Harvesting Animals Humanely

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Harvesting animals is not our favorite part of homesteading but it is a necessary part, and we think the aspect of harvesting, processing, slaughtering or butchering — whatever you want to call it — provides the deepest connection with the land. It is the thing that makes homesteading the most real.

Reasons for Processing Animals on the Homestead

We raise and process our own animals for many reasons. First, we know how they were raised. We abhor the commercial system of chemical cocktails and confined animal feeding operations (CAFO).

We reject the idea that commercial operations are required to feed the world. Our animals are given lots of space and are either paddock shifted or free ranged. Depending on the animal, they are either grass based or non-GMO fed. Our ruminants are raised on browse, grass and hay in the winter. Our chickens, ducks and turkeys are given non-GMO feed and encouraged to forage heavily. Our pigs, are fed non-GMO feed and they are rotated in large pasture/forested paddocks and given the freedom to root and forage.

Second, the meat is healthier. We know what they are fed and more importantly what they are not fed and not injected with. Third, butchering is an almost forgotten skill for the average person and it is a great skill to know how to do that connects us with our heritage. Fourth, we process our own animals because we appreciate our food more. We savor our meals because we know everything about where they came from and the work that went into putting food on the table. What a gift to give to children. Our children appreciate the food they eat and as we give thanks for our daily bread we often talk about what went into putting it on the table.

Finally, we are not dependent on the grocery store. If disruption comes for whatever reason, and the shelves go bare, we will still be able to eat.

Most commercial animals are injected with medications, hormones and any other thing that will yield an extra pound or keep them alive until butcher day. A very common practice is to inject meat with a “saline solution,” up to 30 percent in many cases, for “flavor enhancement.”

Don’t believe me? Next time you walk into a grocery store, read the labels on the meat aisle. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about pork or chicken. You will be shocked. Just remember, that the cheap meat you buy at the grocery store comes with a cost not calculated in the sticker price.

Having Regard for Animals

Honestly, processing animals is a little uncomfortable yet very satisfying. We don’t like it, but at the end of the day we know that our freezer or pantry will be full a little longer. In fact, if it ever becomes routine and perfectly comfortable, perhaps it’s time to take a break.

One of the beauties of homesteading is the joy of watching animals, frolic, and enjoy their lives. Just the other day, we were amazed because as we drove up our driveway, and observed our pigs (who muck about in large paddocks and are rotated weekly) run to the edge of the fence to greet us and proceeded to run alongside us as we continued to drive to the house.

The chickens are a constant source of entertainment as they boom around looking for bugs and forage. The roosters keep a watchful eye and sound the alarm at the first sign of danger whether from birds of prey, coyotes or a badly behaving homestead dog. The hens scatter and dive for cover as if the whistling of incoming artillery can be heard.

Goats have their pecking order and can often be seen rearing up and head-butting each other. If they are free-ranging, they are often found trying to get petted by one of us or see if we have any delicious snacks to hand them. We enjoy having animals on the homestead.

We have regard for our animals and desire that they live a good life and only have one bad day, and if done well, perhaps it is only we that will have the bad day.

Processing Well

Most of the time, when we process animals, they are good, quick deaths. Occasionally things go bad. Those are terrible events that we want to learn from and prevent from happening again. We try to the maximum extent possible to ensure that the process goes well.

Keep in mind there are many ways to slaughter animals. We are only describing what works for us in this blog post. For larger livestock we like to stun and bleed the animal before continuing with the process. This can be done with a captive bolt or a firearm such as a .22.

In many cases, this will produce death right away, but even if it doesn’t, it produces insensibility if placement is done correctly. Understanding the anatomy of larger livestock will aid in the process.

Once the animal is stunned, we make a cut across the jugular veins in order to bleed the animal. Before moving on, we double check for insensibility. Once that is accomplished, we hang the animal from its back legs by making a cut between the connective tissue and the shank. This is a very strong connection and easily supports the weight of large livestock.

From this point we partially skin, eviscerate and then fully skin the animal. Once complete, the animal is rinsed and then hung for aging. Depending on the animal and age, we hang for different amounts of time usually ranging from two days to eight days.

For poultry, we hang and bleed until there are no signs of life. It is fascinating, but when you hang poultry upside down in killing cones, they seem to relax and very seldom flail when bleeding. It is usually when bleeding is nearly complete, and signs of life are no longer present, when the birds go into death throes.

After we double check for life signs, the birds move to the scalder and we dunk them in hot water for approximately 30 seconds at 150 degrees. We do a quick feather pull test — if the feather pulls easily, we move the birds to plucking.

With a large family, we process several hundred birds every year so we invested in a mechanical plucker, which saves us enormous amounts of time. We use this poultry plucker. After plucking we eviscerate the birds, rinse them, cool them and then bag them. Once bagged (shrink wrap poultry bags), we rest them for 48 hours before they go into the freezer.

Processing animals on the homestead is not easy. We have fed, watered, and cared for these animals, but in the end, they are nutrient-dense food for us to eat and we do our utmost to do the deed with proficiency and skill that hopefully eliminates suffering.

Meat doesn’t come from the grocery store, it comes from animals that are either raised well or poorly. It’s your choice to either perpetuate or fix the system. Buy your meat from a local provider who processes well.

Photo credits: Linde Mitzel, P3 Photography

Sean and Monica Mitzel homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and strategies for the property. The property is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise dairy goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted more then 200 productive trees and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. Sean and Monica can often be found podcasting or speaking and teaching at different events. Listen to our podcast and to learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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