Farmers, , , , , " />

The end of the line

Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator,2008.06.06

It’s Friday, May 9. I didn’t need my alarm clock this morning. I was wide awake by 4 a.m.

I admit that I was a little apprehensive. This is Piggy’s last day. This morning, he’s being shipped from the Littlejohns’ farm in the hamlet of Glen Morris to Great Lakes Specialty Meats, a small packing plant in Mitchell, about half an hour north of London.

After five and a half months on this earth, Piggy goes outdoors for the first time today. Oddly enough, his first trip outside will also be his last.

My short-lived career as Ontario’s smallest pig farmer is about to come to an end.

WE WERE at the farm by 5:45 a.m. — Bud, Henry, Brian, me.

Friday is usually shipping day at the Littlejohn farm, and the first load of hogs needs to be ready shortly after 6.

Piggy’s going to be taking a ride on the Littlejohns’ pig bus, an old yellow school bus01 that’s been converted to move hogs off the farm property to meet the transport truck that will be headed to the slaughterhouse.

It’s a biosecurity measure. Farm owner Curtiss Littlejohn requires the pig transport trucks to park about half a kilometre away on a country sideroad to help ensure that no diseases get passed inadvertently back to his herd from the hauler.

All the seats have been taken out of the pig bus and the back door has been removed and replaced with an iron grate that slides up and down. The floor is covered with a pungent mix of manure and shavings, and the windows are liberally coated with slobber.

On shipping days, the pig bus gets backed up to a narrow loading chute at the end of the hallway between two of the finishing barns.

A day earlier, barn manager Bud Saunders and his co-workers Henry Sietzema and Brian Davies walked through the barns and sorted more than 100 hogs that were ready to be shipped.

Those that had reached close to 110 kilograms, or about 240 pounds, were identified with a line of spray paint01 down their backs, then segregated for the night in one of the barns.

Piggy weighed in at 241 pounds. His time was up.

Our first task in the morning was to release some of the hogs from the barn into the hallway that leads to the loading chute.

Before the animals can be herded onto the pig bus, they need to have a number tattooed on their right shoulder. The number is specific to the Littlejohns’ farm, and it allows the hogs to be tracked through the processing plant.

Saunders grabs the handle of a tool that looks a bit like a hammer. The other end is coated in green paint, which Saunders reapplies periodically with a small brush.

Saunders stands next to the wall and when a hog runs past, he slaps the tattooing tool against the animal’s skin.

There were 47 hogs counted out for the morning’s first load and Piggy was one of them.

Once they’d been tattooed, we herded the hogs into the loading chute and onto the bus.

The chute is often the bottleneck in the process as the hogs jam themselves into every inch of available space, creating a screeching, unmoving pile of pigs.

The noise is deafening and some of the hogs try to clamber over the backs of others. Sometimes a battery-powered electric prod is used break the logjam and get pigs moving.

After Piggy and the other 46 hogs were safely on the pig bus, I jumped aboard and pulled down the back grate, and we drove off to meet the transport truck.

WHEN WE arrive at the sideroad, Tom Vollmer of Baxter Transport is already waiting for us.

Vollmer’s a little perplexed to see a newspaper reporter and photographer, both dressed in farm coveralls, ready to herd pigs onto his truck. I explain our project.

“Ah, so you’ve just said goodbye to your 50 bucks, too, eh?” he says with a wry smile, a reference to the economic crisis plaguing Ontario’s hog producers.

Vollmer has been driving pig transport trucks for more than 20 years, and today, he’ll be taking a load of 174 hogs, including Piggy, to the Great Lakes packing plant, about an hour away in Mitchell.

These are not happy times for Vollmer, for any number of reasons.

He’s a farmer as well as a truck driver. He raises 40 beef cows in Kenilworth, a dot on the map halfway between Arthur and Mount Forest on Highway 6.

Some of the fundamental problems faced by pig farmers — high feed costs coupled with low prices for meat — are also crushing cattle farmers.

“I don’t know why pork is at the centre of it all,” Vollmer says. “Beef cattle is just as bad.”

He’s lost as much as $400 on a single steer and says that losses of $200 a head are not unusual now.

This year was the first time that Vollmer has put one of his own steers in the freezer.

“I got tired of giving them away,” he says, a hint of weariness in his voice.

As if that’s not enough, his wife is fighting cancer. It started out as lung cancer, then she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

The doctors told them that they cleared away most of it and based on her latest examination, they expect she’ll soon be cancer-free. But Vollmer is still nervous and, frankly, a bit skeptical.

In the past, he has hauled pigs as far as Tennessee. Now he stays closer to home to be near his wife.

Davies backs the pig bus into position up against the rear of Vollmer’s transport truck, then Sietzema lifts the grate so the pigs can be transferred.

Occasionally, Davies says, people will stop their cars on the side road and yell abuse at the workers as the hogs are being moved from the bus to the transport truck.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “We’ve even had people call the cops.”

Within minutes, the 47 hogs are transferred from the bus to the double-decker truck.

The hauler can accommodate more than 200 market-size hogs, so there’s plenty of space for today’s load of 174.

Overcrowding on trucks can cause stress problems, even death, for pigs, especially on long-haul trips to the United States that can last 10 hours or more.

Scientific studies have shown that a density of more than two hogs per square metre can lead to increased levels of stress markers in the blood and higher mortality.

Vollmer said it’s not often he has to deal with an animal that died during a trip. That’s a good thing, he added, because he’s the one who has to drag it out of the truck, and he’s got a bad back.

“When was the last time you had one die on the truck?” I asked Vollmer.

“Oh geez, I can’t even remember,” he said. “It’s gotta be at least a year ago, maybe more.”

I’M AT Great Lakes Specialty Meats on the outskirts of Mitchell.

It’s a small processing plant with 60 to 70 employees, and they handle around 1,000 hogs a day.

At Great Lakes, the hogs are slaughtered and the carcasses are broken down to larger primal cuts, then boxed and shipped off to other processors in Canada and the States.

That’s where the larger pieces will be transformed into the familiar cuts of meat that you find in the supermarket — pork chops, ribs, tenderloins, hams and bacon.

Some of the larger packing plants, such as Maple Leaf Foods and American giant Smithfield, take care of all the processing, right down to the individual packages for store shelves.

Piggy’s truck has arrived at the Great Lakes unloading dock, and Vollmer hops down from the cab.

“Remember I told you a story back at Curtiss’s place?” he said, a sheepish grin on his face as he walks toward me. “Remember I told you how long it had been since I had one die on the truck?”

“Oh no,” I said. “I didn’t jinx you, did I?”

“Yep,” he said.

One of Littlejohn’s hogs died in transit. The animal just happened to be lying in front of the truck’s back door, so Vollmer had to drag it off to the side and out of the way before the rest of the hogs could be unloaded.

From Vollmer’s truck, Piggy and the rest of the hogs are led inside to a row of holding pens, where they’ll wait until it’s time to make their final march up the chute.

THERE’S NO easy way to write about killing.

The Great Lakes plant uses a state-of-the-art stunning system developed by Butina, a Danish company.

In days gone by, pigs were stunned either with a jolt of electricity applied through a pair of electrodes or with a captive rod-like bolt shot from a pistol between the eyes.

But neither of those methods is completely reliable, which led to the development of a more humane alternative.

Most large processing plants now stun hogs in a carbon dioxide gassing chamber.

The Butina system at Great Lakes is like a small ferris wheel with four cars. It’s designed to take advantage of the pig’s natural herding instincts.

Unlike cattle, which prefer to walk in single file, pigs like to move in a bunch.

Once the pigs enter the final chute, an automatic gate behind them advances steadily forward, forcing the animals to walk ahead.

The doors of the Butina car open like the doors of an elevator, the pigs walk in as a group, the doors close and the car drops down into the carbon dioxide chamber.

After about three minutes breathing in carbon dioxide at a concentration of 80 to 90 per cent, the pigs become deeply anesthetized and slump to the floor of the car.

The car then spins another quarter turn, the back side opens and the hogs slide down a stainless steel ramp into a catchment area.

At this point, the hogs are still alive but unconscious, and their bodies appear to be lifeless.

A worker then places the loop of a chain around the back right hoof of the hog and the chain is pulled up into an overhead track, holding the hog upside down.

A few feet away, another worker kills the animal with a quick stab of his knife into the centre of the pig’s throat. The animal’s blood drains into a stainless steel trough.

After 20 minutes in a steam tunnel to soften the skin for hair removal, the bristles are detached by their roots with spinning brushes that look like those in a car wash. Any hairs still left are burned off with a quick burst of flames. The carcass is then eviscerated, split lengthwise into two halves with a band saw and weighed so that the farmer’s payment can be calculated.

At 11:44 a.m., the doors to the Butina car opened and Piggy walked inside.

Head down, he sniffed the floor from side to side. I watched the doors close behind him.

And that was it.

I was no longer a pig farmer.

I walked around to the other side of the Butina chamber and at 11:49, Piggy’s body slid down the ramp.

Within seconds, he was added to the procession of hogs shackled to the rail above me.

Then stabbed, bled, steamed, eviscerated, split, inspected, weighed and stored.

When Piggy reached the end of the line on the kill floor, his official carcass weight was 86.2 kilograms, or 190 pounds.

IT’S MONDAY, May 12, and I’m back at the Great Lakes packing plant.

This morning, Piggy is being processed into primal cuts.

His carcass was stored in a cold locker over the weekend because the temperature of the meat has to drop to about 4 C before it can be processed.

The cutting floor supervisor cleared the processing line so that Piggy’s carcass could be run through on its own. That way, it would be easy to keep track of all the meat that needed to be collected.

The head, feet and excess fat were removed first and then the two halves of the carcass were cut down to large hams, front shoulders, sides and bellies.

The whole process took just a few minutes.

Piggy’s final weight when he left the Great Lakes packing plant was 68.82 kilos — about 152 pounds.

I drove back to Hamilton with my pig bundled into four boxes, spread across the back seat of my car.

Posted by Admin on July 22nd, 2009 :: Filed under Farm life, Meat/slaughter plants, Pork, Transportation
Tags :: , , , , ,
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Type your comment in the box below: