February 04, 2010
the kill floor
first, a spoiler alert. there are many pictures of a cow being butchered below this text. although i, people who grew up on farms, or anyone who frequents a proper butcher shop won’t have a problem with seeing a skinned animal, some people would rather not see it. for those people, i would suggest even more that you do.
the societal divide between what people eat and where it comes from has led to systemic failures. failure to provide humanely raised meat, safe and decent paying farm jobs, healthy and safe meat for consumers—basically a failure on all accounts. on the other side of the spectrum, there are some who opt out of this system all together, and the farm i am apprenticing on has done exactly that.
it should be made clear the vast differences between animal husbandry, which i’m here to learn, and large scale industrial animal operations. on this farm animals are raised from birth to death completely on fresh pasture. they are rotated daily by means of cheap, efficient, highly portable, electric wired fencing. this rotation is what allows not only fresh grass for the cows, but sufficient rest time for the remainder of the pasture. this method encourages natural vegetation and improves soil health with appropriate levels of manure. on this diet they steadily gain about a pound per day and rarely fall ill.
the other option is called a cafo, which stands for concentrated animal feeding operation, and it’s goal is to maintain cheap, readily available products. instead of grazing in the sun these animals are raised in stifling confinement and mechanically fed grain mixtures instead of grass. according to jo robinson of eatwild.com, “the main ingredients are genetically modified grain and soy that are kept at artificially low prices by government subsidies…the feed may also contain ‘by-product feedstuff’ such as municipal garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers, and candy.” unlike the beneficial manure deposits in a rotational system, the cafo produces enormous amounts of waste in a small area leading to ground and water pollution. the two methods could not be more different.
with intensive management of a pasture the animals can live a healthy, happy, and as close to natural life as can be provided. depriving them of old age is natural as animals in the wild would face predators and injury. this meat is healthy for the animals, the land, the producer and the consumer. grass fed animals are leaner than grain fed animals, which means they are lower in both fat and calories. they are several times higher in omega three fatty acids as well as antioxidants. the entire system is beneficial.
yesterday, i helped stake out the next cow paddock with electric fence and moved the cows to fresh grass. we also loaded a cow into the trailer and drove him to the butcher. unlike the butcher shops i frequented in brooklyn (hook and marlow), this is an old school country butcher with zero frills, zero designer candies, and zero beer koozies. the animal is killed and its head and limbs are removed. the skins are salted and sold to a tanning company. the innards are removed—some used, some discarded (i took home the kidneys for the dog). the animal is hung with meat hooks from the ceiling and skinned by hand, which takes about an hour. it is sawed down the middle lengthwise and then knifed in half widthwise. on the same hooks it hangs from it slides on a track into the meat locker to await processing (the steakification of the animal, if you will).
the cow pictured here is a polled hereford, and it was twenty eight months old. it’s head looks so dirty because it eats grass all day, not because the kill floor is dirty. the whole process was very efficient and artful. at various points the large carcass halves were gently swinging in a circle around the butcher as steel sliced through flesh. if the hour and a half i spent with him taught me anything, it’s that he’d want to knife me for the coming comparison, but it was an elegant dance.
for me, being on the kill floor on day three on the farm felt natural and right. to deliver the cow to the butcher last night, without viewing the slaughter, left me feeling uneasy. respect for the animal is what the whole process is supposed to be about, so it felt good to see it through for my first time. the dog didn’t mind the bone gift either.