Kill day

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We usually do it in late fall, after the flies are gone but before we start feeding hay.  It felt weird to do it on Labor Day, wrong to rob them of the last weeks of summer. But at a time of year when our pasture should be lush it is looking tired. That’s why I scheduled kill day early – supposedly next week Monday, but Shane the kill guy and I got our wires crossed and he came today.

Today we killed the first cattle that we’d raised from birth on this land. I know, gruesome … but it kinda feels like a milestone.

We used to buy steers from auction and from private sellers, buying in spring and pasturing them until fall of the following year. But I didn’t like them being taken from their mothers so young, and also we kept buying duds – not every time, of course, but often enough a steer failed to grow as expected, which meant less income from meat, which meant less money for hay through the following winter. So I started niggling at the Hubbit about making our own baby beefs, and he rolled his eyes in that resigned sort of way and bought our first heifer.

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Tshepo became more friendly after she learned about treats.

Her previous owner told us she used to keep her on a halter, tied up to graze in different areas of the yard, so we thought she’d be easy. We were wrong. She turned out to be a bloody-minded baggage, who took one look at our nice big pastures – bigger than a backyard, anyway – before she stuck her tail in the air and refused to have anything to do with us. Undaunted, we added another cow and her heifer. I named them Tumelo, Tshepo and Lerato – which are Sepedi words meaning Faith, Hope and Love.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a sentimental idiot. I don’t name the steers. They are food, and you don’t name food. The first steers we brought home we named Mac and Arby, but that was a joke. Also, naming them after hamburger chains was the Hubbit’s sweetly subtle way of reminding me that they were beef, not pets. He seemed to find it necessary to make a point of this. I’m not sure why … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t bear the way my nannies looked at me after we murdered their kids, and eventually insisted we deliver the whole lot of them to a goat rescue 300 miles away. But that was then, and goats are smarter than steers. In any case, I don’t name the meat.

Of course some of them have names when they arrive. When that happens, I have to respect it. Like the little guy who liked to stay quietly by himself in a corner of the field – obviously he was Ferdinand; I didn’t just name him after some book character. And the goofy one with a sickle moon on his forehead was Moonboy, as clearly as if he’d been wearing a name tag.

Okay, there were also last year’s calves, Kitty and Obie – but Kitty was the first calf to be actually born here, so obviously she had to have a name by way of acknowledging the event, and the Hubbit named Obie; I had nothing to do with that. And … okay, fine, this spring’s steers are named Pi and Eezee, but there are good reasons for that.

Usually I don’t name the meat.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to telling you about today. It started fairly leisurely. I yawned and stretched and thought about getting out of bed, and at about 7.15 I noticed that Shane had left me a voice mail yesterday evening, to say he’d be here between 7.00 and 7.30AM. It sounded like the kind of message he always leaves the day before he comes … not the week before.

I called him. “Shane?” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late, I’m on my way!” He sounded stressed. As for me, I went straight from “Ho hum tra-la-la” to “Fuckadoodledoo!” and rushed off in search of the Hubbit.

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Lerato, expressing an opinion.

Here’s the thing: we have a routine – more of a ritual, really – for kill day. A few days ahead of time we split our small herd. The doomed go into one pasture and get special treats, not because they need to put on weight but … just because. Meanwhile, the others get used to being without them. On kill day, before Shane arrives, the Hubbit puts the horses into their stalls, while I stay in bed with a pillow over my face and one ear exposed, tensely listening for rifle shots. After a while I phone the Hubbit and he tells me everything’s okay, it all went according to plan, yes they are dead, no they didn’t suffer, yes the others are fine. Then I can get up and get on with the day. But I wait until they no longer have faces before I go outside to thank Shane personally, and admire the marbling in the meat. (I like Shane. He never has to shoot twice.)

Well, there was no time for any rituals today. There wasn’t even any time for me to get used to the fact that I’d condemned my favorite cow to the freezer. There definitely wasn’t time to feed her treats. That made a crappy situation even crappier. Sometimes I hate being a grownup!

For a while the Hubbit had been quietly insisting that three cows plus their progeny plus two horses was too much for our pasture to carry, and I’d been loudly declaiming, “But we can’t live without Hope!” (Tshepo, aka Hope, was the smallest cow, so least likely to produce a large calf and most likely to get into trouble if trying to birth a large calf.) Well, last week I accepted that he was right, which is something that happens more often than he likes to admit (me accepting, I mean; the silly fellow thinks he’s always right, hahaha). But it made me sad because I’d become fond of her, and she was supposed to grow old with us. Her independence, her bossy way of marching over to see what I wanted if I went into the pasture, her enthusiasm for treats … they reminded me of me.

Well, anyway … At about 7.30, Shane’s white truck rumbled down the dirt road and through our gate. All the cattle in our neighbors’ pastures clustered in groups behind their fences and watched. Our girls and their two little boys were relaxing together at the far end of their pasture, but they got up and thundered alongside the fence, keeping pace with the truck. I don’t know why they do that. I’ll swear they know what he’s there for, but they act like it’s a holiday every time.

I was already up; it was too late to stay in bed so I hid behind my computer. Through the window I watched the horses galloping up and down their pasture, snorting and stamping, their tails like banners. After a while,  I went outside to say hi to Shane. The carcasses, clothed only in thick jackets of fat, looked enormous. The heads, skinned and staring blindly, lay in a heap to one side. The Hubbit and his friend Cool Dude were busy sorting various inside bits according to whether they were for human or canine consumption. Between the dogs and various friends, very little is wasted.

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Men at work. I’m glad I get to hide away!

After Shane was done and had left to deliver the beefs to the butcher, Cool Dude brought a wheelbarrow heaped with innards up to the workshop. It always startles me how hot meat is even several hours after killing. We loaded it into big plastic bags and put it inside a chest freezer to cool, because warm meat is rubbery, making it difficult to cut and also disgusting. Later the Hubbit backed his truck up to the shop door, and while he and CD cut the almost-chilled meat into manageable lumps, I slapped away swarms of flies and stuffed it into Ziploc bags, which went into the dog meat freezer.

So that was my Labor Day, and I know it probably sounds completely horrible to you, but I liked it. Not the killing, and not the betrayal – I don’t really think cows feel betrayed, but I feel as though I betray them. The price of their contented existence is their lives, which is better than most farm animals get, but undeniably a one-sided deal. At the same time, eliminating anthropomorphism from the equation, I like that, having chosen to eat meat, I can also choose to ensure that the creatures who provide it experience lush pasture and sunshine, companionship, peace … and, at the end, the grace of a single bullet while grass is still sweet on their tongue.

How about you? Do you eat meat? Do you care what kind of life it lived before it became meat? Would you eat it if you knew its name?

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About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

20 responses »

  1. Every Fall as we shipped cattle from our ranch, we kids would park ourselves somewhere high and wriggle with excitement and/or slump with sadness depending on which critter made the walk into the trucks. Those we retained for family consumption were not, at least in my memory, named. And the single shot my Dad would fire was always a bit of a shock, but also a lesson for a little girl about the fragility of life. A poor decision here, an accident there, a bullet hole between the eyes, the freak acts of Mother Nature – a split second later and what was is no more. An accident on that ranch claimed that rancher/provider of the family meat in that split second when my twin sister and I were twelve years old. I don’t think cattle share the same emotion over a loss of one of their own kind. I know I grieve yet over the death of that stellar Daddy. Were any of the cows still alive whose calves were shipped from the lush pastures of home, I am certain they would not grieve for the calves gone. A couple days in the weaning pen ends all that!

    Loved the blog Val!

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    • Many in my family grow the beef that is consumed by the less than agricultural. These animals generally have identifying numbers, not names, but they are prized and well taken care of. I have always been proud of my ranching Daddy and remain proud of my ranching family! And I savor the fruits of their labor!!

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      • Actually, I’m probably going to stop with the names. The Hubbit just refuses to remember Lerato, Tumelo, Tshepo … and now that we’ve lost Hope, I might as well accept the inevitable and let Love and Faith morph into Big Red Mama and Black Mama… 🙂

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    • Hello, my friend. I’m glad it roused some special memories for you, even if some of them were sad. And no, I don’t think cattle grieve for long. Certainly one can’t compare their grief to ours.

      My sister-in-law has told me how desperately upset her cows would get when their young ‘uns were taken to the abattoir in a truck. She said they would literally scream. I’ve also heard that dairy cows become terribly distressed – but of course they lose their babies when they’re still tiny. And even so, within a few days it’s forgotten.

      You’d think it would be worse for them to have the killing happen in their own pasture, but in fact it doesn’t seem to be. The older cows seem more troubled, but by the time their last year’s calf goes, they have another one taking their attention, and they quickly forget.

      I think the great blessing of the life a small farm like ours offers, from the point of view of the livestock, is that they experience no stress at all. They’re born here, they wean themselves when they’re ready, and they die here. No leaving in trucks, no abattoir. Their lives are short but I think they’re happy.

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  2. I would eat meat if I knew it grew up and was cared for as respectfully as this, right up to the end. Unfortunately, most, if not all meat available to me is not. I stopped eating factory processed meat about three years ago.

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    • Good for you, Maggie. I have to plead guilty to occasional burgers and supermarket rotisserie chicken, because I’m lazy, disorganized and hate cooking or even thinking about food. Pork is the one exception … The hell that factory pigs go through is inexcusable. And I’m trying to be better organized as regards cooking at home… 🙂

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      • Yeah, we stopped eating pork a couple of years before a total industrial meat ban – my husband met a guy who had a pot-bellied pig as a pet and hubby was smitten by the smart and affectionate piggy. Couldn’t eat pork after that.

        We do what we can, right? With resources (money, time, ability) available – in our house we could “do better” too – fish and egg production is also cruel. But a vegan diet doesn’t work for us.

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          • There would be no problem keeping chickens, per se – and we have considered it. But in the balance, the learning curve, the foxes and bears and weasels, not to mention the extra expense… Plus, we travel from time to time, which means getting someone in to feed the hens.

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  3. I moved to a farm as a teenager. My siblings all named their 4H calves that would eventually become dinner – there was a BigMac, a Daffy, etc. I never once watched the killing day or the shipping day – I couldn’t do it. But I did take a sick pleasure in telling the 4 year old that the burger she was eating was her beloved Daffy returning to the farm. It took her a week before she’d eat it, but in that week I’m pretty sure she learned a few life lessons.

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      • Now that my parents sold the farm and all our relatives no longer have cattle, I so struggle to buy meat at a supermarket!! It’s just not the same.
        Funny, enough we were just talking about this part of suburban lifestyle. Mr. MPB is a hunter – deer and moose mostly. Our urban living son will learn about where meat come from because these animals are processed in our garage every fall. One day he’ll probably even go hunting with Mr. MPB (I wont go hunting – I’m okay with helping process once it’s no longer breathing).

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        • I’m with you on that. Once it’s meat I’m fine with it, but I really dislike the act of killing. I used to go with the Hubbit occasionally when he hunted waterfowl, because it’s not safe to go out on the Columbia alone, but I would sit in a corner of the blind and read… 🙂

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    • I think that’s an important lesson! One of our friends, who came over yesterday to pick up the brains (no, she’s not a zombie, no I have no idea what she’ll do with them – apparently she’s planning to consult Google) has a 4-year-old daughter. She was horrified at her brother’s suggestion that she bring her little one to watch the killing, and I agree that might be disturbing, since she’s petted our cows. But we did take her down to the kill area and she saw the carcasses, and her mom told her what they were. She didn’t seem bothered by it; I’m not sure how much she understood – but the good thing is, she’s not going to be one of those idiots who thinks meat is magically incarnated in a plastic container.

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  4. MPB, the cattle at the Took Ranch are born and raised on our grass pastures.
    They are strictly:
    – Grass Fed.
    – Free-Range.
    – No Antibiotics.
    – No Added Hormones.
    – Non-GMO

    Here is just one of several reasons why you will do well to not buy feedlot-raised meat at the Supermarket – Today, there are six anabolic steroids given, in various combinations, to nearly all animals entering conventional beef feedlots in the U.S. and Canada:

    Three natural steroids (estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone), and
    Three synthetic hormones (the estrogen compound zeranol, the androgen trenbolone acetate, and progestin melengestrol acetate).

    In 1988 the European Union banned the use of all hormone growth promoters..the possible effects on human populations exposed to residues of anabolic sex hormones through meat consumption have never, to our knowledge, been studied. Theoretically, the fetus and the prepubertal child are particularly sensitive to exposure to sex steroids.”

    To begin to explore possible impacts, Swan et al. (2007) carried out a study assessing the consequences of beef consumption by pregnant women on their adult male offspring. The families included in the study were recruited from the multicenter “Study for Future Families” (SFF).

    The study team assessed sperm quantity and quality among 773 men. Data on beef consumption during pregnancy was available from the mothers of 387 men. These mothers consumed, on average, 4.3 beef meals per week, and were divided into a high beef consumption group (more than seven meals per week) and a low-consumption group (less than 7 per week).

    The scientists compared sperm concentrations and quality among the men born to women in the high and low beef consumption groups. They found that:

    Sperm concentration (volume) was 24.3 percent higher in the sons of mothers in the “low” beef consumption group.
    Almost 18 percent of the sons born to women in the high beef consumption group had sperm concentrations below the World Health Organization threshold for subfertility ­ about three-times more than in the sons of women in the low consumption group.

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  5. I’ve had a hard time with meat ever since I helped slaughter chickens on the hobby farm as a teen. That experience morphed into my first bout of vegetarianism, which lasted around 3 years.

    To this day – I have problems with meat that ‘looks’ like the animal it came from because of my participation in the butchering. If I had to raise and slaughter my own meat…I’d be veggie again. Eggs would be my primary protein source, and cheese, as long as I had a milk-producing beastie I could care for.

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    • If the Hubbit weren’t here to supervise I believe I could do it, and I don’t mind dealing with it once it’s meat. But if I lived alone I think my meat consumption would drop way down. I agree with you – eggs are a great source of protein, and a free range chicken is one of the most contented creatures alive! Cheese is more problematic, since the goat or cow has to have babies to keep producing milk, and at least half of those will have to be eaten – if not by you, then by someone. Also, milking is a pain in the butt! I tried it and it was a disaster; won’t try again because I’ve developed arthritis in my thumbs … I don’t know … Maybe with a machine… 🙂 I’ve made goat’s milk cheese and it was delicious!

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      • Yea, I did think on the cheese angle – milk requires babies…every year or so. I didn’t mind milking the goats we had on the hobby farm as a kid – I just hated dragging the water to ’em.

        I, too, have made goat’s milk cheese – both fresh, soft curd (fantastic blended with onion & garlic) and a harder cheddar-like brick. Both were amazing.

        Goats do have some pretty good free-ranging possibilities, if I remember rightly. They can eat just about anything.

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        • It’s been a few years since I kept goats, but I seem to remember that they actually have quite sensitive systems, and are prone to falling sick due to mysterious causes. I loved mine, though – and the babies are darling; it is SUCH fun watching them play!

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