Every Friday the Kansas State Meat Lab puts aside its knives and becomes a place of business as high-quality steaks, roasts, chops and other specialty meats are put up for sale for the Manhattan community.
The meat, which is also sold every day at Call Hall Dairy Bar, is harvested and processed from animals raised in the College of Agriculture’s livestock units by students in the meat lab.
Leading those students in the process of breaking down carcasses is John Wolf, research technologist and meat lab manager. Wolf has been at K-State for 28 years, and during that time he said the products produced by the meat industry have become more varied.
“You used to see hot dogs or bologna or sausage, but you see a lot more variety now,” Wolf said.
The meat lab processes about 100 pigs, 60 cattle and 16 lambs each year, Wolf said. The lab processes a lot of pork because there is high consumer demand for it.
“We sell a lot to college students,” Wolf said. “Most students can afford pork a lot easier than beef. Steaks are expensive, but you can buy a pork chop for a lot less.”
In addition to pork, the meat lab’s most popular roast is a chuck roast and the most popular steaks are Kansas City strip steaks and rib-eye steaks. Wolf said even though the steaks are more expensive, consumers find value in the high quality meat. Wolf also credits the lab’s aging process as a reason the steaks are popular.
“The aging process that we do is different than what is commercially done,” Wolf said. “The carcasses are basically dry aged on the rail for 21 days, and then they’re fabricated into retail cuts before being vacuum packaged and blast frozen.”
A team of 15 students assists Wolf in harvesting, aging, cutting, packaging and cleaning. Wolf teaches them how to break down carcasses, and after a few years under Wolf, students are capable of working in management positions in grocery stores or packing plants.
“While they’re here, I tell them by working in the meat lab you’re getting one education for free and the other one you have to pay for,” Wolf said.
Jessica Woodworth, senior in animal sciences and industry, has worked in the meat lab since her freshman year.
“I help cut different cuts of meat, kind of anything,” Woodworth said. “Anything (Wolf) asks us to do we jump in and do it.”
Woodworth said working in the lab has helped her get more involved in the Meat Science Association.
“I think it’s a good opportunity and (Wolf) is willing to teach anyone no matter their major,” Woodworth said. “I like the friendships I’ve built over the years and getting to know different people with different majors, because not only are there animal science kids, there are kids from different majors.”
Pierce Bennett, senior in animal sciences and industry, said the meat lab allows students to learn the practical side of what they talk about in classes. After graduation, Bennett said he will join the Livestock Marketing Association in its Government and Industry Affairs division.
“It has been vital,” Bennett said. “If you’re going to go do something in the policy profession, you better know at a grassroots level what you’re talking about, otherwise you’re not helping anyone.”
Bennett said he also enjoyed purchasing meat from the lab during Friday sales. Ground beef and pork chops—and sometimes lamb—are among Bennett’s favorite items to purchase. Bennett said he purchases from the meat lab because he wants to support the lab and make sure others have an opportunity to learn like he did.
“I buy it because I know who’s handling the product, but I also buy it because it’s K-State,” Bennett said. “I know how good of a job they do, and I want to support them.”
Wolf said he enjoys being able to work with students.
“The most rewarding thing for me is working with the students and seeing how they grow up and mature during their college career,” Wolf said. “It’s a lot more than just working. I try to help them get ready for the workplace and how to deal with people.”