"If you eat meat, something had to die."
This is a line that many customers have heard me say over the past few years. In the past month I have taken 1600 broilers, 3 steers and 27 hogs to be slaughtered. I have a lot of time while transporting them to mull through the issues surrounding the taking of a life to nourish our bodies. Even before we started raising animals for meat, I decided that the only way I could eat meat with a clear conscience was to know that it had a good life. For this reason our customers will hear us talk about how we care for the animals we raise, they will see pictures of them on our table at market and on our website and they are invited to open farm day to enjoy time with the animals. We base this idea of openness and transparency on what we looked and listened for in farmers when we were still customers.
Every few weeks I get an email, phone call or question at market inquiring about how our animals are killed. Folks always seem reluctant to ask the question and I am always quick to thank them for caring enough to ask. It lets us know that they are conscious consumers and to us, as folks who cared enough about the issue to change our professions and lifestyle in order to farm, it is a welcomed conversation. Below I will lay out how each species we raise is transported and slaughtered. My hope in this is that it will answer the question that many customers have cared enough to wonder about but have not yet asked.
Chickens and Turkeys- The chickens we raise are butchered around 2 ½ months old. The turkeys are 5 months at time of processing. Chickens go to sleep when the sun goes down, so we go out just before dark and load the birds in to crates and place them in our stock trailer. They sleep through the night and I leave at around 3:30 a.m. the next morning to take them to Illinois (the closest custom USDA inspected facility to us). The processing facility is owned and operated by an Amish family and is located on their farm. I arrive as the sun is coming up and the chickens are waking up, something I believe minimizes the stress to the birds. The birds are unloaded by hand, inverted and placed in cones. The main artery is cut and the blood drains out. They die in less than a minute. From there the feathers are removed, then innards and finally they are cooled and packaged. A note about how I choose the processor we work with- before I ever brought a bird there to be processed, I showed up unannounced one morning and walked right in the back door. I figured if they had something to hide about their methods, I would see it. Thankfully, the best word I can use to describe their actions is “reverent”. The workers were calm and quiet and handled the birds with care. I watched for several minutes before they noticed me. I asked for a tour then scheduled my processing dates for the season.
Hogs- Our hogs are pastured heritage breeds that grow more slowly than conventional hogs. They are butchered at around 8 months. Our hogs are loaded right out of the pasture. We simply pull the truck and trailer into the pasture, open the trailer door, pour out some feed in the trailer and close the door after they walk in. We generally take 10-14 hogs at a time. The hogs are processed at a facility in Celestine, about an hour and a half away. It is a small, family run processing facility. While there may be processors closer to us, we have a good relationship with these folks and trust that the meat we get back is always meat from animals we produced. The hogs have never seemed to be all that bothered by being in the trailer so we take them either late on Sunday evening or early Monday morning. The hogs are unloaded, weighed and put in a stall with water until processing. They are brought into a room where they are quickly and calmly killed- more specifically for those who will later ask, they are shot in the head.
Cattle- Our cattle are grassfed only (no grain!) and are processed between 20-22 months of age, generally in the late spring and late fall. The cattle are used to being rotated to new pastures, grazing all over the farm. At processing time, we rotate them to a small paddock and funnel them into a chute and into the trailer. We generally take 3 at a time to the same processor we work with when processing pork. Cattle don’t seem to calm down in the trailer near as much as the hogs, so we like to load them early in the morning and take them right to the processors so they don’t have the stress of being in the trailer or an unfamiliar stall at the processors overnight. The cattle are killed in the same manner as the hogs.
I think food tastes better when you know the story of how it came to be. In the case of our products, I hope knowing that the animals were raised in an environment where they were free to express their species-specific behaviors as well as treated humanely at processing time by folks who consider their well-being allows you to enjoy dinner with a clear conscience.