Farm Confessional: What Butchering Your Animals Really Feels Like

In our Farm Confessional column, we hear from the workers and other folks involved in animal or agricultural production. Do you have a story to tell? Anonymity is okay and guaranteed. Contact us at [email protected] This time around we spoke with Katherine Dunn of Apifera Farm in rural Oregon. Dunn has some complicated feelings about butchering animals.

This year we harvested three ewe lambs on butcher day. Angry readers who don’t eat meat want me to use the word “butcher.” So this is for them: We butchered the lambs. It was a good, quick death. I know this because I watched it.

Some people get uncomfortable reading about anything to do with killing an animal, and I understand this. When we knew we were moving to the farm, I decided that if I was going to continue to eat meat regularly, I owed it to myself — and the animal — to be present at its death, as well as its birth and the days in between. I am not judging anyone who eats store-bought meat: Not everyone can live on a farm, or chooses to, and not everyone wants to raise animals. And we do eat meat from time to time from our nearby store or local butcher, or from other farm friends.

But I don’t want to debate where you get your food, or what you choose to eat. That is all up to you. I want to describe what it is like to be present at butcher day, and what goes into the routine leading up to it. Of course, this has changed in the 11 years since we had our first group of sheep butchered. That was a very uncomfortable day, and it still is. It will always be uncomfortable, just like taking a dying animal to be euthanized: You know, and they don’t. You question your motives, as you should; or at least I do, year in and year out. But I come back to the same decision each time: I am part of nature, not above it. I choose to be within the food chain, not to stand outside of it. I think nature has given me a pretty good path to follow, just like it gave all the other creatures a path to follow to survive.

I hang white prayer flags in the stall, and the night before, I sit for a very short time and thank them for their good work and sacrifice.

I asked veterinarians, hunters, butchers and farm friends how the animals should be killed. Different animals are butchered differently. The sheep have their throats cut, right through the vertebrae. It is over before it starts. They feel nothing and are instantly dead. But I question this every year, and every year I ask my vets about it again. Would it be better to shoot them in the head first? No. Sheep have small heads, the bullet can easily go astray, causing more panic and injury to both sheep and butcher (a sick animal is another story). If done properly, the cut through the vertebrae is instant, and it is over. I couldn’t watch it the first few years. It is a process one goes through as a farmer, the butchering. I’ve heard this from every farmer I know. But I feel I owe it to them to be there.

We are lucky to have a mobile butcher who comes to the farm and does the butchering here. If I had to haul animals to a butcher facility, I’m not sure I would raise animals for meat anymore. I do everything in my power to make the butcher day seem normal. I separate out the few sheep we will harvest from the flock. Often, if they are rams, they are separated out at three months — harvest happens at five or six months. The week before the butcher date, I bring them in at night to the same stall that the butcher will enter. I have a morning routine with them, and on the butcher morning, they experience the same routine. My main job before the butcher comes that morning is to be calm and create a sense of the ordinary for the animal, making it as stress-free as possible on me and the animals. If I am stressed, they are stressed.

I hang white prayer flags in the stall, and the night before, I sit for a very short time and thank them for their good work and sacrifice.

Sheep and a guard llama at Katherine Dunn's farm.

Sheep and a guard llama at Katherine Dunn’s farm.

The week before, I am always agitated. I was talking to another farm friend who said it would be the day she wasn’t agitated that would upset her. I know I will always feel anxious in the days leading up to the slaughter. On the actual day, it is so fast, and then they are gone.

It helps to have a butcher you can talk to. He, too, wants a quick, smooth kill. These are good, hard-working people. They love animals and want to do their best. Interestingly enough, my butcher doesn’t eat much pork because he says he kills so many pigs. But he hunts deer and eats lamb and beef. Everyone deals with their own individual nature as they see fit. Everyone comes to that individual nature through years of experience.

The first years, I didn’t look much at the dead animal. But that has changed. I inspect the skin and certain organs out of curiosity. I am the one who cleans up their blood. It is very beautiful: bright red, and it coagulates quickly. And then the chickens eat it.

This was the first year that we had Marcella, our guard dog, during a harvest day. She was behind a gate with her goat and pig clan and could hear the butcher’s voice as he worked and talked with Martyn, my husband. She was not afraid, but she paced back and forth quite a bit. I sat with her once all the sheep were dead. It is my job to help the butcher catch each sheep; when that is over, my job is done. When the butcher drove off, I watered down the area where the blood was, and then let Marcella out. The blood leaves a smell for a good couple of days, I’m sure longer for her. She really checked out the entire scene and the barnyard. While the butchering was going on, you could tell she sensed it, although there is no sound of distress during the butchering: since the animals die instantly, there is no distress.

I have cried on butcher day in the past, when it is over. But now I usually have a day of tears in the week prior. It is on my mind, a conscious decision I make to kill an animal to eat it. It is a conflict to love animals, nurture them and kill them. I get it. Because I live it. But it’s also a conflict to raise a puppy and then send it off with a stranger. I don’t judge any kind of eater — be it lion, dog, coyote, hawk, cat, worm, vegan or meat-eater — for killing another creature, either vegetable or animal. When I was a vegetarian for about seven years, I began to feel that I had actually judged nature. I had taken myself out of her perfectly sound and wise food system. While I realize I am currently at the top of the food chain, I don’t take it lightly, and never will, and that is why I go to the extremes I do before, during and after harvest day. That is why I always check in with myself, asking, “Do I still want to raise an animal this year to eat it?” I hope I never stop asking that.

I have cried on butcher day in the past, when it is over. But now I usually have a day of tears in the week prior.

It is our ritual to eat the fresh liver of the animal the night of the harvest. We sauté it in butter with onions and salt and pepper. It is the smoothest, clearest liver I’ve ever seen. There is an overwhelming pride that steals over me when I hold the liver, and then eat it. I am not eating it alone, I am eating it in partnership with the animal that sacrificed it. Years ago when we first started farming, I heard a Seattle chef on NPR talk about how cooking with a meat you have reared and killed is a different kind of cooking. I understand that completely. It is a feeling of pride, reverence, gratitude and, yes, joy. A celebration, a glass of wine raised to the animal and to nature and the land for feeding that animal so we can now eat.

A very angry Internet online reader once wrote me – anonymously, of course – saying that I was a hypocrite, helping older animals and then eating young “baby” lambs (they never get their facts right). She told me I did it out of “greed.” (This is laughable: We are lucky to break even on the small number of sheep we rear to eat or sell.) She demanded I post photos of the slaughtered lamb. I am not PETA. Posting such photos would do neither meat-eater nor vegan any good. It would not help a person come to an educated understanding of what harvesting an animal is really like. It is not just the moment the throat is cut, it is the combined moments leading up to its death – the birth, the growth and the eventual day of butchering – that allow you to understand what it feels like to look down at the same animal bleeding out. When we first started, I couldn’t look. It is the process of understanding life and death within the hierarchy of nature that allowed me to look.

This same reader said she prayed that some day a pig would eat me. I said I’d be honored. Why waste my meat? The worms or someone will get me sooner or later. Death is not necessarily a bad thing.

Farm Confessional: What Butchering Your Animals Really Feels Like