Earlier this week I loaded five Shetland wethers (castrated male sheep) into the truck for slaughter. I knew I wanted to blog about this because the production of freezer lamb is an important part of the yearly cycle of events at the farm. As I viewed the photos I had taken to illustrate the post I got the feeling that bloggers might view them negatively and it was important for me to think about why that might be.
A large number of folks, save of course the vegetarians and vegans among us (for whom, by the way, I have genuine respect), consume meat as beef, pork, lamb, or poultry. Whether or not this omnivorous population includes you, consider that the animals we consume are farmed and that someone had to kill them as part of the process of getting them to table. This post recognizes the fact of omnivory and is a comment on what must be a humane approach to livestock husbandry. It is a statement about the quality of life those of us who raise livestock in a responsible way can provide for the animals we raise and respect. This is not an apology for behavior that some may find offensive.
The wethers taken to slaughter this week were born in the spring of 2011. They were castrated 8-10 weeks after that and have, since then, lived on green grass, fresh air, and sunshine. None had ever been in a barn. Although all had been wormed, none had been vaccinated for disease. None had been administered feed supplementation or received prophylactic doses of antibiotics. None had ever been herded or run and none had experienced fear or pain. They lived as good a life as I was able to provide and I challenge anyone to argue to the contrary. I did my part – and then some. A few days ago it was their turn to close the loop and to do for me what they had been brought into this world to do. I raised sire and dam for the purpose of breeding to produce offspring for harvest. I did so for the same reason and with the same intent and motivation that a crop farmer plants seed to soil. As one would harvest a grain crop so may an animal crop be harvested at the appropriate time.
Words matter and perhaps this issue is simply a matter of the words used to describe the process – slaughter, kill, butcher, sacrifice, harvest, process. Which is best? Which makes the process easier to understand or perhaps less distasteful if it is indeed distasteful to you? Perhaps the first three have a negative or diabolical connotation? Perhaps we should talk about harvesting or processing? So be it. And in the light of recent stories in the popular press concerning charges and revelations of animal cruelty in the animal slaughter industry allow me to point out that we take very seriously the issue of humane slaughter (see the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958). There are many custom butchers in and around the area in which we live. Some of these are federally inspected and have adopted nationally codified standards and techniques – others are not inspected and have not adopted these standards. Our animals are processed at an abattoir which meets our high standard of humane and ethical treatment.
Farm life is both bitter and sweet. The ways in which we go about administration and acceptance of the former defines us as farmers and as individuals.