Gentle Readers, due to the mature content of today's post, the very young, vegetarians, and folks who don't want to know where their food comes from should look away. Tomorrow I promise to feature pictures of our adorable puppy and maybe some chickens. If you choose to read on, consider yourselves warned. Just so's ya know - there are no pictures of killing, but if you consider hanging sides of pork "graphic" that's what you are getting. Are you SURE you are farm enough for this one? Alright then, cowboy up and read on.
Ah.... Thanksgiving... when every ones thoughts turn to... pork. Its hog harvest time folks and I can't wait! All summer I've been dreaming of ham, chops, bacon, and all that porky-goodness. We are getting ready to have our hog harvest so about this time of year I get all excited and start talking about it. The non-farm folks around me get nervous but even so.... a kind of 'train wreck' curiosity comes out in them.. what happens on that magical hog harvest day?
So let's reprise last years Hog Harvest. This is more of a "what happens" than a technical discussion. However, I will post a technical step by step post written by our pal, Bourbon Red, who is indeed our expert. That will be later on this month. But for now lets just satisfy the mildly curious.
The first step of having a home hog harvest is to go and get pigs. Try craigslist, your local 4H kids, the livestock auction, or your Amish neighbors. We got ours in late June around here $50 - $75 per feeder pig is about right.
As far as growing them out, the Storey’s Guide on pig raising is actually pretty darn good. You’ll need sturdy fencing (just go with electric and save yourself some time), basic shelter, and feed. Don’t kid yourself hogs are messy, stinky, and destructive. But you can use that to your advantage like we did when we put them down in the lower hen yard that was totally infested with poison ivy. Nope it didn’t hurt them and yep, they destroyed it.
Is it worth it, financially? Depends on how you do it. It’s worth it for us the way we do it – but everyone is different. We save money by feeding them the goat’s milk, eggs (always cooked!), and putting them on pasture. Add to that all the leftovers from the garden and kitchen…as well as our friends who have farm stands.. heck we think we come out far far ahead. Plus there is the cozy feeling of knowing we have a year’s worth of food in the freezer which is totally worth it.
What kind of pigs? I’m not entirely convinced that it makes a whole lot of difference for feeder pigs. If you were going to breed them (which I do NOT recommend) then maybe you might consider breed. We had blue butts one year which – aside from being fun to say – had bigger hams, but probably not as big as bacons than the Tamworth. The marbling on the Herford was exceptional. But I think the quality of meat is determined by feed than anything else.
I have to include a ‘before’ picture – thems those darn pigs of 2009 who hated me all that summer.
The one on the left is a Herford – he came in about 270lbs or so… and the one on the right is a Tamworth x Herford who was closer to 300lbs, if not a touch more. For home butchering purposes we can’t imagine growing out a pig past 300lbs – as it was that Tam was almost too big to handle without a tractor to move and hoist-to-hanging.
Our pal and Farm Master, Bourbon Red, comes down to lead the effort - which we are extremely grateful for. Most times I tell folks if you can cut up a chicken from the store you can dress poultry. But pigz are a bit tricky just because they are so large and dangerous - so we are glad for another big guy and someone with experience.
Of course it rained like the dickens the day before so it was mud soup for the ‘dispatching’ part of the day. The dispatching is the trickiest part of the whole operation. The theory is to stun them with a shot to the head, then cut their throats to let them bleed out. However, that can go wrong in so many ways. We know one guy who inevitably didn’t ‘stun’ his pig well enough with the first shot and that just made his pig good and mad. So his pig took off running which was hilarious until he ran about oh… an acre away.
Most of the texts I read suggest using .22 rifle for the headshot. However, pigs rarely stand still and the .22 requires some accuracy..so we found a 9mm to be most effective. One of the hard things about this part of the day is not hurting something you are trying to kill…and of course, not hurting yourself either. You want that pig to drop on the first shot. That guy who's pig ran off finally just got 'er done with a 12 gauge shotgun with deer slugs. It worked.
The process was that me and the dogs took cover, The Big Man walked into the pen and did the shootin, then Bourbon Red leapt (like a gazelle I might add) over the fence and used a hunting knife to cut the throat to allow the pig to bleed out. This took just a few minutes. However, you need to make sure all of the safety bases are covered: no one else around, sure footing, a downward shot, a way to get out of the pen if an enraged pig comes after you, etc.
After they were bled out we drug the pigs up the hill and in front of the barn where most of the work would happen. We also needed access to water to hose off all the mud ‘and stuff.’
Our plan was to hang them in the barn to allow the carcasses to cool. Fortunately we had a cold night – well below 40*. We find that home butchery in warm weather just plain stinks. Taking advantage of the ‘organic refrigeration’ from a cold night solves a lot of storage problems. Unlike beef, pork does not need to be aged - just well cooled. So while you might hang a side of beef for several weeks, you really just need overnight (or two nites) for pork. But it has to be cold, real cold.
After they were well rinsed, we used Bourbon Red’s splendid home butcher saw from Lehmans to saw the heads off those beasts. He used his 8 inch chef’s knife to cut thru the skin, then used the saw for the bones. Next was the gut scooping. I kinda like this part. An incision is made down the belly and over the sternum. The saw is used again to open the chest then scoop out the guts. But be advised, do not be a fool and put the guts in a bucket. We used a feed bag – one that had a plastic liner which was really easy.
There was more rinsing with the hose then we needed to move the carcasses to our work surface for the skinning. The Big Man and Bourbon Red built a kind of open table out of saw horses and 2x6’s. With the help of our 4H neighbor kid (yes, his mother knew where he was and what he was doing) they hefted the carcasses up on the tables and we commenced to skinnin’.
Here’s our friend waiting to be skinned. See that he is ‘belly up’ which is the appropriate position for skinning, start at the hocks:
After sawing off the trotters, we used paring knives (I used a chef knife) to do the skinning. In theory you start at a leg and pull the skin toward you while using the knife to cut between the skin and the fat. My sides looked like they were done with a lawnmower. Bourbon Red’s looked like a work of art.
We skinned as far as we could then rolled the carcass to one side to release the back hide. The neighbor kid and I held the carcass to this side or that while Bourbon Red finished.
Then the real work started – we had to saw thru the backbone all the way down the spine which left us with two long half sides. This took the most time. At one point some fool suggested using a sawsall. No, that wont work, just man up and saw the darn thing by hand for heaven's sakes.
We used bailing twine threaded thru the back hock (above the joint, between the tendon and the bone) to secure the carcass on the hook of the ‘come along’ attached to the barn rafter. The work table was positioned directly below where the come alongs were hanging so we didn’t have to do much hefting. The work table was intentionally tall to allow us to pull the 'come along' hook most of the way to the table. This worked great.
Here are our sides o’ pork. Aren’t they lovely?
I could barely sleep a wink that night with all that fresh pork hanging seductively in the barn so we were up and at it at dawn. While I was fully expecting to go in and see one of the barncats swinging from the carcasses… the big sides of meat were just fine and well chilled. The hens were particularly interested in the big meat piñatas hanging in the barn and that was pretty funny. I had to employ a number of ‘hen distraction’ techniques to divert their attention elsewhere.
After breakfast we got to cutting. Our goal was to first cut the sides into manageable hunks, carry them into the house, and do the particular cuts inside. The barn is a great place to work but I was cold so we worked inside. This made it even more important to make sure we had somewhere to chill the meat quickly.
We had already shoveled out the beer fridge and one of the chest freezers the day before so we were ready. Because it was so cold we could just put the hams in a cooler on the deck in preparation for their trip to the local butcher to be smoked. He charges by the pound – and even more (almost double!!!) if its sliced and wrapped. We save money by getting the smoked hams back whole and then we cutting them ourselves into steaks, wrapping really well, putting into freezer bags, and then in the freezer.
We'll talk more later about specific, secondary cuts - but before anything else we had to get the meat into the house. So we cut ‘big chunks’ from the hanging sides. We cut the shoulders off first. For most of this I was precariously hanging off the ladder holding onto the wiggly side o’ pork while Bourbon Red vigorously sawed away. I got a lot of nasty stuff in my ponytail that day. But it was OK - I did it for the pork.
There are lots of technical specs on how to part up a pig and its really up to you to decide what cuts you want. Mostly we wanted as much bacon as humanly possible. We’ll pay extra for the local butcher to do some of the bacon so it is sliced and wrapped. We’ve sliced some of ours in the past but its just not the same. And come on, we’re talking about bacon here and there is no skimping!
We kept one of the smaller bacons to do here at home in our barrel shaped smoker/charcoal grill. The process isn’t complicated… it just takes a while and our smoker really isn’t big enough for this kinda thing. We used Alton Brown’s recipe for the cure. After its cured then you let it hang for a couple days, then into the smoker for an all day cold smoke. We built a hickory fire that day in the wood burning stove inside and every hour or so I took a few coals out and put into the smoker. I couldn’t believe it worked but it did!
Back to the cutting table… We used the paring knife, the saw, chef’s knives, and a cheap but good boning knife. The trick is to keep the knives really sharp. I need to learn to sharpen them myself..but I think I can do it after watching Bourbon Red all day.
After removing the shoulder and hams, we used the saw to cut out the ribs. We deboned most of the loins for chops so beautiful they could make a grown man weep, cut up most of the shoulders (easier to precut for stews and such), and of course trimmed every scrap of fat. We used wax paper and freezer bags to put the parted up meat into – labeled of course.
Here is one of the big hunks ready for parting up:
We had several big pans to put the scraps and odd trimming into. One pan was for the dogs – clearly icky pieces or just not worth keeping. One was for the odd trimmings destined for the grinder, and the last pan was for the fat to make lovely lard.
Oh lardy, lardy, lardy the fat we got from these pigs was divine. The fatback was at least 2 inches thick, and then we just got a lot of fat from the trimming. One of the ‘lard buckets’ was so heavy I couldn’t even pick it up. I’ll be making lard for weeks. I’m in heaven.
Of course I kept the ‘leaf lard’ from the belly cavity separately – it will be rendered alone as its highly prized for its delicate quality. You can check out the how to render lard thread here
The cutting took several hours. Then we started with the grinding. Bourbon Red has an enormous grinder that we call The MOAG (Mother Of All Grinders). Seriously – its spectacular. We combined spices, fat, and the odd trimmings to make 10 pounds of sausage. We like bulk sausage so we did not use casings. All things being equal this was not a lot of sausage for the amount of meat we had to grind. But we use ground pork like ground beef so we opted for mostly just plain ground pork which can easily be mixed with the seasonings for more sausage later.
Then my favorite part of the day – we made liverwurst. Let it be clear that I love liver in the wurst way… oh man..its just heavenly. My love for liver started when I was traveling in Germany and was served liverwurst for breakfast! Could there possibly be anything better? I think not. So we used most of the huge livers for that but don’t worry – I have some liver intact for a big ol’ fry up.
I’ll have to track down the recipe for the liverwurst. It included most of two livers, trimmed fat, 3 onions, 3 huge garlic cloves, salt, pepper, bread chunks, and booze.. I mean 2 cups of red wine. We finely ground it with the MOAG.
The next day I used a hand blender to make it even smoother, poured it into pint jars, cooked in a hot water bath at 300*ish for about 1.5hrs to an internal temp of 160*. I didn’t have a pressure canner at the time so I had to freeze the jars of liver loveliness. But now that I have one - oh this year there will be jars of liver love for me all year...
By the time we were done grinding the liverwurst it was about 4pm-ish and everyone was exhausted. It’s a lot of physical work but so satisfying. The kitchen was a disaster and I used every single big pan or bowl I had. We packed up Bourbon Red so he could get home to feed his critters and my hubby and I fell into a heap. Over the next few days we worked on getting all the ground meat into quart freezer bags and cooking up the weird bits and pieces for the dogs. It takes several weeks to get everything put up and the lard is the last thing to be done.
We gave any truly weird bits and bobs – as well as the ‘cracklins’ from the lard – to the hens. They went hog wild for any ‘residue’ left from the pig killing so we didn’t even have a mess in the yard by the barn.
So except for the guts and the skins most everything from the pigs gets used. We don’t make head cheese – even I have my limits as far as eyeballs and brains go (ick). But I do love the jowels and they were smoked with the bacon we kept to do here.
So that's what happens for Hog Harvest - that wasn't so bad, was it? Everyone OK? Intrigued? Inspired? Did you barf on your keyboard?
I'll sort thru my notes and such and if you have questions post them in the comments and we'll do an FAQ in addition to Bourbon Red's technical ''how to" later this month. But for now, I need to find my work boots and get out there. We are finally above freezing and I've got to go and check on the bacon...its almost ready.
Happy Friday everyone!