If you raise livestock intended for market, you’ll probably need to take animals to a processor that’s certified for a market-bound product. Requirements for different destinations vary by state—to sell at a farm market might require something different than selling to grocery stores across state lines, for instance—but in most cases, if you sell meat to third-party customers, you need a processor.
Processors vary from small-scale abattoirs to full-blown slaughterhouses certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so check your city and state laws for what processing services fit your intentions. Although rules vary, some things stand true regardless. The process isn’t always intuitive—on our farm, we learned a lot the hard way. So today I pass along pointers for folks who’ve never loaded a processor-bound trailer as well as those who still feel uncomfortable with how it works.
1. Plan Ahead With the Processor
Long before rolling up with animals in tow, set your date for delivery with the processor. Some slaughterhouses do different animals in different seasons, and scheduling can get busy once the season is under way. Do your best to determine when your animals will be ready to take in, then contact your chosen processor to reserve the date for your delivery. Often, this means calling ahead, though some have websites that display available dates and the option to reserve time.
You also need to know what your order will be—that is, how you want your animals butchered. Spend some time studying the different cuts available to decide what cuts and processed products you want.
2. Choose the Time of Day for Delivery
Some processors offer drop-off flexibility for farmers who have limited hours to devote to farming. In general, this means you can drop off animals before the processor closes in the afternoon or first thing in the morning. For our first pigs, we delivered the evening before. We were glad we wouldn’t need to load animals before dawn the next morning, but late that night, we worried: Would our pigs, hand-raised over seven months on expensive organic feed, be OK overnight?
They were. Nonetheless, we did our later deliveries in the morning so our pigs’ “one bad day” would be as short as possible. What’s more, one morning when we dropped off our hardy Berkshires, we saw the processor’s staff hauling away the carcass of a pig that had expired in the pen overnight. Realizing that was someone’s loss of a full-grown pig, we felt better about our 4:30 a.m. rise time and loading in the dark. (Eventually we did start loading pigs into the trailer at night.)
3. Beware of “Tricky Business”
While you do eventually get the hang of taking animals to the processor, one tricky bit of business always looms. Like it or not, the act of converting animals into food happens behind closed doors, away from farmers’ eyes. This opens the potential for dirty dealing—you’ll be hard pressed to find a processor who has not been accused of delivering the wrong animal, keeping some cuts for the house, or both.
What can you do? While I’ve heard of farmers performing DNA tests on their animals to check against the packaged product they get in return, some easier safeguards exist.
First, always check the cut sheet against what you get in return. Yes, this means counting hundreds of frozen, vacuum-packed meat products, but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come up short and called the processor only to be told that they they’d failed to deliver a box of chops to the delivery floor. Also, you can roughly determine what your yield rate should be against your hanging weight based on animal and breed—once you get it down, you’ll know when something’s not right. Finally, if you’re concerned about getting back the wrong animal, consider raising a breed that yields a distinctive meat. We raise Berkshire pigs and Dexter cattle, both of which break down to deep, rich-colored cuts—if we get a pale pork chop or a grayish-looking steak, we know to question it.