For the uninitiated, slaughtering animals is a repulsive thought. When we first raised and slaughtered our own animals, we feared that our 5-year-old daughter would be traumatized. After the chickens’ heads were removed, she giggled.
This reminded me of how routine such a practice was to my Vermont grandmothers, both of whom were raised on farms. Our forebears thought nothing of it — and neither would people today if we were not so alienated from our own food production.
But this is not to say that we should be unfeeling about our animals. Humane treatment is a moral imperative, and also ensures meat quality: stressing animals at slaughter time compromises the meat in numerous ways — even making it inedible. (See “Effects of stress and injury on meat and by-product quality,” FAO).
When deciding whether to raise your own animals for food, there is something else that is dramatically different from our grandmothers’ times: the law.
In our heavily regulated society, numerous laws now restrict whether one can even keep chickens, how close they can be to a property boundary, or how many we can own. The legal limits for livestock can be even more restrictive than for poultry. State laws and local zoning ordinances should be closely examined.
But, in addition to these hurdles, anyone who wishes to provide fresh, affordable meat for their table from well-treated animals must assess how they will translate those creatures from pasture to freezer in view of the myriad slaughter and processing laws which may bar the way.
I will here summarize the various possibilities for animal slaughter and processing, but each state is different — and those disparities can be huge. It is important for home producers to educate themselves about what the laws are in their state for slaughter at the outset, because in some states, slaughter must be booked months in advance with the appropriate facility. Also, it may require a very long drive with stressed-out animals to the nearest available location.
For on-farm slaughter, finding and reserving an itinerant slaughterer may be the best bet, but this should be lined up before Bossy the steer is loping around your pasture — the hassles of processing him may exceed the trauma of putting him down.
There are two stages of translating an animal from field to freezer: slaughter and processing. Slaughter entails the animal’s execution, dressing out, and division into halves or quarters (if applicable).
Processing describes the separation of the carcass into cuts, burger, stew meat, etc. If your state permits on-farm slaughter, this may be the least expensive option, and is the most humane for the animal.
It is important that stress is avoided for the animal whose life is about to be sacrificed. The on-farm option means you are involved in that unpleasant task, but perhaps, like hunting, that is important as a matter of respect and appreciation. The animal can be killed so that it doesn’t know what’s coming, and the stress of trucking is eliminated.
If the animal is slaughtered on-farm, it generally is then transported to a custom processor for butchering at the customer’s instruction, though some jurisdictions, including New York, permit the processing on-farm of an animal as well as slaughtering, even where it is sold to new owners.
If you are selling the animal, or a part thereof, to others, then particular attention must be paid to applicable laws.
Alternatively, the animal may be shipped alive to a facility (usually federally-inspected) which performs both the slaughter and the processing. In addition to avoiding the unpleasant task of killing, this option offers other benefits: no need to dispose of the offal, individual cuts of meat can be sold, and the carcass is not exposed to high temperatures or to debris, insects, etc.
Opinions vary as to how long the meat should hang prior to processing: We usually hang our beef for 14 days. Hanging the carcass tenderizes the meat, and contributes to flavor.
Slaughter should be performed early in the morning if done on-farm, and the carcass chilled as quickly as practicable: It must not be transported a long distance under a hot sun. If you are selling half of a pig or beef animal to a customer, many states restrict the use of on-farm slaughter to wholes and the only choice is thus a slaughterhouse.
Again, these options should be considered even before one purchases the animal, as conditions and laws vary greatly: This aspect of animal husbandry can be more complicated than the rearing. This is especially true for poultry, where the costs of processing (which is almost always done concurrently with slaughter) can constitute the lion’s share of expense.
If performing slaughter on-farm, many states restrict the practice to an experienced slaughterer, and even if they do not, you may wish to hire a professional. Hoisting a pig or steer into the air requires equipment, the animal must be shot in the right place so it doesn’t run down the road injured, traumatizing both animal and onlooker, specialized saws and a knowledgeable hand wielding the blade make for a clean carcass to deliver to the custom processor.
The halves or quarters should be snugly wrapped in plastic for transport to prevent exposure to flies or debris. Finally, you may wish to consult with tradition when scheduling your slaughterer.
Understanding options for bringing an animal to the table is an important responsibility, and must be explained to any purchasers.
Many people sell a part of an animal to defray feed costs, or sell some chickens to cover the costs of chicks and feed. This is a form of on-farm income that makes raising one’s own meats affordable.
And raising one’s own livestock or poultry is the only certain manner to know what the animal was fed, that it was always provided with fresh water and clean bedding, and that it died with as little awareness or suffering as humanly possible.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” (Mohandas K. Gahdhi)
John Klar raises grass-fed beef and sheep, and seeks to educate people about where their food comes from and how large corporate interests wish to dominate food production. He moved to Vermont and began farming in 1998. John and his wife, Jacqueline, built and operate an artisanal raw-milk cheese house, and have raised pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, cows, and goats, and grown many varieties of vegetables and herbs. You can connect with John on Facebook.