A Good Day to Die

Today we took the 6 surviving boys from this year’s lamb crop to meet their end. It is an odd thing to get up in the morning knowing that your primary chore is to usher the last day of a creature’s life, and all I could think was, “what a beautiful day to die.”  At 7:30 this morning we loaded the frosty metal crate into the bed of the pickup while the sun shone brightly in a clear, radiant sky.

Lambs loaded into a truck bed.

All 6 boys finally in the truck.

I’m sure the lambs were pretty pleased with it too until we started loading them into the bed of the truck. We don’t have a chute or ramp set up because this is the first crop to exceed two lambs. Picking up two 80lb kicking, wriggling lambs and putting them in a truck bed is a relatively short, if exerting task, but doing it with six is altogether exhausting. After the first two, my mom attempted to back the truck in closer to the barn gate and accidentally got stuck on the mound of gravel in the drive, incidentally landing us farther from the gate than before. The cold bite of the morning quickly gave way to sweat as we caught, harnessed, dragged, pushed, and heaved the remaining lambs into the bed of the truck.

Pickup truck stuck in gravel.

Whoops.

It’s hard to begrudge them their utter lack of cooperation in light of the circumstances. And though they had no way of knowing what was ahead of them, the wrangling and new truck environment was enough to unsettle them. Even the horses knew something was up, refusing to take their grain in proximity to the lamb truck.

Luckily our neighbor was able to pull the truck off the gravel pile with his tractor in short order. So with a bit of a delay we were off to the processor, a 90-minute drive from home.

“Processing” could be considered a euphemism for the killing of animals, but I actually find it a useful term for the combined slaughter and butchering of an animal. Though there are a few processors closer to us (many people hunt and raise their own livestock out here), we made the long drive today because this particular processor is USDA certified, which allows my mom to legally sell her surplus lamb.

Lambs being dropped off at the slaughter house.

We backed the truck up so that the crate doors lined up with the slaughterhouse gate. The USDA inspector has to watch the unload process to make sure every animal is able to get off the truck by their own motility.

Getting animals processed for legal commerce can be a huge hurdle for small livestock farmers. First, much of the meat industry has been consolidated from feedlot to packing plant, thereby reducing viability of independent processors and farmers’ access to them. Second, USDA meat inspection requirements are based on factory-scale production; for a huge operation, having a USDA inspector on staff with their own separate bathroom (yes, that’s a real requirement) is not a huge expense in the scheme of things, but can be a real burden on small, independent operations. The costs get passed on down the line. For example, at our nearest non-USDA processor, each lamb gets slaughtered and butchered for a flat $50. At the USDA processor, there is a $35 kill fee plus a per pound rate for butchering.

Some small farmers have been able to circumvent these costly requirements by selling live animals to their customers, then rendering them the free service of killing and butchering their animal. The limitations here being that not everyone can or wants to buy an entire lamb or goat or cow at once, and it excludes broader marketing avenues like farmers markets and restaurants that can be the bread and butter of small farm operations.

Over a decade ago, small livestock farmers in Washington state put together a mobile slaughtering unit (MSU), which is basically a slaughtering and butchering facility housed in the back of a semi, complete with all the USDA requirements for commercial processing. Now there are MSUs all over the country, filling gaps in processing services for small farmers where independents like ours no longer exist. Another plus: the animals don’t have the leave the farm, bypassing the sort of stress our lambs endured this morning.

While this is a great and practical workaround, it doesn’t address the larger issues: that the industrialization of our meat supply has separated farmer and processor, has necessitated extensive government oversight to maintain safety, and that the regulatory system favors corporate meatpackers at the expense of small farmers. The regulations in place make sense for factory farmed animals–the risk of disease and mishap abounds–but so does a tiered system for smaller scales of production.

My mother was upset about her lambs being killed today. When she took her first crop in last year, she told the handlers “please don’t hurt them!” The handlers laughed and asked her, “you know what’s going to happen to them don’t you?” But I don’t think it’s a funny thing to say. She has put so much time and care and effort into the breeding, birthing, and raising of these lambs. It  only makes sense to me to carry that into their killing, to want them treated with that same conscientious right to the very end.

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