The Emotional Complexities of Raising Animals for Meat

Homesteader with berkshire pigs

Last week we killed two roosters and before that we slaughtered pigs for the first time. It was very difficult.  It’s been a chin up, suck it up, have a shot of whisky (or three) and move forward sort of time.

All this animal activity has got me thinking a lot about farm animals and their roles in our lives and ours in theirs. We’ve experienced quite a lot in the past year when it comes to raising animals. Over the winter we have had numerous debates related to keeping animals with no firm decision to the question: should we be raising animals for meat?

The answer …

If we are going to continue to consume meat then yes. If we can stop eating meat then no. That is a pretty big decision to make.

We started out a year ago completely bright eyed and naive when it came to raising livestock. I remember saying “they will have a great life until that one bad day”.  I think I said this to every single person I have ever spoken to at least once. I believed it too. I also said things like “I wont’ get attached” and “I will be nice to them but they are FOOD” and “I promise not to name them”.  I believed all of that too.

In reality raising animals for meat and eggs has been far more emotionally complex than I imagined. It is quite a leap to go from purchasing store bought packages of meat to bringing home baby animals, raising them and killing them. Whatever your reasons are for raising your own animals, I think you should ready yourself for the feelings and the reality that come with this journey.

The butcher that prepared our pigs for us, said that he grew up on a farm and from that experience he could never raise pigs for meat.  “They are too smart, too likeable” he said. Cows he might be able to do. When I arrived at his shop with the pigs in the back of our pickup truck, they were very compassionate and moved with grace and efficiency. I on the other hand looked miserable, and was quite frankly still in shock from the hours leading up to the four dead pigs in the back of my truck.

Our reasons for raising our own animals for meat seemed pretty black and white to us in the beginning. We wanted to control the quality of all of the food we eat. We wanted pasture raised, organic fed, healthy meat. We did not want to support factory farming and gross, abhorrent practices.

Having now experienced the process of raising an animal from baby all the way through to putting packages in the freezer, it still seems right if we are going to eat meat that we do this, but its become emotionally complicated. Raising and killing our own animals has given me a deep understanding of what is at stake and what is sacrificed for that food to be placed on the table.

Bringing farm animals home starts out so happy. The inevitable day of slaughter seems so far away that you don’t even think about it until the harvest is in and there is frost on the ground. We brought home teeny, cute, adorable baby chickens, pigs & quail. They brought such a new life to the homestead and it was pretty amazing. We felt more like farmers with the morning chores, the waft of manure in the air and the much loved feeding times. Being so involved and hands on with these creatures, and wanting them to have a good life,  you connect with them. Its hard to avoid.  Its sort of like when you bring a puppy home except for …

You will have to kill it.

The lessons start early. Perhaps a gift because it hardens you a little bit. On the farm, life and death seem to dance around each other and try as you might you can’t avoid having one without the other. Animal instinct can be brutal. For example; if one chicken gets injured, the others will peck it to death or worse, almost to death leaving you to finish it off. This happens at one week old or one year old. They will turn on an old friend with a blink of an eye. Nature is harsh that way. To keep order sometimes you have to kill animals that you had planned on keeping because they turn into assholes and are hurting other animals or attacking you. You just end up dealing with stuff that your earlier planning and imaginings had not factored in.

We are in limbo with our livestock, as the number of mouths to feed has dwindled we have not added new animals. Today we have only 8 hens, and enough eggs for us and our neighbour.  In comparison, a year ago we had 2 pigs, 16 chickens, and a 48+ quail and we planned on getting a cow/goat and even a donkey. Our experiences with the animals that we had that are no longer here have given us a new awareness that opened up a field of questions to be answered before we can proceed. You can read about our Pigs, Chickens and Quail  if you want the nitty gritties on some of the highlights …. and lowlights. the Quailmageddon was pretty rough, as was slaughtering the pigs. Having our dog eat my favourite hen on Christmas eve was also one of our less than cherished moments on the homestead.

Hopefully I don’t sound too contradictory here but I miss having animals in the pasture. The daily chores associated with it and the joy of seeing animals frolic was something we really enjoyed. We have been thinking about trying goats. It would be wonderful to make cheese and other dairy products.  The struggle in this equation is that a female goat will have 3-5 kids every year. You then need to re-home these goats (not always easy) or raise them for meat (not easy). Life & death, spring births & fall butchering, it is all so profound. I have such respect and admiration for those that do this with compassion and love on their farms. It is not easy!

I have to decide if I am in or out. So does Ryan. This homestead is run on our energy and hearts, our sweat, laughter and tears get poured into it what we do here. There is no wrong or right answer. No one to decide for us. It just need to work for us and for us to feel good about the decision. Sometimes you have to try it to know so I think we might get some goats. The thought of giving up milk and cheese pains me.  I bounce back and forth on the subject from day to day but really most of the time in the back of my head I hear someone saying “you are being a total wimp”. Try it or you won’t know for sure.

This is entirely off subject but there are economics to consider as well. Animals need a lot of land, and feed and shelter and other stuff that costs money. You can grow a lot of vegetables and produce far more calories in that space. In fact, in desperate war time food shortages this was the approach taken. There is a lot to be considered when taking on livestock.

In the meantime as we make farm food decisions, my diet has turned strictly vegetarian, which was very easy for me.  I have not eaten pork or beef in decades and other meats are rarely on my plate.  For Ryan it’s different. He very happily ate meat daily. Right now he consumes meat only 3 x per week and eats plenty of vegetarian meals. This is working for him. We have a freezer filled with pork that will enable Ryan to get some meat in his diet, and ensures our guests are not forced to eat vegetarian. I am becoming much more skilled at cooking with beans and lentils and have turned out some phenomenal meals.

I think there is a middle ground for us, where we can take only what we need and do it with compassion. For us this means that we will keep our hens and enjoy fresh eggs every day & it means that we won’t keep anything that needs to live in a cage. We will get honeybees and expand the garden and continue the livestock debate until we have decided.

To raise animals for meat, you are sacrificing their life for this sustenance.  The experience has made me deeply aware of the gift put upon the table. I am profoundly impacted by news reports of cages and cruelty and food waste. These scenes belong in horror movies, not reality.  If you know a kind farmer that cares for his livestock, know that he does the hard part so you don’t have to. Thank him. Appreciate that sustenance. Don’t waste. Buy local. Be informed. Make changes.

I decided to share photos at the end of this story. Some of them are delightful and lovely but others are raw and graphic. For anyone uncomfortable with seeing how it really is, avert your eyes.

2 thoughts on “The Emotional Complexities of Raising Animals for Meat

  1. Craig Evans says:

    A great article on the complexities of food. Thanks for writing this. Compassion and empathy are very powerful emotions.

    • Charlotte Walker says:

      Thanks Craig, yes, compassion and empathy are powerful emotions! I am grateful for each challenge that has me digging deep, feeling, and contemplating life in such profound ways.

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