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Tyson To Rebuild Western Kansas Plant, But Fire Idles Operation Indefinitely

Credit John Jenkinson / RFD/KSN
An aerial view of the damage caused by a weekend fire at Tyson Fresh Meats in Holcomb, KS, as denoted by the arrow.

Tyson Fresh Meats plans to reopen the Holcomb, Kansas, beef packing plant partially destroyed by a weekend fire — it’s just not sure when.

Tyson said in a news release that it will recruit some employees to rebuild the plant, which processes about 5% of the country’s cattle.

Credit John Jenkinson / RFD/KSN
The blackened roof at Tyson Fresh Meats in Holcomb, KS, as denoted by the arrow, left by a weekend fire at the plant.

The fire broke out Friday night and burned for more than 12 hours in the area where incoming cattle are slaughtered. Roughly 1,200 workers were evacuated from the plant, with no injury reports.

Holcomb Fire Chief Bill Knight said the cause of the blaze hasn’t been confirmed, but that welding on the floor above the kill area is suspected.

The Kansas Fire Marshal is investigating and Knight said it will probably take several weeks before the official cause is determined. 

Tyson deployed its hazardous materials team to the site Friday to assist firefighters. Knight said there was some concern about chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia and carbon dioxide, which is why he stayed in contact with the National Weather Service throughout the evening — to determine wind direction. 

“Fortunately, the wind was blowing from the southeast, so the smoke didn’t travel toward Holcomb or Garden City," he said.

On Saturday, Gov. Laura Kelly sent Commerce Secretary David Toland and Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam to meet with Tyson officials to coordinate state assistance.

Lona DuVall, president of Finney County Economic Development, said the two state cabinet secretaries offered help to Tyson. 

DuVall said Tyson processes about 5,600 cattle a day. The temporary closing of the plant could hurt cattle prices.

John Nalivka, who analyzes the beef industry at Sterling Marketing, said the loss of that kind of production will bring the U.S. beef processing industry to almost full capacity.

“When you have less capacity than cattle, the prices aren’t going to be as high,” he said. Beef processors “don’t have to pay as much for cattle.”

In the meantime, feedlots across the region will have to find other options such as Tyson plants in Amarillo, Texas, and Dakota City, Nebraska.

In a press release Monday, Tyson President Steve Stouffer said the company is moving production to alternative sites while the Holcomb plant is shut down.

“Tyson Foods has built in some redundancy to handle situations like these and we will use other plants within our network to help keep our supply chain full,” the release said.

Tyson issued a letter to approximately 3,800 employees Saturday saying they would continue receiving weekly pay guarantees until production resumes.

Worth Sparkman, a spokesperson for Tyson, said the weekly pay guarantee would be for 40 hours per week. 

Tyson Foods operates six plants in Kansas, employing more than 5,600 people. In the company’s fiscal year 2018, it paid $269 million in wages within Kansas.

Brian Grimmett comes to KMUW after taking a year break from journalism, but he’s excited to jump back in to the fray. Previously, Brian spent almost five years working at KUER 90.1 FM in Salt Lake City. He worked his way up, starting as an intern and sticking around long enough until they relented and gave him a full-time job. At KUER, Brian covered a wide range of topics, but mainly focused on covering the Utah state legislature.