Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Lesson in Home Butchering

Last week my second to last cow finally calved. Ironically, she’s also the mother to the cow (10U) who has had a special needs calf, both of whom have been living in the barn for the past two months. 10U has a nice set of horns on her, rare in my herd, and has been high-headed since birth. She had her first calf this year and he came down with navel ill almost immediately and we’ve been messing with him ever since. (Jason and I were in bed one night going, “I’ve never seen that much puss.” So yeah, calvie was pretty gross.)

So the day Pammy calved, Dad and I decided little Shrek (10U’s calf) needed to be put down. We’d sold all our beef for the year and didn’t have any for our freezer, and since the cow kept charging Dad after he hand fed her ear corn for over sixty days, we decided a first-calve heifer would make a decent addition to the freezer for the winter. We didn’t have the extra money to have her butchered, since Christmas is coming, so, since it was deer season and the guys have honed their skills with butchering, we decided to butcher the cow ourselves. (Well Tom Bemrose and I decided, but that’s another story.)

Dad shot the cow and she bled out. Then we chained her back legs to the tractor bucket and drug her around to the west side of the barn. By this time, Jeff and Tom showed up after hunting all morning and not seeing a damn thing, and stayed to help. They’d done plenty of deer, so the thickness of the cowhide surprised them, but once we got the hide peeled back over her ass end, the weight of it drug it down her sides and we got to the head. Once there, we cut to the joint in her neck closest to the skull and kept paring until the joint showed. I was holding the cow’s head by the horns, rocking it back and forth so Jeff could sever the joint and when it went, it all went, hide, head and all, right to the ground.

We stopped to have a beer and study the situation.

Dad lowered the cow down and Tom carefully slit the belly, being careful not to puncture the intestines and drown us all in cow-gut stench. The intestines came out good, but Jeff and I had to hang Tom by his ankles so he could cut the esophagus out, dipping far down into her rib cage.

By then, all that was left to do was hanging the cow in the barn rafters and let her cure. A beef has to hang for fourteen days before cutting. We got her up without a hitch.

Last night on the way home I was listening to Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, another book that’s been on my reading list for some time. He talks about the feelings involved with killing the living thing that is to be your supper. I get asked about that a lot actually, doesn’t it bother you to eat the thing you’ve raised? The answer: no. I give my animals the best life I can. Many of my cows have been with me 8-12 years (which is longer than most of my romantic relationships all put together, which is neither here nor there). We expect the steers to end up on our plates and a cow is given every chance to have a successful place in the herd. If a cow is sour, like 10U, she only gets so many strikes, then it’s off to the stockyards or the freezer. I feel bad that we have to cull cows at all. If it was up to me, I’d keep every one of them. But that’s not the relationship people have developed with domestic livestock over the last millennia. It’s easier, I think, in a lot of ways to know the animal you eat. You’re there from day one, from inception, you see the quality of life they’ve had and give them as good and clean a death as possible. You’re able to treat the carcass with respect.

Butchering 10U could not have gone any better and I feel no moral pangs about it because I know the kind of life, and death, she had. When people are removed from the day to day life of animals, it’s easier to feel bad for them, to turn to vegetarian lifestyles, and condemn people who raise livestock for meat. I don’t agree with industrial style feedlots and the cows at work, in a confinement dairy, just about make me weep, but when animals are raised on grass and are allowed to have a strong herd unit, as nature intended, there’s nothing to feel sorry for. In fact, there’s a reverence that comes with harvesting your own food, allowing one to feel that much more connected to the food going into one’s mouth. There’s also the fact that butchering is such a big project that it takes several people to do it, so the social connection is there as well. In a digital, consumer, industrial world, connectivity, in person, is becoming the most important thing of all. And how much more basic can you get than getting together to butcher, swap stories, and remember the basics of being human?


I didn’t want to post the pics here in case there’s some squeamish readers, but pics are on my Facebook.