If you're reading this you’re probably a considerate carnivore, so this is to re-assure you. If you’re reading this because you’re a vegetarian, this is also intended to re-assure you. If you're reading this because you're a vegan, well, I hope you can be re-assured about us, if not everything we do.
This woman Helen Browning, the glorious boss here, puts the animal first in her farming systems. The pigs in particular are a model for others to look at and copy – and plenty of people rearing pigs across mainland EU would do well to copy her, we think.
That said, how do we go from sentient beings to packets of bacon and sausages in a way that makes us comfortable with the whole process? I want to make pigs the example here, since they are the most significant part of the business. This is long winded and designed to answer as many questions as you might have.
The life of our Saddleback pigs
The piglet is born outdoors, often unattended, at any time of day or night, into a pig arc (corrugated steel roof on a wooden frame, could sleep 8 adults intimately) with a huge amount of clean straw. There could be as many as 12/14 piglets born to any one sow at a time. The arcs are ranged across the top of the farm, always on 'clean' land.
The staff, usually Chris Neale in charge of the breeding herd, will see every pig at least twice per day. He knows which sows are likely to farrow each day/week, so will pay special attention to them on his morning and afternoon feeding rounds.
(We have chosen Saddleback sows over the past 25 years because basically they just get on with it. They don't nancy around, motherhood is ingrained in them – it has not been bred out of them. We've tried other sows and they just want too much attention! They don't like the cold, or the snow, or the sun, or their piglets--the less highly tuned the better, we find).
After 8 weeks or so, the piglets leave their mother and are separated into single sex grower groups. Mother is pretty pleased about this; sorry to lapse into anthropomorphic speak.
The piglets are then grown on for another four months or so, outside, big social groups, and then are selected according to their growth rates and size for the slaughter process. We slaughter about 70 per week from this farm.
Transportation to slaughter
For a few days the pigs are inside huge straw bedded, open sided barns, with outside runs for feeding and dunging. On the appointed day, usually a Wednesday afternoon, Gerald Cox (he has hauled livestock for us for at least 20 years) arrives with his huge livestock transporter and trailer. We have a gentle loading ramp for the pigs to ascend; the floor of the lorry and the ramp has straw generously scattered over it; the pigs are encouraged up the ramp and onto the lorry, and there is always a bit of a scrum as one pig goes ahead, then changes its mind, then another one takes the lead, and others follow, then it changes its mind a bit further up. There's not really fear involved here – its more curiosity, and slight nervousness about change, then finding out it's nothing special, or there's no more food up there than there was down there (inevitably).
If we are moving a huge load, there are two decks to use, so we do not overcrowd them. There is space to move, turn around, lie down, and, yes, sleep. They do sleep on these journeys. I do sometimes see them at the other end, and they have to be occasionally encouraged to get up, get awake.
The journey is about 37.5 miles, one hour, to Laverstoke. Here, they are greeted by the resident lairage manager, and again offloaded gently, onto concrete floors covered in straw. The lairage, all aspects, was designed by the American high priestess of these things, Temple Grandin – her own outlook on life has been coloured by mild autism; her books and writings will give you an insight into why she seems to know her animal behaviour.
Our pigs, and those from other organic farms, have their own spacious pens in the lairage; there is water for them, and they are provided with some feed for their overnight stay. Again, I often go down early on the slaughter morning, Thursdays, just to check that we can be happy with the state of the pigs at this stage, and sometimes the sound of silence as you drive in at 7am is remarkable. You are within 20 ft of possibly 200 pigs and you can hear nothing. Some of them are asleep.
The pigs are moved pen by pen, down comfortable alleys, with rounded corners, no sharp edges, and separated into groups of five at the stunning pen. Two people in the stunning pen, no raised voices, no noisy equipment, and each animal is electrically stunned. The only concern for the pigs at this stage is the presence of two new people - my simple analysis of the situation is that the sight of the death of a fellow pig does not register with the other pigs, since they have no concept of death. (possibly a different time and place for this discussion...)
From stunning, they are hoisted into the slaughter hall, bled, and then the whole process of preparing the carcase begins. Anyone who wants more of this ought to give me a call.
Twenty four hours later, the butchery begins. More than half our fresh pork goes straight to a major German customer – they also make our Speedy Sausages and Organic Hot Dogs from this pork; and the rest of the carcase goes to Direct Table in Suffolk, who make the back and streaky bacon you find in Sainsbury's and Budgen's; with ribs going to Chicago Rib Shack in London; and various other cuts finding their way into local butchers, local food manufacturers and of course, The Royal Oak, our own pub here on the farm.