Do you have what it takes to raise homekill? This block owner shares how to look dinner in the eye
Ross Nolly is a former butcher and a hunter, but still finds it emotional to kill and process livestock he cares for. Here, he shares his strategies for anyone who wants to enjoy home-grown meat but struggles with looking it in the eye.
Words & images: Ross Nolly
Who: Ross Nolly
Where: Stratford, 40km south of New Plymouth
What: 1.2ha (3 acres)
Assistants: Bob (the cat), Willow and Bella (the kunekune pigs)
When I was a child, my parents bought a Large White weaner piglet to grow on for meat. As she grew, she became very friendly. I remember watching her follow my dad up to the cowshed every day, waiting there while he worked, then dutifully following him home.
She grew fast, as pigs do. Before we knew it, she was porker size. No-one had the heart to kill her. “Let’s grow her to a baconer.”
This only delayed the inevitable. She got to baconer size. Then bigger. She still followed dad to the shed every day. This type of connection happens when you’ve looked a sweet, friendly, intelligent animal in the eye for many months.
We ended up giving her to friends who needed a breeding sow. Problem solved, but also unsolved.
Is it possible to prevent yourself and your family from becoming attached to animals that are grown for food? It’s a subject full of conundrums, contradictions, moral issues, and choices.
You’d think it would be easy for me. I’m a qualified butcher. I’ve worked in local butcheries, home-kill, and spent 14 years managing supermarket butcheries. I’m also a hunter who shoots wild game for food. I have roosters that I harvest for meat. But some of my animals will live until the end of their natural lifespan here with me.
I’m often tempted to raise a beefy for the freezer. But I’m on a small block, with room for just one animal. I know that I couldn’t look at it over the fence for two years, then put it in the freezer. That’s why I choose not to have one.
If I had a larger property and could graze a few more animals, making it far less personal, I know I could do it. While I harvest my own animals for meat, I do not believe in the “if you eat meat you should be prepared to kill it” mantra. That’s sensationalist to me. I think if people respect where their meat has come from and realise that an animal has died to provide it, that is enough.
Ila Earney was brought up on her parent’s self-sufficient organic farm where harvesting animals for food was a part of everyday life. She understood at a very early age what had to happen for the family to eat meat.
Ila still lives by this philosophy and understands the pitfalls. “If an animal was going to be used for food… I knew from the beginning what was going to happen. If we kept an animal, it had to be a breeding animal, and there had to be enough grazing.”
THE EMOTIONS OF PRODUCING MEAT
I’ve found processing my roosters to be a confronting task. That’s why I strive to use every part of them:
• the feet and bones are used to make stock;
• the feathers and scalding water are used to fertilise trees;
• the unused internal organs are cooked up for my pigs (at 100°C for an hour) – never feed raw meat or offal to pigs as there are disease risks.
I’ve timed myself picking up a chicken in its pen, walking to where I process them, and then a quick dispatch. It usually takes about 45-60 seconds. To me, this is so much better than eating a ‘supermarket’ bird which has been put in a crate with other birds, then travelled on the back of a truck to a processing plant.
Raising chickens for the pot may not be a practical option for everyone. But for me, it’s a comfort to know that the chicken I eat has been dispatched with the least possible stress and in the shortest practical time.
I’ve found when I process my young roosters (at around 16 weeks of age), I feel a bit deflated for a few days afterward. Recently I processed three 10-month old roosters and felt bad about it for some time. I think it was because I’d had them so much longer than usual. I hadn’t made pets of them, but I had seen them every day.
It can be an intense experience to hold and dispatch a bird that you’ve raised. It’s much more personal than shooting a wild goat or deer that’s standing 100m away.
I always say thank you to the animal. The day I become blasé about taking an animal’s life is the day I stop eating meat.
The first time you kill an animal is always the hardest. It’s a difficult procedure to witness and take part in. For me, once an animal has been killed, processing it is mechanical. It transitions into a product, and you are performing a procedure. That doesn’t mean that you value it less, it’s just that you’ve moved on to a different part of the process.
I always feel a mixture of emotions, ranging from a sense of sadness to pride. Sadness, because an animal has lost its life to provide food. Pride, that I’ve grown good quality meat, and have ensured that the animal had the highest possible quality of life.
THE VALUE OF HOME-GROWN MEAT
This has nothing to do with the money you can save by doing homekill (which can be quite a bit). I’ve found that when you process an animal, you value it more because it isn’t a packaged item you’ve casually bought from the supermarket. Ila Earney agrees.
“You get to understand the care and effort that goes into rearing and farming an animal.
“It’s also a way for you to do your part to help make the world a better place. I’d rather not put my money towards the ill-treatment of animals and mass factory farming.
“It’s so easy to go to the supermarket… but when you pick up that bag of sausages, you’re supporting the life of that animal, wherever it came from.
“When I sit down to eat some chops for tea, I value them because I know the effort that went into raising that sheep.I’d rather eat something and know where it’s come from, that it’s had a good life, and has been dispatched as quickly as possible in the paddock.”
Ila says one of the good things about living on a block is you can remove a lot of the trauma for the animal.
“Often, a home-killed sheep or cow dies with a mouth full of grass. They don’t know what’s happening and consequently they aren’t worked up. Other sheep have the ordeal of being mustered, yarded, loaded onto a truck to the saleyards or freezing works, and then have to wait at the freezing works or abattoir until slaughter.
“I value their life more and strive to give them an instant death where they aren’t stressed in their last hours. They’ve been happy until the instant that they die.”
HOW I DEAL WITH PIGS, BY HAVING FOREVER PIGS
Willow and Bella are my kunekune pigs. They are my grazing, fertilising, garden preparation machines, and pets. It means when I get ‘freezer pigs’, they have some company, and I can feed them and walk away.
It’s important to remember why you have an animal, says Ila Earney. “It’s for eating, not for ‘maybe’. Don’t name it, especially not a ‘cutesy’ name. Care for it properly but don’t spend unnecessary time with it or mother it.”
ROSS’S TIPS FOR BEGINNERS TO HOMEKILL
• Pay to graze an animal on another property, so you don’t become attached to it.
• Don’t encourage your children to play with animals that are destined for homekill.
• It’s easier to raise a number of animals, rather than one or two, so you’re not as likely to become attached to them. Feed the animals, make sure they’re ok, and then walk away.
• Employ a homekill business, rather than going full-on into the killing and butchering process. Separate yourself initially, and it will become easier over time as you get used to it.
• When you decide to do it yourself, find a good mentor, someone with expertise, to guide you through the process.
• Preparation is key. Carefully plan every step to ensure things go smoothly.
CHILDREN & MEAT ANIMALS
I once watched a documentary where a Hungarian family was killing and processing a pig. The entire family took part, including the toddlers. The children casually wandered about as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. For them, it was normal.
Ila often sees livestock become a burden because children have lost interest in their ag day animal, but they don’t want them to go in the freezer. She suggests parents set a ground level of expectation.
“Start how you mean to carry on without deviating from the original plan. If you don’t, the kids will always think that they can keep an animal and define its purpose.
“Next year, if they get another lamb, the same problem will occur unless (the parents) keep rehoming them. Otherwise, the end result is a petting zoo that just costs you money.”
I’ve found if you are matter-of-fact about a process, children can learn to appreciate it. I’ve taken children out hunting, some of whom have never seen an animal harvested for meat.
I don’t insist they do anything that they don’t want to do. I always explain what we’re doing and why. I tell them that when you buy meat from a supermarket, all the work we are about to do has already been done.
We talk about the work that goes into hunting for food. We drive for over an hour to get to where we will hunt. We can spend at least a couple of hours hunting, with no guarantee of success.
If we do see animals, we select the ones we want to take and ‘field dress’ them. Before I do this, I describe what is going to happen pragmatically, not in a sensationalist way.
I never give them a ‘this is going to look terrible and gory’ speech as that usually initiates a hysterical response. I calmly explain the process. My experience is you get an initial ‘oh yuck’ but it quickly turns to questions like ‘what’s that?’ when they see the internal organs.
If we get three goats, it will take over an hour to skin them. The meat will hang somewhere cool for a few days, and then must be cut up, packed, and frozen.
I explain that the process is something that most children from developed countries don’t see. If, after seeing it, they decide they don’t want to eat meat, that’s fine too because they have made an informed decision.