spoke during a public comment period before commissioners approved the project.
Neighbor Wanda Martin urged commissioners to monitor the company to ensure it keeps its promises of no noise and no odor, adequate septic, and protection of the watershed.
Tim Lanier supported the project. He said ranchers are forced to travel out of the county and state to get animals processed at a USDA facility.
“This would be a boost to the local economy,” he said. “People want to process their beef in a timely manner, not wait months for a slot to open.”
Clayton Archer said the USDA plant is badly needed in the community and will help prevent ranchers from going out of business because of the costs of shipping.
“It will be a game changer here, a lot of ranchers are sending animals out of the area and losing money,” he said. “Keeping the animals here will be great for local meat production.”
A larger USDA processing is an economic multiplier for ranchers and creates a bigger market for consumers, said Colton Black, director of the Cortez Chamber of Commerce. It also avoids supply chain challenges happening regionally.
Having USDA-certified beef opens up the potential for county-raised beef to be sold at local grocery stores.
In response to concerns about follow-up monitoring, Candelaria said projects must keep in compliance with permits and permits can be revoked if not.
In response to a citizen’s concern about water demand being wasteful at the plant, Candelaria noted that when water goes through the sanitation district it flows into McElmo Creek after being cleaned.
Bryson McCabe, an attorney representing neighbor Jim Black, said Black opposes the project because it has the potential to become a nuisance, and it presents a water contamination risk.
“We have heard a lot of great promises, if they keep them those concerns are mitigated,” McCabe said. He urged the company to tie into the Cortez Sanitation District system for its septic needs.
The county approved a smaller USDA processing plant in Mancos in 2019.