How We Process Our Animals

written by

Rob Dowdle

posted on

October 28, 2020

Processing animals on a small farm can be tedious and difficult. Most of us would rather avoid the topic. It is the most miserable part of farm work and also the most meaningful and important. We would rather visit a farm and see the animals, but never develop a relationship with them. No one wants to consider how that relationship ends. More conscious meat eaters will insist on animals being raised well, but we should also take great pains to ensure that animals’ lives are ended as peacefully as possible. 

Industrial processing plants are modern marvels of technology and innovation. A beef processing plant can process 100-300 cows per hour. Commercial hog processing plants can process several hundred per hour, a maximum of about 1100 per hour. Chicken processing plants measure in the thousands of birds per hour. The efficiency of these plants helps make meat cheaper, but it comes at a cost for health and food safety.

Years ago I was able to see part of a chicken processing plant. What caught me off guard was the cooling tank. USDA guidelines require chicken to be cooled to a certain temperature quickly after processing. Because processing plants process thousands of birds an hour, this is usually done with water. Because the chickens are mechanically eviscerated (pulling the intestines out of the body cavity), the intestines are often broken, spilling the contents onto the meat. When thousands of birds are cooled in the same chilling tank, the bacteria on those birds mixes and infects many other birds. Because of these bacterial loads, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes guidelines encouraging industrial plants to use specific levels of chlorine (or other forms of chlorine like chlorite) in the water to help disinfect the birds. Processing by hand may be less efficient and profitable, but it can create safer, less chemically treated meat. 

At Dowdle Family Farms, we personally process each chicken by hand. We are allowed to do this for up to 1,000 birds per year. We do this in part because we do not have a close USDA processing center for poultry. However, we also do this because we can take more care when processing our chickens. When we process by hand on the farm, it takes much longer, but we wash each chicken off after evisceration. Though we cool our chickens quickly with ice water, there are a dozen or so chickens, not thousands in our chilling tank. We do not need to use chlorine or other harmful chemical because we are more careful when we process them. I would rather pay more money for a cleaner, safer, healthier chicken than I would for a cheaper chicken then requires chlorine to make it anywhere close to safe to eat. 

In commercial pork and beef processing plants, the volume of animals that runs through the plant means that when carcasses are cut up, the cuts of meat are combined. Several studies have published results of DNA tests on a pound of ground beef. They have found DNA from several hundred different animals in one pound of ground beef. This means that if one animal is sick, its tissue is dispersed throughout many packages of beef. When I purchase ground meat - whether it be sausage, beef, or chicken – I would rather it come from one or two animals that I know are healthy. Eating a hamburger with meat from over a hundred different animals is not appealing to me. Also, when the meat from thousands of animals are placed together, it seems like we move from viewing meat as an animal that we eat for food, to a commodity. When meat is considered a commodity, we lose the distinctiveness of the animals in the process. They are no longer beings, but just marketable forms of protein. We lose a connection to the process, to the animal and to the natural cycles that have allowed humans to grow and thrive as a species. 

One of the primary benefits of having our beef and pork processed at a small, local processor is that we process in small batches. We usually take two cows at a time and two to four pigs at a time for processing. Because our animals are processed and cut by hand, there is more care given to each animal. Our beef is dry aged for 21 days before it is divided into individual cuts. Further, our ground beef and ground pork products are single sourced products. This means that they come from a single animal. We process our animals in small batches at a local processor so that when you purchase our ground meat products, you get single sourced ground meat. Not only do we believe that this is safe, but it is easier to remember that we are eating animals, an act that requires significant cost.

At Dowdle Family Farms, we go through some extra work and expense to ensure that our animals are processed safely and carefully. We think the extra time and energy is worth it to achieve a superior, safer product to eat for our family and yours.

More from the blog

Raising Happy Animals

There are a lot of reasons I farm. I have shared many of them with you. One of those reasons is that I spent a lot of time on the farm as a kid. My parents tell me that my dad changed more of my diapers on the farm than he did at home. Every time he went to the farm, I would want to go, even when it was bitterly cold. I am just now beginning to understand why I always wanted to go to the farm. I feel some sort of visceral connection to the land and its animals and plants. I cannot describe it, but in many ways working on the farm brings me to a place of communion with God, earth, and nature. The relationships that I form with the animals on the farm are an important part of why I enjoy farming so much. I enjoy watching a pig scratch its ears on a tree in the woods or root out a grub from a rotten log. I can only imagine the lives pigs and other farm animals live in confinement.I have only seen pictures of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for pigs. Also, I have read descriptions and talked to people who have farmed that way. Sensationalized reports and videos are often publicized. I remember watching a video decrying some injustice and a worker in a CAFO picked up a pig that began squealing loudly. The narrator railed against the practice of weaning a pig from its mother. The implication was the pig was squealing over the loss of its mother. Granted, the weaning process is not easy for any animal. However, anytime someone picks up a pig, they squeal loudly, very loudly. When we pick up pigs to check for health, they squeal. It is easy to overly dramatize the problems with animals, if someone is not familiar with them. The mass production of pork in CAFOs makes food production more efficient and reduces the cost of the meat for many people.For me, the primary issues with CAFOs and pigs is that the pigs have little room to exercise. They are raised on concrete to better manage the manure and prevent pigs from escaping. Their tails are docked to prevent other bored pigs from gnawing on them. The pigs are raised in an environment where their distinctiveness is not honored, rather it is suppressed. Pigs enjoy running and playing. They love rooting around in the ground and breaking apart logs looking for grubs. They enjoy an incredibly diverse diet of foods. They offer so much diversity to a farm practicing in regenerative methods of agriculture. They clean up wood lots, fertilize the land, and eat plants and weeds that other animals do not. They are amazing animals whose natural instincts provide a lot of benefits to the farm. We acquire our pigs as weaned babies and train them to our electric fence. Then we place them in wood lots and pastures with plenty of room to roam around, play and root. This video of our pigs shows some of their antics when they are happy and on pasture. The mass production of meat chickens in large barns has received a lot of attention as well. Most meat chicken that one purchases today are the same general breed and are raised in large barns with thousands of others. While this offers the chickens safety and protection from weather and predators, the manure build up in the last fourth of the chicken’s lives can become toxic as the manure dries and becomes dust. This can be harmful for both people in the barn and the chickens. I prefer raising the chickens on the pasture. We get the chicks when they are a day or two old and we place them out on pasture as soon as they are big enough and the weather permits (often within 8-10 days). We use moveable, open air pens. The pens are moved daily and towards the last couple weeks of their lives we move them twice a day for more forage. They will eat grass, clover, and bugs in addition to their GMO free feed. Their moveable pens allow us to distribute manure throughout the pasture so there is no toxic build up. It is a process that is both good for the soil and the animals.Cows in CAFOs are placed in lots open air lots where they trample mud, manure and dirt. They have no fresh grass to graze and their diets are strictly controlled. Our cows are born and bred on our farm. We raise them on pasture and they have plenty of room to run and play. Their manure is scattered through the pastures and is an asset to the farm, not a liability. Finally, we raise all of our animals ourselves. Our beef is born, bred, and raised on our farm. I know the animals individually. Our chickens come as day old birds from the hatchery. I can guarantee that they are raised on GMO-free feeds and are given no antibiotics, hormones, or steroids. Our piglets come to our farm from a breeder I know and trust. I feed them GMO free feed as well and allow them to indulge their natural tendencies. I can rest easy with my conscience knowing I am providing humanely raised and healthy animals for my table and yours.

Learning to Be Regenerative

When I moved back home and started gardening on the farm, I was shocked by how depleted the soil was. I had been gardening in our yard in Georgia for several years by this point. Over the years I had improved the quality of the soil in our yard significantly. Even though I knew this, it still surprised me because I was not thinking about it. I began making compost, raised chickens in the areas that would later become the garden, and salvaged tons and tons of leaves from town. However, the thought of doing this on 20 acres was overwhelming, much less 200 acres. Most pastures receive a lot of synthetic fertilizers, especially nitrogen. Some studies estimate that over 25% of the nitrogen applied to fields runs off into the watersheds. I have witnessed some of this on the farm. These sources of nitrogen are also expensive. The synthetic forms of fertilizers provide abundant growth immediately. Long term, however, they can build toxic amounts of nitrates in the soil and worse, they destroy soil life. Soil life - the bacteria, earthworms, and other microscopic critters – feeds on the organic matter available and helps provide natural nutrients to the plants. The plants give off root exudates which these creatures eat. They work in a symbiotic relationship. Synthetic fertilizers disrupt this cycle. If plants receive readily available synthetic nitrogen, they don’t need to work as much with soil life. If there is enough organic matter in the soil through dead plant litter, animal manures, and root exudates, synthetic fertilizers can be reduced and even eliminated.One of the ways to accomplish increase organic matter in our soils is to produce high yielding cover crops for cattle to graze. In our area one of the best of those forage crops is sorghum-Sudan grass. Sorghum-Sudan grass is a nature hybrid resulting in a cross between forage sorghum and Sudan grass. It is not genetically modified. It Is capable of producing 8-10 tons of dry matter per acre per growing season. Normal grass pastures may only produce 1-4 tons of dry matter per acre. Additionally, it is a high protein and high energy forage that helps cattle fatten more quickly. When managed properly, its roots can form a dense mat the help break up hard soils. In the summer of 2019 I planted about an acre of sorghum-Sudan grass with some cow peas and sunflowers. Initially, I put about 10 units of nitrogen per acre, a very low amount. It was a small test plot but the two cows that I was fattening performed really well on the cover crop. It was a learning process and I waited longer than I should have to graze it, but I saw amazing benefits for the quality of the cattle and the soil. It produced tons of organic matter to sequester carbon in the soil. In the summer of 2020 I planted three acres of a similar cover crop that included sorghum-Sudan grass. I used only five units of nitrogen per acre, reducing my nitrogen usage by half. I managed to get three good grazing periods on the cover crop before drought struck. The cows grazed each paddock to the ground in 3 days. In 3-4 weeks the sorghum-Sudan grass was ready to graze again. Next year, I do not plan on supplying any more nitrogen to the cover crop. A wonderful, but labor intensive way to improve the soil, is to dump leaves in the pasture. In the Fall of 2019, I put our pigs in a ¼ acre paddock in the pasture. I brought 6000-7000 bags of leaves into that paddock. The pigs rooted around in the leaves and ate the acorns, pecans, and other nuts out of the leaves. Then, in the spring I planted a forage brassica and a legume into the paddock after I moved the pigs. A year later, the soil is phenomenal. This is the most effective way I have discovered to improve soil quality quickly. However, it is labor and time consuming on a large scale.Three years ago we planted more clovers in our pastures which help convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that other plants can use. In the Fall of 2020 we ‘no till’ drilled a diverse cover crop of wheat, rye, a forage brassica, and legumes into even more of our pastures. These cover crops will sequester carbon in the soil, add organic matter, fix nitrogen, and offer a high quality forage for our livestock. In the Spring of 2021 we plan to plant sorghum Sudan grass on even more of our pastures to help improve the quality of the soils and regenerate the farm.  Many practices that create healthier animals also regenerate the soils. Rotating cows through different paddocks on the farm helps build soil, while improving animal health. Pastures tend to grow in three stages. In stage one their roots are forming and their growth is relatively slow while they are getting established. In stage two their above ground mass takes off and grows much faster. At the end of the second stage the growth slows down or plateaus to prepare for the final stage. In stage three the pasture plants begin to go to seed and they become less nutritious. The ideal time to graze a pasture or paddock is when the grass is in the final part of stage two, just before they go to seed. If the cows are moved to a new paddock before they graze it back to stage one, the grass grows back much more quickly. The pastures are more nutritious for the livestock and they can grow fast by putting more sequestering carbon into the soil, thus improving soil health. It is amazing to see how the farm is slowly regenerating on a small scale. Land that has been worn out and barely productive, even with costly inputs is slowly becoming more productive with fewer inputs. For me, this is the heart of farming. Discovering ways to work with nature, restore her to productivity and abundance is redemptive. It functions as a symbol of humanity at our best. We take the broken, the worn out, the hurting, and coax them back to life and abundance. It takes work, but that is who we are and what we do at our best. If you are interested in seeing the difference in the soil quality in our pastures, you can see our farm tour of our pastures here.

Raising Healthy Animals for Nutrion

I’ll never forget how shocking it was for me to learn that so much of the “healthy food” we eat - fruits and vegetables particularly - are nutritionally deficient. I started juicing vegetables from the grocery store, increasing my consumption by 400%, but still struggled to get the vitamins and minerals my body craved and needed. I found an article in Scientific American that suggested that the commercial production of fruits and vegetables depletes soil which then decreases the nutritional quality of the foods those soils produce (link to article below). Jo Robinson’s “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health” says that as people have selectively bred plant varieties that taste better, we have often favored strains that contain fewer nutritional elements to help fight cancer, inflammation, and other health problems. I set out on a journey to improve the quality of the foods that my family and I ate. I began growing vegetables in regenerative ways to increase the nutritional density of my food. Because we still lived in Georgia, I did not have access to land to raise our own chickens and other meats, so we purchased them from a local farmer who did. When we moved back to the farm in the summer of 2017 and started raising livestock, I began implementing regenerative practices. By this time, I had discovered that pastured animals had less saturated fat, and more of the healthier fats (Omega 3s and 6s). Further, the four chambered stomach of a cow is designed to turn grass into protein and carbohydrates. When finished on grain, cattle tend to get sick. Their digestive systems do not tolerate the high amounts of grain that they get in conventional feed lots. I knew I wanted to finish our cattle on grass. I understood some of the health benefits of grass finished cattle, but, even then, I did not know the full extent of those benefits. A study in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that animals that have eaten more diverse forage will produce healthier meat. For example, pastures contain grasses, but they also contain forbs like plantain, curly dock, chicory, and dandelions and legumes like clovers. These forbs produce deeper taproots than most grasses and are able to mine nutrients from as deep as three feet in the soil. Most pasture grass roots go no deeper than eight inches in the soil profile, so they do not have access to the minerals that are further down. Though cows will only eat small amounts of forbs, what they do eat increases the vitamins and minerals that they consume dramatically.Commercial farming operations often spray herbicides to reduce some of the “weeds” in their pastures. Most of these herbicides target broad leaf plants and kill many of the forbs and legumes, both of which are highly digestible nutrient-rich food for livestock. By avoiding the use of herbicides on the areas where we allow animals to graze, we provide them with more plant diversity.  This increases the nutrient density of the meat produced from the cattle, pigs, and chickens that graze on our pastures. When we began producing beef, we rotated our single steer through the pastures. As our herd grew, we continued this practice. The cattle are healthier and the meat tastes delicious. We have not had to use dewormers because we rotate the cows frequently and they do not graze over their own manure. We rotate our pigs less frequently than cattle. The pigs receive large wooded paddocks and some pasture as well. They are free to eat bugs and grubs, acorns and nuts, grasses and forbs, and we supplement their diet with a certified GMO-free feed (pigs and chickens do not have rumens and cannot thrive on just pasture alone). We have not had to worm our pigs (conventional producers worm them as frequently as every three weeks). Allowing our animals to eat diverse forages and rotating them frequently really pay off with healthier animals that provide more nutrition in their meat. Our pastured meat chickens receive a certified GMO-free feed to supplement their pastured diet. A study evaluating the nutritional benefits of truly pasture raised chickens compared to conventionally raised chickens showed that they had a better ratio of healthy fats (omega 3 fatty acids) and higher levels of vitamins A and E. We place our chickens out on pasture as early as possible, sometimes as soon as 8-10 days old, depending upon the weather. Initially we only move them once a day but as they grow older we begin moving them twice a day. This spreads their manure, gives them fresh forage to eat, and keeps them healthier. When chickens are moved around on pasture, not only is their manure distributed in the pastures, but the ammonia from the manure does not build up in their pens and create respiratory problems. We never give our animals hormones or steroids. We do not feed our animals antibiotics to make them grow faster. We have only used antibiotics if the animal would die without them (only one animal out of the thousand plus that we have raised has needed a dose of antibiotics). We have found that by placing our animals on pasture, giving them the healthy foods that they were born to eat, and rotating them frequently, our animals stay healthy.At Dowdle Family Farms, we raise our animals in ways that keep them healthy. We offer them diverse forages to increase their health and, in turn, produce a healthier meat product for my family and yours. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious”, Scientific American, April 27, 2011, https://www.scientificamerican... Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health (Little, Brown and Company), 2013 “Is Grassfed Meat and Diary Better for Human and Environmental Health?”, Frontiers in Nutrition, 2019