Keeping it close to home: Allowing on-farm slaughter for buyers
Five things to keep in mind for health, safety, liability and happy customers.

By Sandra K. Miller

October 12, 2006: In 1994 after years of war, three brothers—Stjepan, Zlatko and Dzevat—left the Bosnian countryside near the Serbian border where their family had farmed as long as anyone could remember.

“The war, it destroyed our farm, our way of life. We took our families to the United States so our children would be safe,” said the eldest brother in a heavy accent as he anxiously glanced toward the barnyard where the calves were standing. “But here, in the grocery store, veal is too expensive for us to eat like we did in Bosnia and they don’t sell the, how you say, the things you throw out.”

Earlier that day, I had received a call from the owner of a European market catering to immigrants where less than a week previously I had posted a business card on their bulletin board. “You have veal?” she asked. Indeed I did, but the calves were about 100 pounds shy of my normal butcher weight, I explained. “No, we want them that size,” she replied, and I gave her directions to the farm. Within hours, the three brothers had arrived.

After we agreed on a price, they fashioned a halter out of a piece of baling twine and began leading the calf toward their SUV that had been lined with plastic sheeting in the back. “Is OK we take live calf? We want to butcher.”

Veal calves are fairly new to our farm on which meat goats are the primary crop. After hearing stories from some of our goat customers about neighbors calling the police during a backyard butchering, we began allowing on-site slaughtering to experienced customers. I offered the three brothers the same opportunity after seeing they were prepared to butcher at home—a large ice chest, buckets, a bone saw and knives were stashed in the back seat.

“Is OK?” Their faces lit up. With the deftness of any professional butcher, the three brothers had slaughtered, cleaned and quartered the calf in less than an hour. Not even a feed sack of offal was left after they packaged up as much of the calf as possible, including the head, feet and most of the innards.

Their smiles, warm handshakes and promises to return proved they were satisfied customers. The cash in hand with minimal expenses was confirmation that the decision to allow customers to slaughter on-site added to the profitability of my livestock venture.

Many customers also want to be able to slaughter “kosher” or “halal,” which are religious dietary laws for Jews and Muslims. But, with the influx of immigrants, a number of urban areas have passed ordinances banning backyard butchering. Residents of Sanford and Monroe, two North Carolina cities, face a $50 fine if caught slaughtering within the town limits.

Many immigrants, like the Hmong from southern East Asia, have strong cultural beliefs regarding fresh meat. Txong Pao Lee, executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, explains that Hmong women routinely consume fresh meat the first month after having a baby for health reasons.

Not for everyone

Be advised—allowing on-farm slaughter is not for everyone. There are a number of considerations to take into account before choosing to provide the opportunity for customers to slaughter on-site.

The first and most important: Can you mentally deal with slaughtering? If you routinely butcher your own livestock or even game, then letting customers butcher their own animals won’t pose much of an emotional dilemma.

“Although we eat our lamb, we’d always taken it to the butcher shop,” said Betty Anderson, who had raised market lambs for nearly 20 years. She only allowed customers to slaughter on-farm in accordance with their religious laws once. “I didn’t want to watch and they were quick about it, but seeing the blood in the grass bothered me and my dogs got into what they left [the offal] making a terrible mess,” she said when explaining why she didn’t allow further on-farm slaughter.

If you are comfortable letting customers dispatch and clean livestock on your farm after they buy it from you, here are five things to keep in mind for health, safety, liability and happy customers:

1. Withhold feed for 24 hours. Prior to any slaughtering, especially on-farm, keep the animal off feed for 24 hours prior but provide access to water. Because many customers will want to keep the stomach and intestines, this will make cleaning much easier.

2. Provide a site that is clean, grassy and discrete. Provide customers with a dust-free area with good drainage for their slaughter location. A grassy area is recommended to avoid contamination with dirt or manure. It’s also a good idea to slaughter out-of-site of herd mates.

3. Provide tools, table and waste collection. Any successful businessperson will tell you that happy customers return. After reaching out to customers interested in slaughtering on-farm, we’ve provided additional tools to enhance their ability to complete their job with efficiency, safety and cleanliness. This includes a place to properly hang the carcass for cleaning, running water, containers for offal, a sanitized table (preferably stainless steel) for on-the-spot cleaning of organs and entrails, and waste disposal.

We also go the extra mile by providing specialized items. For example, the first time our Moroccan customers slaughtered at the farm, they asked if it was OK to build a little fire on the ground to burn the hair off of the head to make it easier to prepare for cooking. We provided an old Weber grill that was scheduled to be on the next trip to the landfill.

4. Keep different holiday dates in mind. Understand that many ethnic customers’ holidays do not follow the Western calendar. Consider that the Muslim calendar is 11 days shorter, meaning their holidays will appear earlier as the years progress.

In addition to holidays, customers who are happy with your meat may ask to slaughter several times a year to provide year-round meat to their families. On-farm butchering in America traditionally occurs in the late fall when temperatures drop to the 40s during the day. When customers slaughter in warmer weather, require them to come prepared with chests stocked with lots of ice for cooling down carcasses to prevent spoilage.

5. Know your customers—and your risk. Don’t allow anyone who does not know what they are doing to slaughter on your farm. According to Farm Bureau Insurance, allowing on-farm slaughter is a slippery slope of liability.

After a survey of several insurance companies offering agricultural policies, none of them underwrote any type of policy covering customers who slaughtered on-farm. The companies suggested separate coverage for a commercial butchering operation, which would be cost-prohibitive to a small-scale family farm and thus would prevent the customers themselves from butchering.

Get to know your customers before making the decision. In most cases, you’ll find that those customers wanting to do their own butchering are quite experienced. Ultimately, the decision to allow on-farm slaughtering for is a personal choice.