What does 'humanely harvested' mean here at 6S?
A few days ago I received a question from one of our customers asking about what our animals experience at the time of their harvest. When one person is asking I find that it is usually a sign that others are wondering a well and as such I've written the following article to detail, for those of you who are interested, the experience our animals have when they leave the farm for harvest.
I think we're all familiar with the horrifying images of what animals are sometimes subject to in large corporate farming and slaughter operations. There seems to be a general perception that they are treated cruelly, highly stressed, crowded in and often injured or witness slaughter prior to their own. It is abominable to think that any creature should be subjected to such an ignominious end.
This is yet another area where 6S Family Farm is very different from the industrial food system.
MOVING, SORTING & LOADING ANIMALS
Humane harvest starts right here at the farm. Each species of animal is different in how they move (individually or as a herd) and how they react to pressure by other animals and humans. Understanding pressure sensitivity and flight zones for each species is the first key to low stress animal handling practices. That is why all of our animals are loaded for transport in different ways here at 6S and preparation for it starts long before the actual harvest day.
During our daily chores and animal checks here on the farm we walk through each of our animal groups with a sharp eye out to assess their health and well being and look for any potential problems. Because we do this on a daily basis, when we get close to a harvest date we have already pre-selected the animals that will be going in based on their 'finish' (more on how to determine proper finish at another time). This way, when we are ready to bring in a group there is no discussion or last minute frenzy for us as stewards. Being relaxed and in the right frame of mind is essential for the process to go smoothly for both people and animals.
As herd animals with prey instincts, both our cattle and sheep are brought into our corral system as a herd. (No prey animal likes to be alone, it feels unsafe and unnatural to them.) Then quietly, calmly, and with coordinated effort we sort the animals that will be going for harvest into a separate pen from the animals that will be staying at the farm. All of this is done almost exclusively with our feet. Simply by moving yourself into the right spot of pressure sensitivity for the animal (close enough to promote movement in the direction you desire but far enough away to eliminate a panic response from the animal.) It is a skill that is learned over time by observation and practice. Once we have the groups sorted we release the group that will be staying and usually one of the kids trails them back to their pasture paddock while we load the group that will be going. The beef cattle get walked through a short, gently curved alley (cattle do not like sharp corners or long alleyways) at the end of which they walk into our stock trailer.
The sheep rarely get walked through the alley as they have no aversion to the trailer and are happy to jump into it together as a group.
The pigs are a completely different story! Like sheep and cattle, pigs are both prey animals and herd animals, but rather than move together like a flock, when stressed or scared pigs will scatter to the four winds. They are infinitely stubborn and absolutely will not go where they do not want to. I think this is why pigs in confinement situations tend to get treated so badly. They are so intelligent, stubborn and strong that unless you are careful to observe their natural instincts and work with them, one cannot help but be frustrated in their efforts to handle them. Over time and through much trial and error we have developed a system for loading our pigs that is completely stress free for both animals and humans. A week prior to our harvest date we take our stock trailer and deposit it directly into the pig paddock. For a full week prior to loading we place their daily feed ration in feed tubs inside the trailer. Each pig can take the time they need to curiously sniff and explore the whole trailer inside and out and acquaint themselves with all of it. They learn in their own time and at their own pace to load into the trailer to eat. This way when we are ready to bring in a group for harvest we simply put some feed into the trailer and step away, the pigs jump in (usually the biggest guys push their way to the front, making our job that much easier), we close the door behind them and then 1 person calmly and quietly sorts the group we want using the gates inside the trailer. We release the rest back to their buddies and off we go.
Our turkeys get loaded straight off the pasture into the stock trailer as one large flock. We place some feed in the trailer and provide them with a gently sloping ramp that they can easily walk up. We quietly walk behind them, keeping them together as a group and they herd easily into the trailer.
We load our broiler chickens prior to daylight. We open their pasture pens, gently catch each bird around the whole body (to prevent wings flapping and breaking) and place them in chicken crates. We never pack a crate to capacity but instead leave plenty of room for the birds to move around inside, then we load the crates into the stock trailer in a pattern that allows for ample air movement during transport. We also use these crates to transport rabbits for harvest in much the same way.
TRANSPORT OF ANIMALS
From the farm, the animals are transported to our local abattoir, a short 30 minute drive away. We are very very thankful to have such a high quality, well operated facility so close by. (This is often the biggest challenge for direct to market farms around the province). We know all of the staff at the facility well and in fact have worked there at times ourselves when they need some extra helping hands. You can't beat that for quality control! :)
Here we unload our animals, as calmly and quietly as we loaded them, into a small corral facility where they have fresh straw or shavings to lay in and plenty of water is provided if they'll be there overnight. This is always a bittersweet moment for us as stewards. We love our animals and work daily to make sure they have the absolute best life possible. It is our goal to provide them with both a great life and dignity in death.
HARVEST OF ANIMALS
In order to best illustrate what happens from here let me tell you a short story. Whenever we bring animals in for harvest Rick, goes to the plant the next day to check the carcasses. He does this because we want to check the quality of the meat and see for ourselves the end result of all of our hard work. It also helps us to develop our 'eye' for finished animals. (Rather than simply using a scale we look for certain signs that an animal is 'finished' and ready for harvest. By checking the carcasses we see whether or not our 'eye' had it right.) Anyway, on this particular day Rick was in the plant taking a look over our animals while the kids and I waited for him in the truck, just off to the side of the building. Our kids are in the 4-H program and every year they each raise a steer to market and sell at the Fall Fair. It just happened that this was one of the harvest dates for some of the 4-H animals and while we were waiting in the truck the next animal was brought up for harvest. When I realized what was about to happen, I didn't even have a moment to tell the kids to look away and it was already over. The kids and I all witnessed this steer meet his end and in the split second it took to suck in my breath it was over. No panic, no thrashing, no suffering, no pain. An event that you think would have been traumatizing to those watching, especially to our kids who could relate to raising and loving a steer just like that one, actually wasn't traumatizing at all. It was a complete relief for them to witness it and know that it was that quick. I have reflected on that moment many times over the years since then and always come away with the thought that I wish it could be so quick and painless for everyone! Death is a fact of life and all life is fed by death. Whether it be the death of a living plant or a living animal, our continued life requires death. With that in mind, I think it is imperative that we do death well. Really well, and take the time to honor the life that is sacrificed with our deep and sincere thanksgiving.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
The final chapter of our humane harvest ends with the product itself. One of the very best parts of working with a small, local butcher is the fact that care and attention is given to each animal for its uniqueness. The industrial food model cannot value individuality as it slows efficiency. Animals raised for the industrial meat market are expected to conform to standards of optimal size and weight that fit best with the processing machinery of mass production. This is not even a concern for us. Our butcher does an excellent job of taking the meat from carcass to cut, and we finish with a product that we're proud to put our names on and deliver to YOU!
All of this to say, if I was an animal, I'd definitely want to be an animal at 6S Family Farm! :)