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Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Deaths of Two Buddies


Last week two of The Angus Boys met their maker. We built a corral for their demise, and they walked right into its confines, waiting calmly.  They didn't know the end of their lives was about to happen, and that was fine with us.

But let me back up this story and tell you how this all came about: After reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Pollan's other book, In Defense of Food, I became more aware of what we were eating (ask Tom about my food lectures), and when we moved to this Northern New Mexico ranch, we decided to buy foods from as close to where we live as possible.

The Omnivore's Dilemma follows the food trails for four different meals. One food trail Pollan travels is the industrial food chain, based mainly on corn. His visit to a feedlot should be read by every meat-eater in order to understand where our industrialized meat comes from.

He contrasts this with a pastoral way of producing food, visiting small, local farms where animals are humanely raised and slaughtered. There, the consumers know their farmers.  Pollan calls it “relationship marketing,” in which customers' personal relationships with the farmer from whom they purchase their food will cause farmers to possess greater integrity and produce higher quality products.

 Enter The Angus Boys:

April 2011
 We bought our steers mainly to keep the grass on our property down, which would protect the house from wildfires. The break we received on the property tax (for grazing animals) was an added bonus. I considered the steers a mowing squad with benefits.

All along, though, I reminded myself that these steers would be meat someday. That didn't stop me from naming the first steers we bought: Mignon and Sir Loin. The Black Angus fellows came a few weeks later and were identified with ear tags, so they were called by their numbers.

Mignon and #31 were the personality kids: curious and friendly. They were the leaders of the Boys, and that's why we decided to kill them first. They got the axe first not to punish them, because to me, punishing them would be to put them in a truck and take them to an auction, after which they would probably end up at a feedlot eating corn (which cattle are not evolved to eat), getting a stomach ache, diarrhea and infected eyes and wondering what the heck they did to deserve such treatment. I wanted them to have a humane death. That sounds like an oxymoron, but read Pollan's book and you will understand what I mean.

So the Mobile Matanza truck came last week from Taos. It's run through a federal grant in cooperation with the Taos Economic Development Corporation. The Matanza Unit provides jobs for the butchers and inspectors and allows farmers to go direct to market, eliminating the middlemen and making small farming more profitable and more attractive to folks living in the area. Many ranchers out here are "land rich" and "cash poor, " so any way they can save on transportation and intermediary costs is a good thing for them.

On the left is Marlene, one of the butchers. Right: USDA Inspector Philip

The Mascot, who had a skinny figure even though he travels with a butcher shop
 Philip, the USDA inspector who travels with the unit, says there are sixteen mobile slaughter units operating in the United States. Nine of those are USDA-inspected. Throughout the entire process, the inspector watched and sometimes took notes. He monitored the outside temperature, checked the welfare of the cattle, watched to ensure that the killing was humane and monitored the cleanliness of the butchering.

His professional watchfulness over only two cattle made me realize that at a large meat facility, this kind of thoroughness probably doesn't happen. And that's why there are all those e-coli watchoutforthemeat! recalls.

The steers were waiting. Their buddies were hanging out, herd animals to the end.

They were shot using a .22 Magnum rifle and immediately went down. Mignon's legs twitched a little, but the inspector said that sometimes happened. He was brain-dead as soon as the bullet hit. Their jugular veins were cut and there was lots of blood. I didn't think you would like that part, so there are no photos. Chains were attached to the legs and the carcass was winched into the truck.

Now here's the part that surprised me: As soon as they were dead, I was not as sad for them. Their spirits had left their bodies, and from that point on, Mignon and Number 31 were just meat. When I die, I will leave the same way, and only my shell will be left.

A steer is in the truck now

Then the butchers went to work, removing the hooves, head, hide, and guts. Those they left at the ranch and we had to decide what to do with them. We took the cheeks off the heads to marinate for an upcoming dinner. Everything else was left for the coyotes, ravens, magpies and crows. And the vultures.

MBB and I took a look into the butchering process. MBB said, "Dexter." I heard the "Sweeney Todd" song over and over in my head.

The butchers carefully sawed the carcass in two and moved it into the refrigerated room just behind them. There it was cleaned with organic apple cider and will be transported to the cut and wrap facility in Taos. I have a "cut sheet" to order the steaks, roasts, and other stuff we want cut to order. We will keep a half beef and I've sold three quarters so far.

Marlene, one of the butchers, had me sign some paperwork when they arrived and asked me how I was doing. I confessed to being sad and she said that was normal. But she told me to keep this in mind: "These steers had a good life here," she said. "You saw to their welfare and took good care of them. Now they will be taking care of you."

Thanks, Mignon and Number 31.


  1. what a lovely post! i am mourning and celebrating mignon and #31 at the same time. thanks for the insight into responsible husbandry. this is the way it's suppose to be. keep on keeping on! theer

  2. How fascinating! This takes me back to my college days at Texas Tech, when I dated a guy who spent his summers pig farming in Knox City. I went out to visit, and "met" a sow who was to be slaughtered soon. He later gave me some of the sausage--some of the best I ever ate. Thanks for an interesting story.

  3. I thank you for this. I had steak last night and really enjoyed it. I looked through the meat section at Safeway today and I did not need to have any today. I think it's important to listen to your body. I had Gratin I made last night from mostly cauliflower and some golden potatoes. I also had salad.
    When I have meat I don't go unconscious anymore when I eat it.
    I am glad your animals had a good life, most don't.
    Mary Fleming

  4. I've never done what you did. I love animals, as anyone who knows me can attest, but I make all the usual jokes about them: " I love animals — they're delicious!", and "What's my favorite animal? Fried chicken!" But those are jokes about animals that I've never seen or had a personal relationship with. I prefer to maintain my comfy position at the top of the food chain, but if I had to eat what were essentially household pets, I would almost certainly eat less meat. Obviously I don't condemn in any what what you did. I'm merely acknowledging how difficult it is and what a different lifestyle you're in now from the first *@#& years of your life.

  5. I almost didn't read this as everyone who knows me knows how I feel about animals and it seemed as though I came to know Mignon from your blog. I am glad I finally read it though. You did a wonderful job of explaining it even though I still have tears in my eyes.

  6. Thanks for your comments, folks. This was a difficult post to write. I think the whole process would have been worse if I had raised them from babies. Donald, our neighbor who sold us the Black Angus cattle, didn't even want to look. His name for #31 was Besitos, which means little kisses, the sound the newborn calf made when his wife was feeding him from a bottle.

    Donald says he has a hard time giving up his cattle, but his wife says it's time.

  7. Richard said, you did it right. You have his approval.


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