The livestock at Kalon Farm are living the life. Safely fenced in, they roam woods and fields, foraging for food and doing whatever else sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, chicken and turkeys might get up to.
"I spent a lot of money on fencing," said farmer Keith Kopley who farms on his land in Lancaster and Ashburnham and on rented fields in other towns. The police tend to get a little excited when an animal shows up in an unexpected place.
He provides supplemental food and clean water at all times.
The bucolic atmosphere has a practical reason. "You don't get a good product unless they're happy," he said.
In December, the area was shocked by conditions found on a farm in Ayer. The town declared the property at 66 Westford Road to be a public health hazard after neglected and dead animals were found.
The town is still remediating a rat infestation at the property. The son of the farm's owner faces animal cruelty charges. The animals were being raised for food and local residents questioned the safety of meat from animals raised in these conditions.
Calves, piglets, lambs
Kopley began raising and selling grass-fed beef and lamb along with pasture-raised pork and poultry in 2009. The economy began to slide at the start of the recession and his work in real estate financing dropped off.
Kopley buys his piglets just after they are weaned and weigh about 40 pounds. Five or six months later, after getting around 90 percent of their food by foraging, each pig tops the scales between 125 and 230 pounds.
The pigs also get vegetable scraps, but never meat. That helps stop bacteria and worms, Kopley said.
Other animals are bred on the farm. He prefers heritage breeds for their sturdiness and docility. His Devon bull, Balthazar, is really a cupcake, he said.
One cow was a 4H project. "She's great," Kopley said. The others may show interest in people and then just walk away.
His cattle are slaughtered when they reach 24 months, Kopley said. The grass-fed animals grow more slowly than more grain-fed cattle that are usually slaughtered around 16 months.
Grass-fed animals taste better and their meat has an additional benefit: people with grain allergies can eat it, Kopley said.
The Kalon Farm sheep are a Scottish blackface straight from Scotland, with a rugged coats that must be cut yearly. Others, like and Katahdin sheep bred in Maine, and dorper sheep bred in South Africa, have hair and do not need to be sheared.
The shepherd comes annually to shear the Scottish blackface. "It's not really traumatic," Kopley said. The shepherd sits right down, calms the animal and gives it a buzz cut in two or three minutes.
While this is going on, "The dog's in charge," Kopley. Any sheep that attempt to wander off get a chomp on the snout.
Because the livestock is eating a natural diet and living in spacious, open areas, the need for veterinarian intervention is unusual, Kopley said. Pigs are slaughtered before they are old enough to show effects from worms that cause respiratory distress in older animals.
When brood females are too old to have successful births without human intervention, they are culled. Since the animal is older and the meat would be tough, Kopley has it ground.
If a pasture is overgrazed, worms could become an issue, so animals are moved when the grass cover is too short.
The only time that Kopley recalls a visit from a veterinarian that required antibiotics was after a cow cut her face.
The animals are slaughtered and processed at LeMay and Sons Beef in Goffstown, N.H. Fresh meat arrives on Thursday at the farm stores at 339 Seven Bridges Road in Lancaster and on 28 Corey Hill Road Ashburnham.
The Lancaster location is open daily and the farm in Ashburnham on weekends. Both locations also sell the farm's wine, prepared food and other local products.
Kopley is in the process of adding a kitchen for the prepared food and a tasting room to the store in Lancaster overlooking the former Culley Snowmobile Ranch. He plans to hay part of the land and have some as pasture.
Hillside Cellars wines sold at the stores, red and red blends, are made in Ashburnham. Kopley uses marquette grapes grown in Kalon's own small vineyard, chardonnay and cabernet grapes imported from California, and malbec grapes from Chile. Wine production is planned for Lancaster.
Commercial customers include the Gardner Ale House, Oak Hill Country Club and Wachusett Mountain. Their website is www.kalonfarm.com. It includes a video of the shepherd at work.
Steaks, pork, lambchops
Growing a healthy animal to a good size is just one step on the journey to your dinner plate. The next step is slaughtering.
When an animal arrives at the slaughterhouse, humane treatment and food safety are both top of the list of concerns, said Richard Blood. His family has run Blood Farm in West Groton since Edmund Blood, born in 1804, got one of the first licenses in Massachusetts to run an abattoir.
Like LeMay and Sons in New Hampshire, Blood serves small farmers.
The United States Department of Agriculture has reams of rules governing animal treatment at slaughterhouses. The animals are now the responsibility of the business that will kill and process them.
"It's greatly regulated," Blood said. "Humane handling is a must."
Since the mid-1980s, more rules and more training became part of the job, said Blood who grew up in the business and earned a degree in agriculture business at the State University of New York Cobleskill.
If the animals did not arrive on a humane transport, the carriers will not be admitted.
The new arrivals can be herded with plastic boards, but not hit with a cane. A prod to the hindquarters can be used, but only under the direct supervision of the on-site USDA inspector.
Before processing, the animals must be kept in pens with clean bedding and potable water. If the animals need to be kept overnight, which rarely happens at Blood's, they must be fed.
The red buildings tucked into the hillside below Main Street include a centuries-old farmhouse, the store that was rebuilt after a fire in 2013 and a barn. They present a peaceful scene.
The USDA regulations they must adhere to ensure the slaughtering process is as peaceful as possible. From penning to the condition of the floors, Blood Farm must meet federal standards.
Keeping equipment clean and well-functioning is key. Recently, "we built a better chute," Blood said. Animals walk through the chute to the slaughterhouse floor.
If the animal is does not die immediately when euthanized, a board meets to review what went wrong, Blood said.
The checklist for humane handling covers an entire page. After the animal is shot, there can be no vocalization, no blinking, no return to consciousness. If any of those things happen, the doctor arrives and the review begins.
"You never want to see Dr. Green," he said, referring to the veterinarian who is called. The doctor is not a frequent visitor. A difficult death happens perhaps once every couple of years, Blood said.
The USDA inspector looks at each animal before it is killed. If it does not move right or has signs of disease, the inspector will have the animal set aside. Only after it is inspected by a veterinarian can it be slaughtered.
The arrival of an ill animal is very unusual, but a process is in place, Blood said. Most are taken to the abattoir by their owners, two or three animals at a time.
When a new inspector came on board and saw an animal with a prolapsed rectum, a condition where the rectum is pushed outside the anus, he followed guidelines. It was not slaughtered until after a visit from a veterinarian. The meat could be used, but the innards were retained.
After the animal is butchered, workers at the Blood's process the meat, following federal standards to remain clean and sanitary. They cut it, smoke it, freeze it and package it as ordered.
Blood Farm sells frozen meat and bones, smoked ham and bacon, packaged marinated meats and eggs at the retail store at 94 West Main Street in Groton. The pig ears are a big hit with the local canine population.
Blood Farm is on the web at www.bloodfarm.news.
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