To Kill or Not?

PigHerd

Pig herd running.

On yesterday’s post CityGirl asked a very good question:

I’ve never spent much time on a farm or raised animals, and I want to know if it’s at all difficult to raise animals for slaughter. I am a huge animal lover and would find it hard to not get attached to them to a degree and eventually say ‘ok billy, let’s go die now‘. … Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are people willing to raise animals humanely and give them a good life while they grow, but when I try to picture myself doing what you do, I inevitably think I couldn’t do that. Unless I was starving. … I just want to know how you come to be in a place where you can do what you do and not be full of thoughts of death and life all the time.

I have shortened her question slightly above – Read her full comments here. It is a very good question and something I’ve thought a lot on as I suspect have many people. The answer is going to be different for every person. I love animals. I love keeping them. I love breeding them. I love raising them. I love working with them. I love eating them.

The alternative would be to be vegetarianism, veganism even. Done that, been there, got the T-shirt – several times. I didn’t grow up on a farm. Unfortunately it is very hard to impossible to get a complete diet sustainably year round here in the north country if you don’t eat more than just veggies unless you’re willing to add supplements and vitamin pills. We have a short growing season, can get snow every month of the year and often have five to six months of snow and frozen ground. Canning only goes so far. Greenhouses only do so much. Complete nutrition issue is especially important for growing children.

If I am going to eat meat I personally feel, for myself, that I must be willing to kill, slaughter and butcher. I don’t enjoy the killing – I get no thrill from taking a life nor am I inured to it – but I feel I must be willing to do it if I’m going to eat meat. I am very careful in my technique. Failure to kill properly results in pain for the animal, release of adrenalin and other chemicals in the blood, loss of quality in the meat, bruising and worse. A proper kill is instantaneous. There is no squealing, no thrashing, no gore. Death comes cleanly.

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You might ask how I know that when I kill the animal feels no pain. I don’t. I have no way of knowing what goes on inside another’s mind. This is especially true when they can’t come back and enlighten you. But, my wife Holly has told me that the first time I killed her (It was an accident, honest!) she felt nothing. She says that she simply ceased to exist. That is first hand testimony and about the best we can do. Someday I’ll tell that story – it has a happy ending.

Slaughter is not for everyone. Holly is not willing to do the killing or slaughter but will help both before that with the raising of the animals and after that with the butchering. That is her limit. I respect that and I appreciate her contributions. My rule to myself does not apply to anyone else. I just feel that way for me. Each to their own. I think no less of you or her. There are things I won’t do either.

There is also the issue of quality of life. My life is better for having known my food. As my son Will just pointed out, the animals’ lives are better for having known me. What he means is that for them to grow up here on a small farmstead where they can roam mountain pastures as part of a herd is better than had they been part of a lot number in a factory, I hesitate to call it a farm, before ending up in plastic wrap. Life has a beginning as well as an end. What we do between those two points is what matters.

On the intelligence issue, I don’t really have an objection to eating other intelligent beings. Recent research shows that plants feel pain and communicate. Am I to judge a brussel sprout? What loss does a head of lettuce or a carrot feel as it is eaten alive? The natural order of things is that we do eat and eventually we too are eaten. I hope the worms that eat me won’t worry that I can beat them at chess.

I am an omnivore. Before killing, say a little prayer of thanks for what you eat, be it broccoli, peas or pork. Savor every breath. Appreciation is essential to the good life.

Outdoors: 31°F/6°F Partially Sunny, no shadow
Farm House: 57°F/45°F seven logs
Tiny Cottage: 50°F/43°F south middle window outer plastic & frame

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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15 Responses to To Kill or Not?

  1. Very well said Walter.

    People have often asked me the same sort of question.
    Sometimes it is hard to explain how a farmer can kill out of love and gratitude, but you have done it as well as anyone.

    When I was growing up I was told by my Grandmother:

    “It’s a sin to waste food.”

    I’m a city transplant to the country and I grew up ignorant of the true cost of meat, and with a general disconnect of where food came from.

    I never really understood what Grandma meant until I saw my first pig slaughtered.

    It was a part of my “country education” and was epiphany for me.

    It changed me to the core.

    In that moment I caught a glimpse of an Eternal Universe that is interconnected, and I
    realized that a Life was given so that I might continue to live.

    Joseph Campbell said it best I think
    “Life feeds on Life.”

    Like you I have killed many animals.

    And I have killed for many different reasons.
    I have killed to eat and I have killed out of mercy.
    I have killed in self defense.

    No matter what the reason, it always leaves me sad and quite.

    On this farm we kill lambs with a short prayer for forgiveness and then cut the throat.

    I was taught how to do this by an Arab Christian.
    The first time I saw it I was amazed at how calm and gentle a method it is.
    It does appear to be painless.
    Prior to that we always stunned first a .22 or .38 caliber pistol and then cut the throat.

    With pigs or beef we still stun first because the animal is so large.

    I think no matter where meat comes from, we need to always be grateful.

    An animals life is as dear to them as our lives are to us, and all of us will pay for this life with our death. That’s just the way it works.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much Walter.

    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic as it helps me to understand how others feel about raising and eating animals.

    I’m very glad it is something to reflect on for people and not just a thoughtless part of life even for those who deal with it regularly.

    It is important for all of us to appreciate where our food is coming from regardless of whether we raise it ourselves or not, and the feelings of the people who do it help me to understand the actual realities of farming better.

    Thanks again and great blog!

    CityGirl

  3. jessie says:

    Thank you for addressing this. It is big in my mind right now as we are getting ready to start raising our own meat in the next year or so.

    As with the deer my husband shoots, I have a hard time imagining him killing one, but I have no problem packaging it up for the freezer and cooking and eating it later. In fact, although it took me a while to get used to, I prefer the idea that I am eating something that lived free, without hormones or under inhumane living conditions.

    When we do raise animals for food, I only asked my husband that we have them slaughtered on the premises. (We do have a couple guys in the area who will do this.) That last night at the slaughterhouse and the possible treatment of the animal there is the part that gets me. That’s a lot of time for fear and confusion on the animal’s part and I’m not sure whether I’m giving the animals way too much credit, but I suspect to be done in at home is a better way to go. (Provided I am out shopping at the given moment….)

    Your thoughts on this?

  4. Anonymous says:

    That was a very good explanation of your feelings toward the whole butchering process. I have helped out, on occasions, in the process when I was younger. I never really felt that it was “un” natural in any way. Especially when I’ve seen national geographic videos of caribou getting killed by wolves very slowly by disembowlment. Anyways, Last week I wrote about just discovering your site and forgot to ask about how many acres you maintain? I was also curious to know what the maximum amount of animals you let on an acre? Thanks again, Chris

  5. Chris says:

    It’s funny that we get these same questions about slaughtering and it’s almost always when folks get to our pigs. We will have already shown them our goats and sheep and mention they’re for meat and people nod but when we get to the pigs most folks’ first question “What do you do with your pigs? Do you kill them?” I’ve always found this interesting. Not sure why pigs. Maybe it’s their eyes are the most human-like?

    It’s amazing that my wife and I were vegetarian for years and then had an epiphany about the fact that everything really was alive and everything will die. That’s a pretty simple epiphany but it’s given us the comfort in seeing the cycle of life and death here at the farm season after season- whether it’s veggies or critters.

    Thanks for all of your insights. And thanks for being a farmer with techgeek tendencies. Didn’t think there were many others out there. Is there a support group for us? hahaha.

  6. Chris, we currently have about 10 acres open to the animals. We rotate them through that to do intensive rotational grazing. The paddocks are roughly two acres each. I don’t tend to think of it in numbers of animals since different sized animals eat different amounts. Generally we have about 16,000 to 25,000 lbs of pigs as well as the few sheep and small flock of chickens (30?).

    A sow is generally 500 to 600 lbs but a grower might only be 50 lbs to 150 lbs and a finisher pig from there to 225 lbs. If you said the average is 250 lbs for a hypothetical pig then we have about 80 hypothetical pigs on two acres at a time. That sounds like a lot but they move off that and onto a fresh paddock as soon as they eat it down and then again. This gives the paddocks a chance to quickly re-grow, breaks the parasite cycle and avoids soil compaction.

    We actually have a fair bit more land than that and rotate to new fields in subsequent years to rest the land. Right around the house we have about 25 acres we use for farming. The rest is forestry and the sugar bush.

  7. On the eyes, perhaps you are right. We’ve joked that the sheep eyes look a bit alien with their horizontal sideways slitted pupils. I like our ram Wan but the other sheep have always seem overly emotional. I’ve wondered if it is because they are naturally prey.

  8. Jessie, on-farm slaughter is highly preferred to the shipping them off to the slaughter house for an overnight stay. Read some of my thoughts over on my NoNAIS.org blog.

  9. crabby (deb) says:

    For those who question whether to kill and eat meat… consider indigenous cultures, such as the “American” Indian (just because they’re here). They have (had?) a reverence for life and food. They have (had?) ceremonies before “slaughter”.

    It is only those of us who have been severely disconnected from nature, animals and food that we consider such things in an emotionally charged manner. Obviously we’re not hungry, or we would not even question such things the way we do.

    I was a vegetarian for many years and still “eschew” (interesting word) meat, for the most part.

    I bought a few acres of land a few years ago and am nearly finished with a strawbale structure, where I will raise chickens and maybe a couple of goats. I now have neighbors who hunt nearby and butcher on premisis. Once upon a time I was horrified at the thought. Now I even have a reverence for those who hunt and eat the most healthy kind of food available to humans. One might be interested in reading a Tom Brown book (on survival and being raised by an Indian).

    I see calves each spring grazing on open land and marvel at the simplicity of life. Even as the cattle trashed 1/3 of my stack of fresh straw (for the structure).

    We may think that we could never do such a thing to an animal, but when the pressure of food problems in the world become worse (thanks to those who still insist on using governments to solve our “problems”), we will be horrified at just what a human will do for food!
    Witness Argentina a few years back when their economy collapsed… and food was scarce. A truck full of cattle overturned on a highway. The ensuing scene was one of horror as the nearby people converged on the spot with machetes (sp?) to scavenge what they could from the site.

    Long live the farmer, long live the rancher, long live the independent, natural/organic grocery stores, long live the NATURAL (not normal) flow of life and death.
    lil deb

  10. Teri says:

    It’s easier with pigs because they aren’t as cute when they go up ;)

    We’ve always made an effort to mentally tag the animals that we are going to eat. We don’t give them names. We try to treat them well with the understanding that we will have to kill them someday. We try to give them a good life and to make the ending as quick and painless as we can. And we do not waste their remains. We use all we can. The parts we don’t use are taken up to the back of our place, towards the National Forest. We give back to the wildlife in the area. If you are going to eat meat, then you need to take the responsibility to butcher your own.

  11. Teri says:

    It’s easier with pigs because they aren’t as cute when they go up ;)

    We’ve always made an effort to mentally tag the animals that we are going to eat. We don’t give them names. We try to treat them well with the understanding that we will have to kill them someday. We try to give them a good life and to make the ending as quick and painless as we can. And we do not waste their remains. We use all we can. The parts we don’t use are taken up to the back of our place, towards the National Forest. We give back to the wildlife in the area. If you are going to eat meat, then you need to take the responsibility to butcher your own.

  12. Lori V. says:

    Walter, when I saw your very eloquent post over at my blog, I knew I needed to visit you here. This is a fantastic blog, and it’s very fulfilling to find someone who can so eloquently make others stop and ponder things like this. Thank you.

  13. talkingamoeba says:

    Walter, I’m glad I clicked on your link at Homesteading Today. I’ve been looking around your site and have found it quite informative. I also am glad to see I’m not alone in the thought processes which have led me to where I am now. I grew up on a dairy farm and was taught to grow my own food. It all seemed natural to me. Military service and then some college planted conflicting ideas in my mind which was still reeling from war service. I came to the conclusion that I could no longer eat meat because of the killing. Well I argued that in my mind for 4 years of vegetarianism, then my father was killed in a haying accident and I had an epiphany of sorts. I believe that what you have written about killing for food is about as close to an understanding as we mere mortals are likely to get. I now do my own butchering and feel that I can’t know how I am viewed in the cosmic sense because I raise the food for my family and do my own killing just as all of my ancestors did, but in my heart I am comfortable with giving thanks and having reverence for all that I eat, and am thus destroying it’s form so that I can prolong mine, whether a pig or a potato. Thanks Walter and keep up the good work.

  14. hotoes40 says:

    great post, we are currently trying to decide if we can eat our own excess buck kids, as up to now we have sold them all, but I feel I am shorting my own family of good healthy food.
    our goats are very people friendly, and I feel it would be more traumatic for them to haul them to a butcher shop to be “done” but it will be traumatic for us to do it here, but it seems the most humane.
    can you give me an idea of how long it takes to do an animal such as a lamb? so I have an idea of how much time to block out, I have buchered the deer my husband shot so I do have some experience.
    thanks again for your great information
    Pam, on her little fauxfarm in michigan

  15. If you had no experience then block out the entire day. Since you have experience doing deer allow about the same amount of time. The process is very similar. The first time Figure on it taking a morning to do one animal. Once you’ve done it a few times, have the tools on hand and know how you want to setup then it will take far less time, about an hour each.

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