Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Growing your own meat

We became vegetarians in February 1989 when our first child was a toddler. Up until that point, I assumed (like most Americans) that meat came from animals who had spent happy lives wandering around in grassy pastures. But then I read an article about factory farmed chickens, and I wanted nothing to do with that industry. I began reading about eating a vegetarian diet and learned that in most cases, vegetarians are actually healthier than carnivores in our society, so we stopped eating meat and raised all three of our children as vegetarians.

When we moved to the country in 2002, we had no plans to start eating meat. We had chickens for eggs, goats for milk, cows for milk, and sheep for wool. If you've read Homegrown & Handmade, you know what happened. When you breed animals, you wind up with fifty percent males, and they don't lay eggs or make milk, and eventually you have some challenges. Intact males have a lot of testosterone running through their bodies. The roosters started killing each other, and it didn't matter how much space they had for roaming. If two roosters wanted a hen, it got ugly. We had become vegetarians for ethical reasons, but it didn't seem very ethical to let the roosters just kill each other, and the only real alternative was to lock them up in separate cages, which didn't seem very nice either.

We also realized we had more sheep than our pasture could handle. When we got started, I naively thought that we simply needed to be able to feed the animals, but it's a little more complicated than that. It is impossible for animals to have zero internal parasites when they are eating off the ground. However, they can usually tolerate a few worms in their body. Unfortunately, if they don't have enough pasture space, they will be constantly re-ingesting parasite eggs and larvae, and eventually it could kill them. And overusing drugs for parasite control has the same ultimate outcome as using antibiotics frequently -- you wind up with drug-resistance.

I know this somewhat contradicts my last post on dairy animals because I did say in there that as long as you can feed them, you can keep your older, retired animals. This is one of the short-comings of blogging. You don't always think of everything before something is posted! So, yes, in addition to feeding, you also need to make sure you have enough pasture space for the goats or cows. And although it appears that I might be playing favorites by butchering lambs but not butchering goats, I'm really not. There is a good market for pet goats, but almost no one wants pet lambs because of the annual shearing. I sold three lambs to a woman once as pets, and when I talked to her a little more than a year later, I learned that she had sold them because she didn't want to deal with shearing.

If you have too many turkey gobblers,
they will fight violently -- sometimes to death.
This particular tom lived out his natural life
on our farm as a breeding animal.
But I digress! Back to the meat discussion -- When I pulled out my dusty old books on vegetarianism, I realized that almost all of the problems with meat are with factory farmed animals. If animals are raised on pasture and fed a natural diet, it eliminates all of the problems with pollution, and the meat is actually healthier for you, being high in the good omega fatty acids and even lower in cholesterol.

Keeping animals in a healthy environment means they are not living in crowded conditions, and as the number of our hens and sheep increased, we realized our extra males had to go somewhere. When no one bought them, there seemed to be only one logical solution.

People who'd known me for years were surprised to learn that we were butchering some of our animals. "You're eating meat?" was the question, and I was always quick to say, "No, I'm not eating commercially produced meat. I'm only eating the meat that we raise." This often raised eyebrows.

"How can you eat an animal that you know?" was the next question.

My unspoken response is -- how can I eat an animal that I never knew? And I have only said it once or twice, but I'm always thinking, "How can you eat an animal that spent its life in filthy, unnatural, unhealthy conditions, being fed antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs on a daily basis to keep it alive?"

One of the reasons I wanted to move to the country was because I wanted to live a real life, an honest life. I wanted to know where my food came from -- and I only started eating meat because I knew that the animals lived a happy, healthy life. If you eat meat, you have to know that you are eating a dead animal. Maybe the reason that some people don't want to think about that fact is because then they would have to think about how the animal spent its life. And then they might not want to eat that fast food burger or the things they call chicken nuggets.

I have not eaten commercially-raised meat in 23 years and considering what I've learned in the past ten years, I definitely will not start eating it. I feel more strongly now than ever that raising animals in feedlots and big buildings is just plain wrong for the animals, the planet, and the health of the humans who ultimately eat the meat.

This post was shared on the Homestead Barn Hop!

11 comments:

  1. It is funny how folks will eat meat and NEVER investigate how that animal suffered to be part of that meal. One of the reasons we like visitors to our farms and why CAFO's rarely do tours. They know what they do is plain wrong

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  2. well written, there are some that believe if animals were not bred then animals would not need to be eaten. However if we don't balance breeding with using the excess males / some females for food then species would become extinct. Selective breeding, saving the best of the species ensures that specie will survive.

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    1. As ALBC says, the way to save a rare breed of livestock is to eat it!

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  3. I once again heard someone who has no direct experience with this opine, during an NPR interview, that she thinks that fewer people would eat meat if they had to slaughter and butcher animals themselves.

    Uh, really? Because last I checked, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists and farmers in traditional societies all do just that, and there are no vegetarians in those cultures.

    As a young child I was traumatized when my uncle butchered some rabbits he'd shot, and delighted in grossing out the kids by snapping the bones. Had his attitude been more mature and respectful, the same actions could have been educational.

    A while back I had to cull an egg-eating hen, and had a friend's home-schooled niece and nephew come to help with the dissection/butchering. It was partly anatomy lesson, partly lesson in where food comes from. They both did some of the plucking, and we examined all the organs, the lined-up egg yolks, etc., talked about their functions and how birds and mammals differ inside, and then I sent them home with the chicken so their Grandma could cook it properly for them. Very different experience for those kids. (We decided that they did not need to witness the chicken's death -- a bit later perhaps.

    It took me many years to overcome the upsetting experience of the "butchering for shock value" to which my uncle subjected me, possibly in a misguided attempt to "toughen me up."

    Now I butcher my own poultry and rabbits, and when necessary, goats. I take the large flocks of meat birds to a local processor who does a great job, and stay there with them. (If I could afford a plucker I'd do them at home.) I trade for pork with a friend who raises the pigs. I'll do the same with beef this year.

    Both the animals and those who eat them are better off for it.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this! What a great experience for those children!

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  4. Exactly!!!! Now our test will be if we can actually "harvest" our now 2 wk old Buckbeak (Nubian goat) that I am bottle feeding 4x/day, next spring when his time has come. Our mean roosters are one thing... but our sweet little buckling? I've got some time to prepare...

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  5. I love your post and have the exact same sentiments. One thing that has really changed for us since we started raising our own is the frequency of eating meat from at least one meal a day (usually more) to maybe once a week if we remember to defrost something.

    I also find that I hoard meat now. I want to save it for a special occasion and not eat it as often because I know how much work went into producing it.

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  6. Excellent article. Well spoken and very factual with out the politics many put in their writing. Thank you.

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  7. great post, thanks. i too was a vegan and then a vegetarian for 20 years. last year we started raising rabbits for meat. it's a whole different world when you raise them yourself.

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