Photo by Steve Fowler
Thursdays and Fridays are kill days,” says Greg Stratton, glancing in the sideview mirror as his pickup truck jostles down a back road near the New York–Massachusetts line. “Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we’re in the cut shop.”
Today is a Thursday.
“We’ve got two beef this morning, and this afternoon we’ve another two beef.”
Stratton, a sturdy man with a crew cut, a matter-of-fact manner of speech, and a “bad habit of chewing tobacco,” owns and operates Stratton’s Custom Meats, a slaughterhouse, butcher shop, and smokehouse in Hoosick Falls, about 35 minutes northeast of Albany.
Stratton’s is not the only cut shop in the area, but it’s the only one that offers a mobile slaughter service to clients. Using a pickup truck outfitted with a crane, he and his team travel to farms with cows, pigs, and other ruminants within a 100-mile radius, stretching as far south as Dutchess County.
When bringing their products to market, livestock farmers have three options: their animals can be slaughtered in a federally inspected facility, which permits them to be sold in retail cuts and viable for interstate commerce; they can use a state-inspected facility, which again permits the sale of retail cuts, but strictly for intrastate commerce. (Only 27 states permit state-inspected facilities; New York is not one of them.) Or they can use a custom-slaughter facility for personal consumption of meat. These facilities are exempt from inspection, except for recordkeeping and sanitation requirements.
Federally-inspected facilities far outnumber any other kind of facility, accounting for more than 98 percent of all U.S. beef, pig, and chicken slaughter, and close to 90 percent of all lamb and sheep slaughter. The majority of this work is done by industrial operations, which can slaughter upwards of 2,500 cattle a day.
All of which is to say that custom slaughter is something of a niche business.
And mobile slaughter units, or “MSUs,” like Stratton’s make up an even more niche corner of the customer slaughter market. There are those who contest that without regular oversight, custom slaughter allows greater risk of inhumane or unsanitary conditions, since there is no USDA official present to monitor the process. For Stratton, however, it allows for exactly the opposite. By eliminating the transportation of animals to a foreign environment, mobile slaughter helps “reduce the amount of stress on the animal,” he explains, “which is kind of what we’re all about.”
Aside from the journey to a slaughterhouse, other stressors for animals include lairage, where they are kept prior to slaughter and problems like overcrowding, suffocation, and injuries arise; the “stench of death” in the facility, as Stratton describes it; the chute they travel down; and ultimately, stunning: a process that, when done properly, renders the animal unconscious and insensitive to pain, and when done improperly, is definitively worse.
These stressors contribute to poor meat quality, particularly defects like Pale Soft Exudative and Dark Firm Dry meats, which frankly, are as appealing as they sound.
Stratton says the stress derives from how intelligent animals are. Cows can distinguish strangers by their voices, and the smartest may even remember a gun.
At Ziembra Farm, he greets his customers in hushed tones, before reconvening with his crew, Nicholas and Nicole, for the job. He pulls on a set of Grundéns overalls, grabs a pair of earmuffs out of a side compartment on the truck, and loads the rifle. Around the corner of the barn, three cows — two black, one white — stand in an enclosed pen. He confirms which of them are the targets, then Nicholas opens the gate, and he stalks in.
All three cows shrink back into a corner of the enclosure. With the rifle lowered, Stratton approaches, taking deliberate steps. As if crossing an invisible tripwire, the animals suddenly begin to shuffle, and he stops in his tracks. Feet planted, he raises the scope to his eye and settles. The target is an area on the forehead —about the size and shape of an inverted maple leaf — where the skull is thinnest and grants instantaneous unconsciousness.
The rifle cracks and the larger of the two black cows drops to the ground. Spooked, the others clomp to the far side of the enclosure, but there is nowhere to go, and they freeze, staring down Stratton, who pivots on one foot, never lowering the gun or his gaze, and in a matter of seconds, he fires once more and it is done.
Nicholas scurries over to the second cow and slides a knife along her throat, while the white cow is led back into the barn. A cloud of steam rises into the crisp morning and a pool of blood stains the snow. It’s critical to cut the arteries at this point, so that the heart — which will continue beating for another two minutes — can drain the body of blood.
The team then sets about skinning the cows, Stratton on one, Nicholas and Nicole on the other. They cut back the hide from hooves, which are then removed. Stratton inserts a gambrel through the tibia and fibula of each leg, then hoists the animal using the crane on his pickup truck, allowing the team to work vertically and minimize contact with the ground. The stomach and intestines, prone to bursting, must be extracted quickly to avoid contamination. The head is removed and the brisket is sawed in half, as is the rest of the animal, until it hangs in two half pieces.
The beef is loaded into the truck and transported back to the cut shop to be cleaned, aged, and processed. Unlike most supermarket meat, which is wet aged and sealed in vacuum packed containers, Stratton dry ages his meat over the course of two weeks. This allows the enzymes in the muscle to tenderize the tissue. During this time there is also significant water loss — the main difference from wet-aging — which, for lack of a better word, beefs up the flavor.
Due to USDA regulations, meat products produced by custom slaughter cannot enter the marketplace. This restricts Stratton’s customer base to farmers who consume the meat themselves or customers who buy the meat “on the hoof” — by the whole, half, or quarter of an animal. It’s not a process suitable for mass consumption, since most consumers don’t possess adequate freezer space and prefer to cook more familiar retail cuts. Many people have come to even prefer wet-aged meat, since it is what they’re used to consuming. But for Stratton’s customers, an old-school custom slaughter facility — especially a mobile one — makes all the difference.
“Our customers raise their animals for a purpose, which is to end up on their table,” he says. “But most love having animals and taking care of them and just want to see the end be as humane as possible.”