This Farmer Wants To Give Animals A Better Life — And Death
As farmer Jon McConaughy wades through his flock of 400 sheep, lambs bleat, seemingly saying "maaaaa" as they look for their mothers in the huge pasture.
"Between seven and 10 lambs a week is what we use," McConaughy says, looking across the field. "That's what goes through the slaughterhouse."
McConaughy's Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, N.J., has one of only two U.S. Department of Agriculture certified on-premises slaughter facilities in the country. That means that, instead of taking his animals to a large commercial slaughterhouse, he can slaughter his own pigs and lambs each week, all within the confines of the farm.
"When it comes time for them to be harvested, we walk them to the slaughterhouse. So they never get on a trailer, they never have to experience the stress that goes along with most slaughterhouses," McConaughy says.
His livestock live their entire lives on this farm, from birth to harvest.
Double Brook works to reduce the stress on its animals for a few reasons: McConaughy thinks the quality of the life of an animal is just as important as the quality of its death. And, secondly, stress can ruin meat.
"Stress hormones affect the acid levels, which affect the meat to the point in some cases where it's inedible," he explains.
On slaughter day, lambs and pigs are walked to the back of the slaughterhouse, which looks like a barn from the outside. The pigs grow up in the shadow of the building, and it's a short walk from their pasture to the holding pen. Then about 10 of each animal are selected for harvest.
"I would say that's probably the hardest thing for me, is that on that particular day, why are those the ones chosen?" McConaughy says.
The last pig of the day is waiting in the holding pen, snorting and walking around the enclosure that held nine of its litter mates before. He has beady black eyes like marbles and is covered in dirt and coarse black hairs. Butchers herd him down a curved path into the slaughterhouse. Once inside, a gate is closed behind him and he stands in what's called the knock box.
The butchers pet the pig and talk to him, while another butcher prepares the captive bolt — a bullet that is shot into the pig's head to render it unconscious.
"In a commercial slaughterhouse, there is a pig every 15 to 20 seconds. We're watching the process right now and we have probably been sitting here for a minute and a half, watching this whole thing going on," McConaughy explains.
The butchers get the pig in place and the captive bolt fires with a loud crack. They open the gate and the pig falls to the floor. They take a knife and slice open its jugular vein, and the pig's blood spills out.
"The heart will continue to beat for another three or four minutes after the brain has been killed. And so the animal will continue to move and convulse," McConaughy says.
The pig twists and writhes in its own blood until it stops moving. The butchers, clad in heavy aprons and black rubber boots, lift the lifeless body into a metal machine, which boils its hair off. When the pig comes out it looks less like an animal and more like meat — its flesh is pink and clean.
A butcher then pops the toenails off with a knife. Another takes a blowtorch to scorch the remainder of the hair. They saw into the breast plate until the bone cracks, and use a giant serrated knife to cut the head off. Chains jangle as they hoist the body to the ceiling. One butcher slices the stomach and the guts plop into a metal wheelbarrow.
"I happen to think that the slaughter process is something that most people should watch if they're going to eat animals, and if it turns them away from animals, then that's probably a good thing," McConaughy says.
He thinks being exposed to the slaughter process helps people connect the meat on their plate to the animal it once was.
"One of the big differences with our kids versus other kids is that they very, very rarely waste anything," McConaughy says. "They understand that these animals gave their lives for us."
Paige Pfleger reports for WHYY's health and science show, The Pulse. This story originally appeared on an episode of its podcast called The Meat Show.