Monday, April 29, 2013

Butchering day

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 some animals 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 steer, Thor, and our bull calf, Atlas.

The most challenging part of butchering animals is getting them confined to the barn the day before the butchers come, and keeping them there. Through harsh experience we've learned that trying to round up an animal on the actual the day it's due to be dispatched is stressful, frustrating, and often a failure.

And even when we cleverly get an animal confined the night before is no guarantee he'll be there in the morning. Last summer when we butchered our heifer Smokey, she escaped the barn during the night, jumped two gates, plowed through three fences, and went gamboling across the neighbor's pasture by the time I found her at dawn the next morning. Grrrr, was I ever glad to put that girl in the freezer.

Thor, who is Matilda's two-year-old steer, has been growing more and more snarky over the last few months. He's big, and has been plowing down fences with abandon. We know from experience that an animal with an unpleasant disposition isn't going to improve; far better to stop feeding him and let him feed us.

We originally purchased Atlas when he was a few days old from a neighbor, thinking we would raise him to become our new herd sire. However our old bull Gimli was his father, meaning he has a bit too much relatedness to our girls. Once we got our new bull Samson, poor little Atlas became surplus. He's very sweet-natured and rather small for his age (he's about 17 months old). We thought we had a buyer for him, but no such luck.

Anyway, in anticipation of the mobile butchers who were due to arrive this morning, we needed to maneuver the herd out of the pasture and back toward the house (and barn). But before we could do that, we needed to make some infrastructure improvements.

Last week we bit the bullet and bought eight more cattle panels (cha-ching!). They're expensive but oh my, they're wonderful. Instant (and sturdy) fences wherever you need them.

We wanted to block the cattle from getting into the garden, the chicken coop, and the hay barn. So we trotted the cattle panels around and put in temporary U-nails to keep them in place.

Here the barn and all that tempting hay is walled off.

Next step: the old barn. It sustained some severe damage during a windstorm a couple months ago. The barn was built with cheap T1-11 sheets and gets damaged all the time. Time to patch it, at least temporarily, since the area on the right is where Thor will be locked up for the night.

We nailed one of the T1-11 sheets lengthwise across the wall, then put a cattle panel across the top. We also reinforced several spots inside that we felt Thor could push through if he was agitated enough.

This pretty much wiped out Don, who still doesn't have his full strength back from last week's kidney failure.

But at this point all that was left to do was trot down and close our driveway gate.

Then I walked to the pasture gate and yelled "Bossy bossy bossy bossy bossy!" -- which is our universal cattle call. Immediately the critters came running.

As usual, Brit was the first through the gate.

As the neighbor's horses watched, all the other cattle came barreling through in short order.

At first everyone congregated in the back of the barn before scattering around the driveway area.

We left the barn door invitingly open. Sure enough Thor, being the curious creature that he is, went in to investigate and I closed the door behind him. One down, one to go.

Atlas was a little more wily but was unable to resist exploring Matilda's stall, the door of which I left invitingly open. Soon he too was where he needed to be. Whoo-hoo, success! And fairly painless too! No rodeos this time.

We left the rest of the livestock in the driveway for the night, and all night long we were serenaded by bellows from Thor and Atlas. I also spent the night stressing. I always do this the day before, and the morning of, butchering -- stress that the doomed critter(s) will make an escape. We checked constantly to see if either animal was breaking out of the barn, but it actually -- and let the record show, this is the first time -- held, and no one escaped. Atlas, however, did an absolute number on Matilda's stall -- trashed it -- and managed to escape into Thor's area, but since he couldn't escape from Thor's side, they were within easy dispatch reach.

Potlatch Pack, the best mobile butchers in the region, came on the dot of 10 am this morning. Their specialized rig is self-contained with water, power, and all their tools.

On the side of the rig are barrels for waste.

Within minutes, both animals were down. These men know precisely where to place the bullet so the animal drops instantly with hardly a twitch and certainly without suffering. They chained the animals up one by one to get them out of the barn. First order is to drain the blood, then take off the head followed by the feet. (Mel is on the right, and his nephew Chance is on the left.)

Then they start skinning. I've never seen anyone who could skin as quickly and perfectly. Comes from sheer practice, of course.

They always make sure the tough Achilles tendons are exposed because they use them for hanging the carcass later on.

Today has been a day of wild shrieking wind (gusts up to 60 mph) but the men were cheerful as they worked. "At least it's not blowing snow," said Mel.

Over his waterproof apron, each man wore a belt from which dangled a plastic holster for their knives...

...and a knife sharpener. The sharpener is constantly in use.

Within short order, the carcasses were partially skinned and ready to gut.

But first they have to cut through the ribcage, which they do with a specialized chain saw. They have to be careful not to cut any of the internal organs, which could taint the meat.

They insert a stout metal bracket through the tendons on the back legs so the animal can be partially hoisted. Lifting the animal makes it far easier to gut, finish skinning, and then halve the carcass.

Once the carcass is hoisted, they gut it.

We have a neighbor who adores fresh liver, so they put the liver aside for her.

Next they cut through the backbone.

Here they're hosing down the carcass. The men hose down everything, constantly: themselves, their aprons, their knives, the carcass, the truck... they keep everything squeaky-clean.

They can finally finish detaching the hide. This is almost the last step.

They put the hide in one of the side barrels.

They sell the hide to an outfit in Spokane that bundles them into thousand-hide lots and ships them to the Orient, where they're processed into leather. This surprised me, but Chance told me there are no more large-scale tanneries in America any more.

"It amazes me how many manufacturing jobs we've lost," I commented.

Chase gave a small bitter smile. "And they're just beginning to realize the impact," he said, thus proving that every blue-collar worker in America "gets" what our politicians don't.

It didn't take long for all four carcass halves to be wheeled into the interior of the truck.

Then the cleanup began. I took the tub of blood onto the compost pile with the intent of pouring it around (blood is a superb compost activator)...

...but the blood had already congealed into a gelatinous mass. So I left it. The chickens will probably scratch around in it, but the wind was shrieking too hard to fuss with it for now.

Chase emptied the contents of the stomachs into the now-empty tub. This too will go onto the compost pile.

He found a couple of hairballs in the stomach contents. "They're harmless," he said, "and it's too bad these are soft hairballs. Hard hairballs are worth money." Go figure.

All the leftover stuff -- unused organs, hooves, heads, etc. -- were put in the waste barrels. This material is trucked to a rendering plant.

From start to finish, butchering two animals took the men one and three-quarters hours. They have another stop at a neighbor's for a steer, then another stop for two more animals in a small town south of us, before they make their way back to their facility. There the meat hangs in a cooler for ten days, after which they cut and wrap it. In about two weeks, we'll get ground beef, stew meat, and lots of different cuts of steak and roasts, all organic grass-fed beef. Yum!

We don't know what the hanging weight is yet, but I'm guessing it's at least 750 lbs. between the two animals.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: these men and the service they offer exemplifies all that is BEST in America. They work hard and do a dirty job in sometimes adverse weather conditions; and they do it cleanly, humanely, and cheerfully.

I wish we had more people like Potlatch Pack. Thank you once again, Mel and Chance, for your work today.


  1. Always find this interesting, Patrice plus you know where your meat comes from. We have a local butcher here and the meat is expensive, but it's worth every penny. Question: What are those hairballs used for?

    Phyllis(N/W Jersey)

  2. That post was very tame. But, I suppose you have to warn people. I really enjoyed the explantions and pictures. Thanks.

  3. Oh what I wouldn't give for fresh grass-fed local beef. We have no butchers anywhere even close so it's not likely to happen anytime soon. I'm jealous Guess I'll have to stick to butchering my own chickens, but every so often I'd love to have some beef. I just refuse to buy factory raised though.

    And I'm curious too. What ARE those hairballs for?

  4. Ditto,
    I just did a post on butchering too. Mine I guess wasn't as tame, but I gave full warning.
    I also want to know what the hairballs are for? Chinese Medicine? I guess I should have checked in my steers rumen ; )


  5. I'm fascinated by the process and the miracle made by God to feed us.

    We don't butcher but we do buy grassfed beef. Tonight, son and I splurged on "fast food" at the warehouse market that processes our beef. They have a smoker and you can buy smoked or broasted chicken, beef brisket and short ribs and baby back pork ribs and they make vegetable and potato salads from scratch. He had chicken and I had brisket before going to 4H. While I was standing there, I watched as they cut up and then dredged the chicken in the flour before putting it in their broaster. Some places still do things the old fashioned, proper way.

    I guess I'm strange because when I saw the pics, I had thought of the brisket I ate...fondly.


  6. Nah that wasn't too graphic, but I've done my own deer. You guys are right though, some just still don't realize that there is a "dirty" task involved in obtaining meat....even the fancy organic stuff. I've never figured out why there are those that write nasties regarding this type of subject....just don't look at it.

    Ya gotta wonder just where do they think this stuff comes from.

    The special food fairy?

    That said, I don't buy a half or whole. We don't eat quite that much. I have a couple of local butchers that buy only from known farmers, fussy on their selection. I have two grass-fed operations within seven miles of me. I don't shop there, the meat is 50% + in price. Their target market is the city CSA group I think. I have fairly deep pockets for the area, but its a bit beyond me. $6.25/lb for a chuck roast is a bit pricey, not quite double.

  7. From the projected 750 pounds, how much meat in weight can you expect. And what do you expect the ball park cost of their service is.

    Thank you for your consistent material and fresh open perspective.

  8. Patrice, I have never used them as a packer, Used one on the other side of the lake, but my understanding is they no longer do farm calls. I when I call in a service (not often, we usually do them ourselves and take the meat to the local grocery store for cure/cut/wrap. but We like to keep the hides and I do not let them take any of the "waste", as we use it in things we do around here. I can show you how to make your own sausage casings from the small intestine, and Also things out of the large intestine, including getting some natural rennet. I do not eat brians and tongue and such... but We do like the heads. you take them and let chickens clean them up for you, then boil them outside for a day or so then let dry. Paint the skulls and put them on etsy or ebay for $50-75. I think Eidness Furs pays $50 and up for a green cow hide also.

  9. That looks like a good one and he was ready for the freezer for sure. I get bull calves from dairy herds and they don't bulk up as nice but then I don't have much tied up in them. Our current steers have another year to go. You guys did a good job on that one!

  10. Wickett & Craig is still USA leather tanned in the USA. The problem is that cattle inventory is so small in the US and it will take years to come back. The demand from China is huge. Bottom line. The cost of quality leather products will be going up in an already hard economy. Leather tanned overseas is NOT as good.

  11. Really, really wish we had an outfit like this to come do the butchering here on the farm. We have to load and haul our critters to the butcher's shop and it's a HUGE job - especially loading pigs. The last one we had we roped him around his middle with a ratchet strap and dragged him onto the trailer with a riding tractor. This fall we're going to try feeding them on the trailer a week or so in advance so, hopefully, they'll just walk on under their own power. It would make butchering day much less stressful on all of us!

  12. After lots of thinking and even more praying were heading into the butchering realm. It is the only job we could think of that is always needed at some level. My husband is taking a class at a usda facility this spring, and I am taking college classes in the fall. =It is a bit intimidating, but God seems to be pushing us in that direction. Say a little prayer for us if you could. My husband is getting out of the military in 2 more years and this is the direction we are going to try. I've done some of my own deer and rabbit before. Hopefully our own steer in the fall this year.

    Learning in NY

    1. Good for you! It's a sensible decision. Perhaps you could go mobile as our local butchers have -- there's a huge calling for mobile butchers in rural areas.

      Make sure you develop and maintain a squeaky-clean family-friendly reputation. Back when we lived in Oregon and when we faced our first butchering, some more experienced friends warned us against a particular mobile service because they were rumored to "switch" one carcass for another -- you never knew if the meat you got was the meat you raised. Plus their facility wasn't clean. People flocked to the competition in droves because they were honest, above-board, and cheerful.

      Who knows, perhaps the rumors were just that (rumors), but if you keep your nose clean and maintain good relations with the other butchers in your area, you'll do fine. Good luck!

      - Patrice

    2. I WISH we had a mobile butcher in my area! I know it would be full of business. It's really the most humane and practical way of butchering.

  13. Hi!

    If you have enough chickens to eat them in a timely manner, they'll love the organs. Beef tongue is good too.

  14. My grandfather raised chickens, so I know about butchering hens, but I've never been close to cattle. My household doesn't have the freezer space for that much meat. My in-laws have a huge freezer, but it is filled with unrecognizable frosted over stuff, and they only use the top layer to store things like Totino's pizza rolls.

  15. A few years ago we used Potlatch Pack for a hog. They were friendly and did a great job on the hog. The bacon was fantastic.


  16. That was an awesome post! Those guy's are good! I do 3 deer a year here, and will be doing 15 chickens later this summer. We pretty much live on venison,still buy pork. May raise a pig next year. But afraid my wife and daughter may get too attached.Haha And can't see paying to feed an extra "pet" pig. Maybe just go on a hog hunt further north. Glad Don's doing well. God Bless you all. jim