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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Yellowstone Newspapers photo

Eastern Montana may see China-backed beef plant

By Abe Winter

Yellowstone Newspapers

Custer County or somewhere nearby may be the new home of a proposed beef processing plant that could employee 300 people.

That’s what’s in the works for Montana, and Miles City businessman Fred Wacker — owner of a title/insurance business and the Cross 4 Ranch within Custer County — is hopeful it will be built there.

“Our chances are very good,” Wacker said Wednesday morning.

It’s no guarantee, but after sites and permits are finalized it could be on the way.

“It will be somewhere between Billings and Sidney, and Miles City is in the middle of it,” Wacker said. “We’ll hire a professional firm that will study where it should be.”

The plant would be a boon to the region and is getting positive comments around the area. After all, there are no processing plants in the state and one will be needed to implement the deal that was made with China, which has agreed to purchase $200 million worth of prime Montana beef in a three-year period.

It breaks down to $50 million in 2018, $70 million in 2019 and $80 million in 2020. After that, who knows?

“It’s been busy, worked on it for a long time,” Wacker said. “It’s been a good three years. We don’t have major feed lots. If we had a processing plant, the feed lots would be built.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. I’ve had a lot of calls and all but one were positive.”

There shouldn’t be a shortage of interested ranchers, one of whom will be Wacker.

“I’m the first guy who stepped up and I will provide cattle to be harvested at this plant,” he said.

Wacker terms Montana as “an export state, so we specialize in feeder cattle. It’s Montana’s largest industry.”

He knows first-hand that, after selling a steer for $900, it costs $60-$70 to ship a steer out of state to plants almost 600 miles away in Colorado and Nebraska.

“They finish the feeding and get $1,800,” Wacker said. “Just imagine if we could do that here in Montana. We would double the value of our cattle.”

The cost of shipping to a local plant probably would be reduced to $10-$20.

“He (the rancher) is already $50 ahead. In the cattle business, that’s huge,” Wacker said.

And with China on board, it could be successful for many years.

“What the China deal does is give us the base customer for the plant,” Wacker said.

Next step: Build it. Wacker hopes that will happen, much to the delight of Montana ranchers in general and Custer County in particular.

“It’s big for Montana,” he said. “It’s our time. This would be a whole new industry.”

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