An unusual recipient of thanks giving

This year, I am thankful more than years past for our agriculturalists. Our farmers, ranchers, and feedlot workers. Turkey sales absolutely explode this time of year, and while I am not a poultry expert, I am confident that this takes a ridiculously high level of preparation from all parts of the poultry community.

This year, as we were baking our 21-lb turkey (which, by the way, somehow was still raw after 7 hours…it became quite the interesting affair), I reminisced about my time on the feedyard. I spent only one major holiday at this job, but it will leave an impression on me “for always”.

It was Easter Sunday. Of all holidays, this one is not my most favorite. It’s religious significance certainly speaks to me, but the traditions around it aren’t very sentimental. I usually would go home to North Carolina for church and a nice Easter dinner. As kids, we always did Easter baskets, and my mom still gives me one every year. Despite it not being top ranked, I am, across the board, a holiday and tradition fanatic. When I was in 2nd grade, we lived on the 14th floor of an apartment building in Singapore. My mom made Easter Bunny prints from real dirt from our doorway, into the elevator, onto the “14” button, and in our apartment lobby. God bless her. And the people who wondered where the heck dirt came from in the cleanest city in the world.

Easter Bunny, via google images

Anyways, this holiday was different. For one, I actually had to work. A full day. Beginning at 5:30 AM. But being myself, I prepared for the holidays like always. I went to all the local stores trying to find those plastic easter eggs. Then I bought M&Ms and other candy and filled 1 egg for each of my +/- 36 coworkers (I made a list). I figured if we had to work a holiday, we may as well have some small sign that we knew it was going on around us. It really amazed me how well that little gesture went over, considering it wasn’t a real easter basket. Those stupid eggs stuck around our office for months. People just loved them. And I just enjoyed the chocolate 🙂

Secondly, of all jobs on the feedyard, I was on deads. On Easter Sunday. I hated deads. Everyone did, but probably me worst of all. “Being on deads” requires the 1 (maybe 2 but not in this case) people on said duty to drive around in a large telehandler all day, listening to our radio system for people to call in pen numbers where there is a dead steer or heifer. You then pick it up on your forks, bring it to the necropsy area, and then proceed to “cut deads”. Essentially this is an autopsy. No animal caretaker wants dead animals, and it is our job to find out exactly what went wrong so we can handle it as soon as possible. This is an essential job. Nonetheless, it is probably about as grotesque as you are imagining. Maybe more so. It requires all of my 110 lbs to jump in and out of this massive piece of machinery to open/close gates, herd cattle out of way, reel a chain out, tie it to a carcass leg, reel in the chain, bring the body into a fork or bucket, drive it through all sorts of bumps (praying not to have the body bounce off), drop it off, sharpen your knife, and cut the body from nose to anus. You have to break ribs to access the lungs. You have to fling the legs over. You have to examine the insides of the stomach and intestines and heart and everything else. And let me tell you, this isn’t like a science lab where they are all cleaned out with formaldehyde. It takes an incredible amount of strength to complete an autopsy and break bones of 1200lb animals with your bare hands and a 6-in knife. Since I’m not really that muscular, it requires me to basically climb in, on top of, and around, a carcass in order to assure I do it properly.


You go home smelling horrible. Covered in guts. Not really the way you want to go home to cook up a nice easter meal for 1. It was really a disheartening day at first. I am the SLOWEST person on deads because while  it takes some people under 10 minutes to determine cause of death, it could take me 40 to even reach the lungs. And it’s EASTER. I mean, you have to cut them, and meanwhile the others have to feed the healthy ones, and still others have to treat the sick ones, so there is plenty to do. But you surely don’t want to DAWDLE on a holiday. But I bucked up and decided to just get into it. Blasted my ipod and went to town. I actually did end up forgetting there was a holiday going on around us, despite my colored easter egg project. Until I was met by 2 coworkers who were frantically trying to reach me to see how many I had left to pick up. They had families to go back home to. I had, in my selfishness, become completely oblivious to the idea that perhaps some of my coworkers were not 1800 miles from their families, and they DID want to cook a nice meal and sit with family or go to church.  But instead of leaving me when they finished their daily duties, they stayed and helped me until “the deads” were finished. Even though my only foreseeable plan was to shower and collapse in exhaustion on the couch. And their family probably wouldn’t want to sit next to them at the dinner table until they took at least 3 showers.

And that day, as gross as my experience and description was, encompassed all the reasons every one of us should be thankful to our farmers and agriculturalists this Thanksgiving. Because while we wake up to entertain guests and sit around a long afternoon of eating before collapsing onto the couch after achieving next to nothing, they worked hard not only to prepare that turkey for our oven on regular working days– they were probably working while we watched the post-meal football game. They were doing their work diligently until the job was truly completed. No matter what hour that meant they got home. And their families are probably not sure WHAT time they will get to eat, because raising livestock does not (EVER) go according to any scheduled time slot. And so that worker may miss the family dinner and eat cold thanksgiving dinner. Or the family may politely sit at the table, patiently listening to their growling stomachs, until the cows are happy and full and that missing family member can join them. There are many heroes that are missed during holidays, when their career duties unfortunately must take precedence over quality family time, but let’s not forget some of the most quietly sung heroes-the ones who most directly help us make thanksgiving meal traditions possible in the first place.


About Farm the Start

I grew up in cities from North Carolina all the way to Asia, but never really interacted with farm animals or farmers until I began college at Virginia Tech as an Animal & Poultry Sciences Major. I thought I would become a vet for puppies and kitties. Little did I know what I would learn and the love I'd find for the lifestyle, practices, people and animals involved in food production.

Posted on November 27, 2011, in Feedlots and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Val, that was an awesome piece. Thanks for making me think.

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