April 26, 2015
Most calves arrive on the farm arrive in the fall. Many of our neighbor’s spring calves sell at that time, so fall is a good time to buy. Fall, a year later, is butchering time.
During the year I walk the pastures and slowly develop a relationship with the steers. Each walk gives me a chance to see if anyone is off their feed, has a runny eye, or a dry nose—better to find a problem at the start than after it has settled in. These walks lead to a comfortableness between us. Comfortableness matters on butcher day.
Our goal at the farm is that none of our calves’ dies of natural causes. (At least not natural from a steer’s point of view.) Growing up, I never gave much thought to steers raised on the family place, but my folks did. They did not name steers, though they didn’t stop us kids. It was their way of having some distance in the human /steer relationship. They knew the steers were not going to die of natural causes and a no-name steer is easier to kill on butcher day. Good idea, but none of that ever worked out. It seems that if you live with an animal for eighteen months, more or less, relationships develop, whether you like it or not.
Daddy never liked butcher day, mostly because of the relationship gained whether you like it or not. Daddy never killed a steer. Instead our neighbor, Mr. Riggins, dropped by early morning to handle the killing. Once done, daddy, Mr. Riggins, and us boys would skin and quarter the beef.
Today I understand Mr. Riggins and daddy’s butchering relationship was based in the human/animal relationship. Mr. Riggins didn’t have the relationship daddy had with the steers. This separation made killing much easier for Mr. Riggins than daddy. Many folk raising animals for meat need a Mr. Riggins and mine is Johan.
When ones natural work is killing, there is comfortableness in that work. When folk visit and we take a walk around the farm, the steers can become a bit edgy. Whereas Johan can show up with a rifle in his hand and the animals act as if their best friend just arrived. That is comfortableness that comes with good work and it is a comfortableness I want come butcher day.
Like daddy, I have no desire to kill steers. However, I learned from him it is important not leave when a steer is about to die. Daddy knew his relationship and his presence put steers at ease. Therefore, while I will not kill, I stand beside our steers at their time of death. This is not as much a choice as it is an obligation.
Ideally, all of us would be present when our food animals die. It does us all good to intimately understand what is lost to get food to our table. Of course, that is never going to happen in the US industrial food system. Which is why a prayer of grace is deeply needed at mealtime. For in that moment the eater of food has the opportunity to become present in the death which gives them life. Wendell Berry spoke to this well when he said, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
Most of us will never be present at the death of our food animal. And many of us will never walk a pasture or develop a relationship with an animal who will sustain our life. Yet, all of us can support a food system that does not objectify meat animals, eliminate their identity, or dishonor their life. Done well, we can develop a meaningful bond with those who give life that is reverent and eternal.