Legalizing on-farm slaughter of livestock would be more humane, benefit remote communities and beef up producers’ bottom line, say two Manitoba producers.
Recent regulatory changes in Alberta are “exactly what we’re looking for,” said Ian Thorleifson, president of the Manitoba Elk Growers Association.
On July 29, Alberta announced changes to slaughter regulations which included the creation of an on-farm slaughter operation licence. The licence allows a livestock producer to sell a live animal to a customer, and then slaughter and process that animal on farm for the customer’s household use.
The licence holder must submit quarterly reports, and is limited per year to six large, red meat animals (cattle, bison, etc.), 12 hogs, 12 sheep, 12 goats and 150 chickens or small animals like rabbits or quail, according to the Alberta government’s website.
In Manitoba meat may only be sold if slaughtered and butchered in provincially or federally inspected facilities. A livestock owner can slaughter and process an animal on farm if it’s for their personal use.
Whole, frozen poultry may be sold on farm if labelled as uninspected.
Following Alberta’s lead would increase slaughter capacity, albeit slightly, in Manitoba. After cases of COVID-19 closed two large abattoirs in Alberta, beef cattle backed up in Manitoba.
Direct-marketing meat producers reported an uptick in sales, but said Manitoba’s slaughtering facilities were struggling to keep up.
Cartwright-area beef producers Michelle Shram and Troy Stozek told the Co-operator small abattoirs were booking into the fall and said if their abattoir closed due to COVID-19, they’d “probably be out of luck.”
They knew many producers who could finish their own beef, said Shram, but they’d have a hard time to find someone to process it.
In May, Direct Farm Manitoba, which represents small farms and food producers, called for the province to “begin planning now for some restricted form of on-farm processing of pork, beef and bison in the event of further restrictions to the large-scale processors.”
It also asked for the province to increase quota limits for small-flock poultry.
Changing regulations may create an entry point for new producers, said Lydia Carpenter, but also provide a legal way of selling meat in remote communities that can’t access an abattoir.
“If it occurred to somebody, somebody had some fat cattle they wanted to direct market. Now they wouldn’t be able to access a spot,” said Carpenter, who raises grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken near Belmont.
Carpenter said her local abattoir is booking into next year. She’s not interested in farm killing — she sells too many animals, and has a long-standing relationship with an abattoir and butchering facility within a short drive from her farm. However, she said for some, provincial plants are too far away and once the animal is killed, the producer might have to transport it again to a butcher shop.
It might seem more realistic for these producers to quietly farm kill and sell the meat to their friends and family.
“To suggest that farmers butchering an animal and distributing it to their friends and neighbours is illegal, I think doesn’t really serve the community very well,” said Carpenter. “If the province wants to see a more scaled approach to food security issues, then it’s going to have to create scale-appropriate regulation to address that.”
Thorleifson said there’s growing demand from consumers to see the animal and meet the farmer before purchasing, while others would prefer to slaughter the animal themselves for ethnic or religious reasons.
This has led some producers to go to great lengths to meet the letter of the law, said Thorleifson, citing an example in Minnesota in which a producer “leases” his land to the customer so they can slaughter the animal they bought on their “own” land.
Slaughtering on farm, particularly for undomesticated animals like elk, is also more humane, said Thorleifson.
The animals are more relaxed on their home turf, writes Thorleifson in a recent handbook on elk production. He cites a 2020 study on bison by Jessica Janssen of South Dakota State University which showed a dramatic difference in cortisol (a stress-related hormone) between farm-killed and abattoir-killed animals.
How they were killed also had a slight impact on meat quality, Janssen notes in her paper.
The producer also doesn’t have to pay slaughter fees if killing on farm.
Carpenter acknowledged that meat inspection and oversight are necessary, but a one-size-fits-all approach driven by large, federally inspected facilities makes things tough for small communities. She said she’s seen many small-town butchers and abattoirs close, partially because of a shrinking rural population, and in part because of an inability to keep up with a rapidly changing system.
She suggested that extension, rather than inspection should be Manitoba’s approach to on-farm slaughter. The government could recognize that local meat is important to communities and provide guidelines and instruction on how to do it safely.
Thorleifson said while he agrees with Alberta’s new regulation, he disagrees that farmers should have to buy licences to slaughter their own animals and sell them to one customer.
“To me it’s just an unnecessary regulation,” he said.
He added that regulations should not include requirements to have the animal restrained, as this would cause the animal stress and defeat the purpose of a more humane kill.
“All farmers want to treat their animals well, and they make more money if they treat their animals well,” Thorleifson said.
Manitoba Beef Producers is interested in looking into Alberta’s new regulations and discussing them with the province, said general manager Carson Callum. No members have specifically brought it forward as a way to market beef, Callum added.
A spokesperson from Ag Minister Blaine Pedersen’s office told the Co-operator, “We are aware of the Alberta approach and are looking at the specifics.”
The province will be developing food- and meat-processing regulations through Bill 45, which amends the Public Health Act, the spokesperson said. This will include consultation with “industry stakeholders,” they said and will prioritize food safety and animal welfare.
Pedersen introduced Bill 45 on March 19, when it passed its first reading. It has not been proclaimed into law.
Pedersen told the legislature the bill “clarifies that food safety is a public health issue,” according to provincial records.
The bill itself doesn’t mention on-farm slaughter.