Little Packages of Meat

It’s the time of year when our lambs are coming off pasture and heading to “freezer camp.” It’s a terrible euphemism, I know. But farmers–like cops, coroners, and other professionals who deal with the nastier parts of life–have our own brand of gallows humor.

We’ve been raising animals for meat for 12 years now, starting with turkeys, then broiler chickens, pigs, and now sheep and cattle. Along the way we’ve learned some hard lessons about that critical last step in the whole process from livestock to, well, deadstock, and on to cuts of meat ready to be cooked for dinner. For the uninitiated, here’s what we’ve learned:

Slaughter appointments are like dental appointments: they are usually made 6-12 months in advance. Everyone wants to process their animals in the Fall when the grass stops growing, so if that’s your plan too, you better call for that appointment the moment your animals are born. Not sure they’ll be properly finished on the date you got? Too bad!

Unlike your dentist, you will probably drive 1-2 hours to get to the slaughterhouse. If you want to sell meat by the cut, it must be processed by a USDA-inspected facility, which are few and far between.

Assuming you can get a date at the slaughterhouse, you have to be able to get the animals there. Waiting until the morning of your appointment is a guarantee that the animals will refuse to be loaded onto whatever transport method you have arranged. Especially if you’re dealing with a makeshift handling system, and especially if you’re trying to load pigs. They can FEEL your sense of urgency, and they will laugh at you. And you will be crying when you call the butcher to cancel that appointment you made 9-12 months earlier.

Unloading the animals at the slaughterhouse seems straightforward, but occasionally an animal manages to escape. This is my nightmare scenario! You put months of work into carefully raising this animal, providing it with a high-quality, low-stress life, and then it breaks free and goes running into the woods, and you spend days chasing it around and trying to corral it. Thankfully this has not actually happened to us, but my butcher has shared horror stories from his customers.

Workers at any slaughterhouse have a hard, dirty, low-paying job. I have immense respect for them, as the service they provide is essential for having a local meat supply. But many of these businesses struggle to retain employees, and their service, as a result, is inconsistent. I regularly get packages of meat back that have no label or are vaguely labeled as “lamb misc.” (How do I sell that??) Sometimes the packages haven’t been properly vacuum-sealed so the meat gets frosty immediately, and I can’t sell them.

The cost of slaughter and butchering an animal is a significant percentage of the total cost of raising that animal. For lambs, slaughterhouses charge a per-head price from $75 to $125 for slaughter, cutting, and wrapping the meat. An entire lamb produces only 30-35lbs of meat. That means anywhere between $2.15/lb (best case) to $4.16/lb (worst case) of the price we charge for retail cuts of lamb goes straight to the butcher. Once we factor in hay, mineral, transport, equipment depreciation, property taxes and overhead… oh yeah, and our labor! it’s easy to see why lamb prices are as high as they are.

The next time you hold a package of meat in your hand, think for a moment about all that went into producing it. If it came from a small local farmer, I can almost guarantee that there’s a good story behind it.

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