Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Butchering Smokey

I'll repeat the warning I put up every time we butcher: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you are vegetarian or have a squeamish stomach. This post shows pictures of our heifer being butchered. I don't want anyone complaining that they weren't adequately warned about the graphic nature of these photos.


Okay. That said, this morning we butchered our heifer Smokey.

Smokey is our herd matron Ruby's calf, and let me tell you she's been a pill from Day One. She's always had a snarky personality (gets it from her mom) and is a clever escape artist to boot. Altogether a pain in the patookus.

We also call her our One-Horned Wonder because it was the first time our trusty dehorning paste had failed us. One horn grew, hence her nickname.

Anyway the mobile butchers were slated to arrive this morning, so yesterday evening we called the herd up from the pasture and managed (with very little trouble, for once!) to get Smokey into the barn, where she most assuredly didn't want to be. But we learned last February (when we butchered our steer Nebuchadnezzar) that doing the actual shooting in the barn is mighty handy. The butcher can shoot at point-blank range and not miss, and the animal isn't running all over the place.

Smokey kept giving us understandably (and, as it turns out, justifiably) suspicious looks at being locked up.

But no matter! For once we were SET! No chasing recalcitrant cows all over creation just as the butchers drove up. No sirree, not this time! We went to bed feeling smug and pleased with ourselves.

That was our first mistake. NEVER get smug on a farm.

Sure enough, I woke up at 5 am this morning to the noise of a heifer yelling... but not in the barn. I looked out the window and saw her ambling across our neighbor's pasture, hollering at the other cows. Crap.

Turns out she had managed to jump over the barn gate (above her head!), stomp through my young corn patch, and break open another gate into the woods, where she slipped through three other fences until she arrived in the neighbor's pasture.

Remember what I said about this girl being an escape artist? I could not WAIT until she was in the freezer.

I woke up Don, we threw on clothes, grabbed push poles, and got her off the neighbor's land and back onto ours, then tossed her in with the rest of the herd. "The butchers can just shoot her in front of everyone," pronounced Don through gritted teeth, and I agreed with him (thus proving it's not a smart idea to herd cattle before caffeine).

For a variety of reasons the rest of the morning was awful -- too much work at too early an hour, plus I was worried about getting Smokey into a manageable position before the butchers arrived. Plus the day was heating up again (it's been very hot lately).

Miraculously the herd moseyed back into the driveway area around 8:30 am, and I told Don, "Let's try to push her back into the barn." He was skeptical that she would go, but we armed both kids with push poles and actually succeeded! While I stood guard at the gate so she wouldn't jump over it again, Don got a 2x6 and screwed it over the top to block the escape route.

Thankfully -- and literally -- within five minutes after accomplishing this, up drove Potlatch Pack!

I tell ya, when I heard that gun go off which announced Smokey was down, I did a little dance of jig. (Okay that's mean, I know...)

They used a winch from the truck to pull her out of the barn.

Mel (the butcher) slit her throat over a bucket to catch the majority of the blood.

Here he's skinning the head, which he'll remove to get it out of the way.

I thought there was something grotesquely picturesque about this photo. In a macabre sort of way, of course.

Then Mel lowered the carcass to the ground and got ready to skin it. Since he's working solo today (he often works with his nephew Chance), he used this bar to prop the body up.

Starting the skinning. Skinning is a tricky business, and Mel is an expert.

He also removes the hooves. Can't skin a cow with the feet still on! This also exposes some strong tendons in the back legs which are used to hoist the carcass up.

Skinning. (Notice the head and feet in the background.)

Halfway through, Mel half-hoists the carcass higher to make skinning easier.

Notice the plastic holster of sharp knives, fastened around his waist with a chain belt. Last February when Mel's nephew Chance was butchering our steer by himself, he slipped in the mud and fell. "That's why you always wear your knives in a holster rather than putting them in your pocket!" he said cheerfully as he got up covered with mud.

Here's one of the hooks, slipped through the Achilles' tendon in the hind leg. These hooks will be used later to hoist the carcass up and slide it into the truck.

But meanwhile Mel uses a bracer bar to finish skinning and make gutting easier.

Gutting. He's already sawed through the breast bone. We asked him to save the liver, which a neighbor adores.

Sawing through the spine, cutting the carcass in half. Notice the internal organs on the ground.

Hosing hosing hosing. These guys hose things down constantly to keep things as clean as possible.

Mel opens the door of the truck, getting ready to slide the carcass inside on rollers.

Remember those hooks we saw earlier, through the Achilles' tendon? Mel is lifting those hooks onto rollers to slide the carcass halves into the truck.

Portrait of a hard-working blue-collar man.

One last bit of skinning and cutting before the halves are separated.

Ready to slide into the truck. Mel will transport the carcass to his facility, where it's hung in a cooler for at least a week before being cut and wrapped.

Hosing down one last time...

...and into the truck.

Time to deal with the internal organs. Mel always slices open and empties the stomach. No sense hauling thirty pounds of half-digested grass around.

We asked if he could dump the contents in a wheelbarrow so we could put it on the compost pile.

The chickens love butchering day.

And that was it! Butchering is done for the time being. We'll get the meat back in about two weeks.

Today Mel had a young man named Adrian with him who watched the proceedings with great interest. He was apprenticing to be a butcher and had already worked quite a bit with Mel, learning to cut meat. He still needed training for the slaughter, skinning, gutting, quartering, etc. of livestock.

I expressed my admiration for his choice of a practical career that would virtually guarantee him employment. "Mel tells me it's a dying art," he said, and I agreed. In a tough economy, I believe it will be the practical jobs that will survive. Society will always need butchers. But society may not always need experts in 18th century French feminist literature or something similarly specialized.

Just sayin'.


  1. I know I shouldn't have, but I couldn't help myself... you had me in stitches reading the account of your very naughty heifer. So glad you'll now be able to enjoy her lol.

  2. Okay, I WASN'T a vegetarian....

    I've been to slaughterhouses before, the carcasses don't bother me. I've even watched chickens being slaughtered. It's seeing the before pictures too. I think what really got to me was the disembodied head.

    Still I made myself look at all of them. You never know when you might need to be able to do it yourself.

    1. Yes,I agree, the head was pretty bad looking. Did you notice the bullet hole in the center. Now we know that, too!
      K in OK<><

  3. Patrice,

    Great post, outlining the slaughter of a cow. Those who eat meat need to realize have to slaughter a cow in order to have/eat meat. There are so many people that think meat comes automatically from a grocery store in a little styrofoam container.

    How long did it take your butcher from beginning to end on this slaughter? I've always seen farmers taken their cattle to the slaughter houses, never seen it done (on cows)at the farm directly.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. It took a bit over an hour from the time Potlatch Pack drove up to the time they drove away.

      - Patrice

  4. I'm forever impressed by Potlatch Pack and even more so now watching Mel do a butcher ALL BY HIMSELF. Wow.

    Hilarious story. Bad, BAD (but delicious) Smokey!! (Love the one-horned skull picture.)

  5. How long did it take him from beginning to end? We've had one done in the past, but it's been a while. And my mom wants to have another one done, so I was just wondering. May have to wait till winter though, the flies are pretty terrible here...

  6. Excellent read! I really enjoyed the whole process right down to the clean up by the chickens :~)

  7. What about the tongue and the spleen and the kidneys and the heart? Who got those?
    Man thats my favorite parts. Debris sauce piquant!

    1. I called our neighbor who enjoys organ meat, and asked if she wanted the kidneys and tongue, but she said she already had plenty (she did take the liver). The rest went to waste, I'm afraid.

      - Patrice

  8. I'm glad to hear that the young man is looking at such a practical career as butchering. When our town was small and rural before the building boom we had a butcher. He was an immigrant (legal) from Germany. He an my father bartered services as long as I can remember until they both retired. My father was a mechanic, he kept Joe's old mobile butcher truck running. We also, had meat in the freezer.
    Again, glad to hear the young man is in training.

  9. you are so right about butchering being a very practical work skill! I wish we had mobile butchers around here. Hope Smokey fills the freezer well!

  10. I always enjoy your butchering post...btw, you have the best header pictures on the net.

  11. This should be REQUIRED curriculum for kids before middle school. Probably way too late, but people need to know where food comes from and what real, necessary jobs are like. Our culture is far too detached from the real world. LOVED the French lit. comment.

    This is my favorite early morning read. Keep up the good work, we need it.


  12. Hi,

    Are you going to use the hide? It seems that cow hides would be useful.


    1. The butchers take the hide and sell it to a tannery to partially offset the cost of the farm call. If we wanted to keep the hide we'd be paying more for the farm call. And since we don't have the means to tan leather, it all works out for the best.

      - Patrice

  13. Does't look much different from skinning and gutting a buck! Quartering would be my hurdle! I can't wait to have our own livestock!!

  14. Showed my city teenagers and they said at the end, "That wasn't as bad as I thought." :)

  15. I am a lifelong vegetarian (none of the rest of my household is though) and I still find all your butchering posts fascinating. I will also show my children these when they are old enough to understand it, because I think it's important to understand where food comes from. I also think it's important to understand what responsibly raised meat is.

    She did appear to be quite the devil of a little cow. I suppose it's quite fitting that one snaggle horn hung on. It seems to have suited her. :o)

  16. How many pounds of beef will you end up with?

  17. I certainly hope we can find a butcher when we need one.
    Good that there is an apprentice there.
    Butchers are always needed.
    Thanks for the post.

  18. Just recently found your blog and I love it! Growing up in a small farming community, I found your butchering post fascinating. I enjoyed your post very much!

  19. I think your Idaho heifer was related to two of our Arizona steers. I don't know how many times we'd be awakened at 2:00 in the morning by a neighbor pounding on our door and yelling, "Your steers are out!" They jumped ANY fence, effortlessly. When it came time to butcher them we herded them into a small temporary enclosure of 6-ft high fence panels...and watched in disbelief as they clambered over them. We were so very glad to see them put into the freezer.

    We would do our own butchering, aging, wrapping and grinding of hamburger; our neighbor had a walk-in freezer where they could hang and a small butcher shop on his property. When he butchered, we helped and vice versa. Still, even with the family and neighbors all working together it makes for a long day. But there is nothing like having your freezer full of your own meet, and picking out a package whenever you please...and NOTHING tastes better!

  20. I remember our neighbor butchering his pigs. On those mornings you could hear it squeal until you heard the bang. In addition to the meat they made all kinds of sausages and sausage soup....was a yummy day.

  21. My dad butchered our beef. That was the most tasty beef I ever ate. The stuff in grocery stores is just not quite the same.

  22. Just as a curiosity (and please don't feel obligated to answer if you don't want to), how much does a service like this cost? What's your price per pound after the job is done?

    Really amazing photos. I'm not squeamish, but like some of your other commenters, I force myself to watch because that's the reality of life.



    1. The final cost will depend on the weight of the animal. I'm going to estimate this heifer will cost us about $350, or a bit over $1/lb of meat. Of course that doesn't take into account our time, labor, and feed costs in raising her for two years.

      - Patrice