It is by far my least favorite and most stressful day, and one that I don’t take lightly – for many reasons.
Delivering quality grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured pork (pigs are not herbivores like cattle and sheep are) to you is most important to us, and our primary purpose for doing what we do. Making that happen means delivering happy and healthy animals to a clean and well-maintained processing facility staffed by professionals good at their job and just as concerned about the treatment and general welfare of our animals as we have been. Poor treatment of animals is not only morally reprehensible, but also bad business. Stressed animals do not produce quality meat.
But let’s start with what for many folks is the moral dilemma of consuming animals for food. I’ve met many vegans and vegetarians, and all have various reasons for their choice, and it IS a choice, and one they are lucky to have. Millions of less-fortunate people are happy for any food, let alone being able to choose what that food is. That’s one of the reasons that unhealthy and cheaply produced food is often so attractive to folks of lesser means; but that’s a subject for another blog.
If I felt that conditions merit and that I could maintain the same level of health and well-being on a vegetarian diet, I would do so. I do not like killing animals for food consumption. I grew up on farms and hunted as a kid, later to give up both. However, I feel more strongly that we as human beings have a moral obligation to care for all living creatures to the best of our ability, including our pets, wildlife and the millions of livestock that have been domesticated by us over millennia. One way or another, animals have always been a source of food, to each other and to humans. I don’t believe it’s immoral to consume animals for food. It happens in nature every day, and we humans are part of that natural food chain. I DO believe that how they are raised and disposed of within the vast industrial food complex is immoral. That’s why we at Pittsburgher Highland Farm and many other producers have taken great pains (and often smaller profits) to raise our animals with care and compassion and to process them for use as food in the most humane and stress-free way possible.
You already know that we are not a factory farm. The average age for butchering cattle raised on grain in feedlots in the U.S. is 14 months. Most of those animals will see little if any pasture during their short lives and spend their last few months crammed in corrals with thousands of other animals at the large-scale butcher facility where they will be processed at a rate approaching 5,000 per day in some places. It takes from 24 to 30 months for grass-fed cattle to reach an ideal butcher size, and sometimes longer for slower growing heritage breeds like Scottish Highlands. Our animals always spend most of their days outdoors on quality pasture and forages with clean water and ample shade available. Most of them are brood animals (females) raised for purposes of reproduction so won’t leave us for many years. Those raised solely for meat are treated just as well, and that includes the last seconds of their lives. As has been said by many, “we give them a great life; but they have one bad day.” Even that day should not be a bad one. Noted animal expert and cattle handler Dr. Temple Grandin has said that eating animals for food is not a bad thing; but it shouldn’t be a cruel thing. We owe our animals respect and devotion every day of their lives, including right up to the last second. Dr. Grandin has designed numerous large- and small-scale cattle handling facilities in North America for just that purpose, so that animals in a butcher facility experience as little stress as possible.
I do not look forward to butcher day – ever. I don’t even like the words “butcher” or “slaughter,” preferring instead to say “processor.” We usually send three beef steers each month. The stress of selecting those most “ready” and separating them into a loading facility and onto a trailer all in one day is a lot for them and me both. It is ironic that USDA rules and regulations supposedly designed to enhance animal welfare have done the opposite for smaller operators like us. Since we sell to the public, often through third party vendors, we are required to use a USDA inspected processing facility. Such facilities are required to process animals on site in the presence of a federal inspector. Sounds like a good thing, and it is for the most part. Government oversight relative to the things we eat is certainly needed. Large processors have made it easy since they keep thousands of animals on site in feed pens right up until the moment of butchering, thereby eliminating the stress associated with loading day that I and others face. The most stressful thing for the animals that I have worked so hard for so many months to nurture is the day that I separate them from the herd and the only environment they’ve ever known, load them onto a trailer and send them to a strange place. If my processor were permitted to come to the farm and do the deed right there, every bit of stress that I just described would not happen. Inspected mobile butcher facilities do exist, but they are rare largely because of the hurdles created by USDA regulations often written by lobbyists for big time food processors. Go figure!
We do our best to mitigate the stress under the circumstances presented. We park the dreaded trailer at the corral several days before and get the animals used to being in the corral by feeding alfalfa pellets, a great all-forage substitute for grain. While this makes the process unfold more smoothly in most cases, it doesn’t make that day any easier for me.
I fast on butcher days, abstaining from all food and drink except water. I also ponder long and hard that I am sacrificing animal lives so that we might live healthier, and hopefully mindful lives. It is based on an age-old custom that native Americans practiced by offering prayers of thanks to the spirits for the animals they bagged on a hunt. Personally, I just thank God that we have them, and that they have lived happy and healthy to this day. This is no small matter to me. I have worked hard to give these critters a good life on the farm, providing as much of the best grass and forage they want in a clean and comfortable environment, and adhering to all standards of animal welfare. This includes a clean and ample water supply. We have gone to great lengths and cost to divert our herds from creeks and ponds, both for environmental reasons and for animal health. It also includes refraining from any use of pesticides or herbicides of any kind. It is our belief that the best way to prevent flies, boring insects, worms, and diseases like foot rot is to move our animals daily to new grass (or new hay in winter) and keep them from congregating in muddy and feces-laden areas.
Nothing I’ve described here makes this pleasant. Butcher day always sucks. While not pets, I do develop attachments to my animals. Some are easier to love than others. Females at our main farm are often with us for 15 years or longer and can be quite friendly and pleasant. They are a big feature on the many farm tours we host. Memories of adults as calves I’ve handled and treated come back.
I always implore folks when possible, to know their food sources. I also ask that you consider all that so many of us in the livestock business do to make sure that our animals are treated humanely at every stage of the operation, including the last. It is for their benefit, and yours.