Ohiofarmgirl's Adventures in The Good Land is largely a fish out of water tale about how I eventually found my footing on a small farm in an Amish town. We are a mostly organic, somewhat self sufficient, sustainable farm in Ohio. There's action and adventure and I'll always tell you the truth about farming.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How to prepare for butchering pigs. And the worst thing that could happen.

One of my friends is about to butcher pigs for the first time. They were asking me questions about tools and such...and admitted they were a little nervous. That is just fine. One of the hard things about butchering is that most folks don't know what to expect. If you have an idea about how it's going to go then it will be much easier. Are you trying to figure out if you should take your pigs in for processing or butcher at home?

 Growing bacon.

Let's talk about how to prepare for butchering and about what the worst thing that could happen.

But first, let's put a disclaimer here that we are going to have a hard farm talk. If you think you are going to be upset then look here at Nicholas and Bitty. You might want to click around on cat links and stuff and then tomorrow we'll have a funny post or something. But let's be clear - if you think you are going to be upset then just look away. I always said I would tell you the truth about farming and we do not paint false picture here. And you should know by now that if you have something terrible to say then I will not publish your comment. Questions? Sure. But we don't fight here or make fun of anyone.


It helps to have some idea of what the butchering day will look like. So click around and read up, check out videos, ask friends, and do your research. I have a bunch of links for our butcher days so you can learn exactly what will happen as our Hog Harvest day goes along. Most recently this is what happened when we butchered about a month ago.

You also need a good set of step by step instructions. This is the only reference that we use. Just like the rest of life, everyone has "their" way of doing things. It turns out that there is no "right" way - it's just what works best for you. Some traditional methods, for instance hanging the hog to gut it or scalding it, do not work at all for us. So we don't do those things. Do what works for you.

Now you need to have your tools in order. Here is my best link for our hog processing tools. You would think that you might need a bunch of fancy equipment but not really. Remember too that it was not so long ago that just about everyone had to do some kind of butchering - so technically it is not difficult. A couple of good knives, a meat saw, and two reasonably strong people is all you really need.

Then you need somewhere to chill the meat. This is the main reason that folks butcher in fall/winter. We like to butcher at about 20* but really you just need to be able to chill to meat below 40* as quickly as possible. An unheated garage, barn, or heck just hanging it from a tree in freezing weather is a great place to chill a big carcass. If you really don't have any good options then you can cut up the carcass halves into thirds (hams, sides, shoulders) and put it in a fridge. So either take everything out of your fridge or get a fridge just for butchering. Put it at the lowest/coldest setting and shove the huge chunks of meat in there. In a pinch you can get a couple of huge coolers and put the meat on ice... but I would not rely on this entirely.

Unlike other meat, pork does not benefit from hanging or aging. Mostly you just want to hang it overnite so that it is easier to work with when you part it up. You really don't want to ruin all that meat so make sure you have a good set up for chilling.

Now the hard part. Someone has to march out there and shoot that pig.

This is where the shuffling of shoes and the avoiding of eyes starts. From what I can tell this is main reason that folks do not want to butcher at home. If one of you is a hunter then this is no big deal and you just get out there and get the job done. However, if no one in your group has ever slaughtered before, or killed anything as big as a pig, you might want to look around for help.

Almost everyone knows someone who hunts.  Or just about everyone knows an old timer who is willing to help. Check around for extended family members, folks you know at church, or an older farmer who is happy to get you started.

Even if you find someone to do the deed then you still have to march out there and maybe you aren't sure how you will react.

So let's pick this apart.

I've really been enjoying the series, "A Chef's Life" on PBS so I was glad to see their Christmas special included butchering a hog. This video is a pretty good demonstration of how folks react to the slaughtering part of the business. They start the hog butchering segment at about 32:46 with an introduction to the farm, preparing for the process, and then the actual shooting at 35:21. They show the farmer shooting the gun but they do not show the pig.  Watch this a couple times to see how folks are reacting. Maybe you'll get a better sense of what happens so you can get an idea of how you will react if you are not sure.

The thing I loved best about this was that the farmer was absolutely calm and was in complete control. Based on what he was saying, I believe the production people were trying to get the 'best shot' as in... the best camera view... but the farmer wanted the 'best shot' for the pig. He said something like, "No, I can't wait. If I get the shot I have to take it."

This farmer knew that the most important thing was to drop that pig on the first shot. From what I can tell it went perfectly. The other people's reactions are about what I'd expect. Some people seemed relieved, some seemed to think, "So.. that's it?" (And yep, that is it.) But I was pretty disappointed that the gal (Vivian Howard) kind of squirmed away, covered her eyes, and wouldn't watch.

I really wanted her to be the hero here. I really wanted her to show that real people can get out there and get the job done. I really wanted her to stand steadfastly and be interested instead of having an emotional reaction. I really wanted these things because I really want folks not to be afraid of butchering. I feel like this was an opportunity to give courage to folks instead of keeping that gap between food production and regular people.

I think it's a "thing" for people to think the only way to honor the process is to stand there and cry. I think there is an expectation that you need to have some kind of outburst or you are not a good person. But that does not have to be the case and I think promoting this idea keeps people from doing their own butchering.

So if I was to edit this video to encourage people to butcher, I would take that gal out and put in an unkempt, ill-dressed gal with a bad pony tail and a dirty shirt holding a full sized axe, with at least two dogs standing behind her. A big man would shoot the pig, it would go down, and that short, sturdy gal would say "Good work, honey" and then release the dogs to go and sniff around. That's what happens here. There is no crying or dramatic faces.

That's not to say that you shouldn't cry. That is entirely up to you. But you do need to control yourself and not become a distraction from the folks who are doing the job.  The fact is there are a lot of uncertainty during the shooting part of butchering and everyone needs to focus on getting the job done.

There is always the possibility that their might be a "bad kill."  What is that? Exactly what it sounds like. Some people think this is the worst thing that could happen. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when you are shooting a large animal. One of them is that the first shot does not work. If that pig does not drop to his knees then you have a situation on your hands.

Fortunately for us we've only had a few bad shots and none of them were dangerous. The best situation is that you can fire another shot and drop the pig. The worst is that the first shot will only make him mad, or that he will be scared and run, and even worse that pig will turn on you. You need to be prepared for any of these situations.

Having a "kill pen" set up is an easy way to better control the situation. Unless that pig just steps right over the hog panel like it was a spider web. So mostly your best hope is to control the situation using food to get the pigs attention, taking your time, and remaining very very calm until you get the perfect shot.

We did not have the perfect kill for our last butcher day. The first pig shifted and the bullet did not hit its mark. Fortunately the pig did not run and he did not turn on my husband....but the pig did walk away. We both stood back to see if the pig would go down or if my husband could get into a better position for a second shot. It took a few minutes and the pig wandered into the worst of the mud. Eventually the pig went down to his knees and my husband was able to safely get close and take a second shot.

This was not optimal at all because the pig was in the deep mud - which is why we had to get the pulleys and such to drag the carcasses out of the mud. Fortunately, the second pig went down perfectly with one shot.

What do you do if you have a "bad kill?" You do the best you can. You realize that the worst thing to happen isn't a bad kill - let's face it it's over for that pig as soon as you walk out there - but the worst thing is that someone gets hurt. By "someone" I mean a person...you, whoever is helping you, or any onlookers. This is why you need to be very careful, be prepared, and practice good gun safety.

One thing that can be very upsetting is that the pig could do a lot of screaming. This can sound horrible. However, you need to keep in mind that even carrying a small pig to it's new pen results in a lot of screaming. Pigs, even in good circumstances, can be loud. An enraged, wounded, or scared hog can be extremely loud.

At this point sometimes folks are over whelmed and the possibility of a bad kill has just scared them off. Maybe they think that maybe they should just hitch up the stock trailer and take their hogs into the butcher. It might seem like a better idea since a professional will do a better job, right? Maybe. I dunno. If the butcher has a bad kill then how would you know? It's a tough thing to think about but if you want to grow out your own hogs then you need to decide how you will handle it.

How do you prepare yourself mentally? To figure out how to think about butchering? Trying to figure out how to not hurt something you are about to kill?

By realizing that this is not a new thing. Slaughter and butchering are only new to you if you haven't done it before. This is the way people have lived for most of the entirety of our time on this earth. If you want to quibble it's kind of like "hunting and gathering" but in a really small and contained space. Regular people have gathered their tools, and their courage, and marched out there to get the job done. Pray for courage. If you need someone to cheer you on then I'll be that person. If you are scared then acknowledge it, think about it, talk to folks, do your research.

But don't believe the lie that butchering is just some weird ancient tradition that only some people are able to do. Regular people just like you can do this. If we can do it, then you can do it. Can you butcher your own pig that you raised? Yes, you can.

Now who is going to get pigz this year? We are already thinking about our next batch!


Vintage Maison said...

The first time or two, I just was grateful for the gun - sticking a pig with a knife, to me, is more basic, and I'm not sure if I could do it.

We don't keep pigs now due to French legistlatio, but were very satisfied with the ways things went when we did.

David said...

Great Post OFG. Pretty matter-of-fact. And I guess that is the way it should be.

Heavens Door Acres said...

Thank you, Thank you, thank you! I am a bit nervous....however, the man that will be helping me assured me that he has done this many times and that I will be OK. LOL I guess the worst that can happen, is my pork chops don't look like pork chops. Can I do it!?? YES.... I CAN....And I will take as many pictures as I can...when the time comes.

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