As a homesteader, there is nothing more satisfying than raising your own food. Are you ready to take the step from raising your own meat to actually butchering and processing your own meat as well? Let me share some things I’ve learned that will help to make butcher day (especially your first one!) go as smoothly as possible.
1. Keep in mind, it may be emotionally difficult.
I’ve been butchering animals for many years, but it was just last year that I could handle being the one who dispatched the pigs we raised. If you’ve never taken the life of an animal you’ve raised, understand that you might have a hard time with it. (Also understand that you might think you’re going to react a certain way and then react completely differently.) If you don’t think you’re going to be able to deliver the killing blow, ask someone else to do it. There is nothing wrong with this. Your mind can play tricks on you in the heaviness of the moment and it’s better for everyone involved if the deed is carried out swiftly. Butchering can bring about all sorts of strange emotions. It’s hard to explain how you can be sad and satisfied at the same time. When all is said and done, it helps to remember your animal had a lifetime of amazing, wonderful days of awesome on your farm…and only one bad day.
2. It may also be technically difficult.
If you have someone who can walk you through how to butcher an animal while you’re actually doing it, you’re going to have a much better chance than learning how from a blog post—and I say this is someone who has written blog posts about how to butcher pigs! Butchering and processing is really something that you have to just get in there and do to understand how it’s done. Trying to explain where to cut is much different than actually getting your knife on the animal and feeling where and how far to cut. You might be nervous and unsure the first few times you do it, but push on. Research what you need to know, be respectful, and use good judgement, but understand that everyone has cut incorrectly, too deeply, or the wrong thing all together. It’s how we all learn.
3. Many hands make light work.
Enlist the help of others! Divide jobs according to interest, strength, or experience. There may be parts of butchering you’re more called to than others. My husband hates skinning hogs. I find it very interesting. I hate dividing up all the muscle groups into different cuts of meat. My husband could probably do it with his eyes closed. I dislike catching chickens and pulling their necks through a kill cone. My sons are very fast at it.
Don’t forget the importance of a runner. This is a great job for a kid! When you’re in the middle of your work and your hands are messy, the last thing you want to have to do is run to the house or barn for paper towels, water, a different knife, a bandaid, the hose, or whatever else you forgot.
4. Have sharp knives available. Lots of them.
To get the job done, you need the right tools for the job. Invest in a decent butchering kit—our absolute favorite is the Outdoor Edge processing kit. They are quality knives that sharpen well and the handles are grippy, not smooth—totally important when you’re working with greasy animals like pigs. We keep our knives sharp using a Chef’s Choice Diamond knife sharpener because a sharp knife is safer and more productive than one that is dull.
5. Don’t forget the soap.
You might think this is obvious. And it totally is. I mean, who gets into a sloppy project and doesn’t have soap on hand?
Us. The folks at Clucky Dickens Farm, that’s who. The very first time we butchered pigs at home, we didn’t know we were almost out of dish soap. Do you know what it’s like to try and wash knives or hands that are full of pig fat when you’re almost out of dish soap?
Butchering is messy. You’re going to be washing lots of stuff lots of times. Make sure you’ve got the goods to get the job done. Our favorites to have on hand are plenty of Dawn dish soap and GoJo Hand Cleaner.
6. Dress appropriately.
Butchering can be messy in different ways for different animals, but it’s safe to say there will be blood. Even animals that are relatively “clean and easy” to butcher (like a pheasant) can surprise you with a blood stain on your jeans or shoes.
To be honest, the year I got the messiest during butchering was the time that two other people were in charge of doing “the messy parts”. I was on “camera patrol” (ever the blogger, right?) However, I found myself to be the closest person to a half of a pig that was slipping off its hook and I bear hugged the half pig to keep our meat from hitting the garage floor. That much blood and pig fat just doesn’t come out of your clothes, and I still have those permanently stained outfit as a reminder to always be prepared.
7. Research your packaging options.
Will you use freezer/butcher paper? A food vacuum sealer system? Ziploc freezer bags? Poultry shrink bags? Wild game bags? Everyone has their own opinion on what is best to use, and a lot of it has to do with convenience, how much (and what) you’re processing, and what you want to spend. Ask around to hear the pros and cons of each option and make a decision based on your own situation.
Note: I have had many people tell me that they don’t use Ziploc type bags or vacuum sealer systems because they are trying to get away from plastic, and so instead, they use freezer paper. Folks, let’s be clear. Freezer paper is PLASTIC/POLY COATED. It’s why the paper doesn’t stick to the meat.
8. Make sure there is room in your freezer(s).
There is nothing more frustrating than having a coop’s worth of birds wrapped and ready for the freezer…and no room in the freezer for them to be stored.
What’s in your freezer right now? Tomatoes you still need to process? A bear hide that’s headed to the taxidermist? Venision from a very productive harvest? A few turkeys and giant pork roasts from last year’s butchering? Make sure that your freezer can handle the new bounty you’re going to put in it.
If part (or all) of what you’re butchering is meant for other people, make sure they have room in their freezer. Whether it is family, friends, or local customers, inform them of when butcher day is and make it clear when you will need the processed meat picked up by. It’s important that people who will be taking some of that meat off your hands have time to get their freezers in order.
9. Organize areas in the house for butcher day.
Butcher day is hectic enough without having to work around other stuff. Straighten things up in the areas you’ll be using. No dishes in the sink. No piles on the table. Clean off the counters. Make sure there are plenty of paper towels/washcloths/etc easily accessible. Back in the days when we used to butcher outside and then rinse/wrap inside the house, there was nothing more frustrating than to come in the house with a tote of meat ready to rinse and wrap…and have a sink full of dishes to move.
10. Have snacks and meals ready.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to have to figure out on butchering day is what to feed everyone who is helping. My kids have learned that on butcher days there will be (gasp!) store bought doughnuts on the table. I also plan easy meals for lunch and/or supper. It’s the perfect time to make use of our slow cooker or electric pressure cooker. Our butchering days are usually long so it’s nice to know I have one less thing to worry about. When we’re ready to take a break, the food is right there and waiting. Even if you’re only butchering a few chickens, go ahead and put a meal in the crockpot. Taking an animal from slaughter to freezer can take longer than you think it will, especially if you’re new to the process.
Bonus! — Celebrate!
There is nothing more satisfying than a homegrown meal, and you can take pride in knowing you’ve worked hard through the entire process to make it a reality for your family. Take time to celebrate your accomplishment. Well done, homesteader. Well done.