Harmony Beef to open small and scale up

EDMONTON — Harmony Beef could be processing cattle by mid-November, but the new owner says the pace of operations will be slow and steady.


The plant is capable of handling 800 cattle per day, but it will process only 125 head once it opens later this year, said Rich Vesta, principle owner of the plant north of Calgary. 


The original plan was to open this summer, but that may have been overly optimistic, Vesta said at the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency’s annual conference in Edmonton June 17. 


Vesta bought the former Rancher’s Beef plant last November. 


The federally approved plant was built by a group of beef producers in response to the BSE crisis when live cattle were not eligible for export. It closed in 2005. 


“It was built to standards and technology that no other plant in North America has to this day, particularly on the slaughter side,” Vesta said. 


Some of that high-level technology may have also contributed to its demise because a stronger marketing plan was needed, he added. 


A typical North American plant handles about 250 head per hour, but the technology at this plant is slower, processing 80 to 90 animals per hour. The cattle will move through the system at six feet per minute compared to other large plants that move them through at five times that speed.


Renovations on the slaughter, fabrication and refrigeration side are continuing at a cost of $16 to 18 million over the purchase price. 


The plant is also implementing a new water management system. 


“One of the biggest hurdles this plant had to overcome was water,” Vesta said.


The facility once needed as much as 500,000 gallons per day, but an imported European system that recycles water has reduced use to about 20,000 gallons per day. ALMA provided nearly $1 million to develop this system. 


The plant has also developed a higher level of food safety, in which cattle do not commingle and more time is spent at each processing station. 


Vesta also formed a high powered advisory team that includes Colin Gill of Agriculture Canada in Lacombe, Alta., Ken Peterson, former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service and Mohammed Koumarie, a former USDA researcher who now leads a private laboratory. 


“It ultimately should be the food-safest plant in North America,” he said. “I will be in this plant every day and I will make sure every product is correct.”