As a child, I found it fascinating to watch my dad skin rabbits. The pig slaughter chapter of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder was also a favorite. The description of the process in the book was something I remember vividly, particularly the section about them playing with a pig bladder balloon and eating crispy bacon tails.
Growing up, I also had the opportunity to live in rural America, where the butcher shop didn’t hide the fact that meat came from animals—half hogs and steers hung in the butcher shop windows for all to see. The butchers cut off the piece you wanted to buy right in front of you; you knew exactly what you were getting and from where it came. I’m thankful that I had firsthand experience with what it takes to put meat on the table. For me, meat didn’t come from a grocery store. It comes from farms, from the woods, and from butchers who see their work as an art form. My experiences gave me a deep appreciation for life and a keen sensitivity to death, especially when it relates to the table. All of these experiences influenced our decision to process our pigs right here on the farm.
Why on the farm?
When we decided to raise pigs, we knew we wanted to slaughter them ourselves, for a few reasons. First and foremost, we wanted to make sure they had the least stressful end of life experience as possible. After carefully tending our pigs, ensuring they had happy pig lives, knowing how they were slaughtered was extremely important to us. If we had access to a local traveling butcher, we would have hired one, but currently, Maine laws don’t allow it. Thus, our only option was to do it ourselves.
We also felt that processing the meat ourselves ensured that it would be done exactly as we wanted, and that we would be able to use 100 percent of the animal. Having dogs, cats and fowl, processing on the farm also allowed us to use the entire animal by utilizing the portions we didn’t want to consume ourselves for pet food. On-farm processing means you get to keep the bones, skin and other parts that are often discarded at the processing facility. We chose not to wash and use the intestines or make bladder balloons, so the entrails were buried in a location where we plan to plant a tree.
Another important consideration in our choice for on-farm slaughter was that we did not have a livestock trailer for transporting the hogs, so doing it on our farm kept us from having to find, rent or borrow a trailer. Finally, we knew we could save a good deal of money on processing costs. The money we saved allowed us to purchase a few key pieces of equipment and pay a mentor to help. Even with these expenses, we saved more than half of what it would cost to have the animals processed off the farm.
There are other reasons to slaughter on-site. For others we know, not having access to a reputable butcher facility makes on-farm pig processing a necessity. We are lucky to have many wonderful options here in Maine, though getting an appointment can be difficult. If you do live in an area with good butcher shops, getting a time slot that coincides with optimum pig maturity can be difficult. All of the better facilities in our area are typically booked two years in advance. On-site processing means you can process your hogs whenever it works best for you, and for the growth of the pigs you are raising.
On-farm pig processing is not difficult or overly complicated, but it does require a few key pieces of equipment and an ability to deal with the emotional aspect of killing an animal. Here are a few things to consider before you decide to slaughter on the farm.
Finding a mentor is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a successful experience of on-farm pig processing. It is especially important for the actual slaughter – you want to make sure it is carried out in the most humane way possible. This is not the time to be reading books and trying to learn. Learn by watching someone who is experienced.
Thankfully, we have a friend who has a great deal of experience slaughtering pigs and other large animals—he is also trained in European seam butchery. We paid him to help, both with the slaughter and the butchering of our pigs. He charged us an hourly rate, which was still much cheaper than taking the pigs to a local processor.
Many areas have nose-to-tail workshops for hands-on learning. Attending one of these is a great option if you can’t find someone with experience to come help on-site. If you can find an experienced person, consider setting up a workshop at your farm. Invite friends who also want to learn. Not only will everyone be learning a valuable skill, but having extra hands on deck makes the process easier. Slaughtering a few smaller animals first is good experience and practice. If you know people who process their own chickens, ducks, sheep or goats, or friends who hunt deer, hogs or other large animals, offer to lend a hand. Not only will you learn valuable tips, but you will acclimate yourself to the process. If the slaughtering process isn’t for you, it’s better to realize that while slaughtering a chicken versus a pig.
Recently, in our area, a traveling slaughter company has started. They come to the farm, slaughter for you, and leave you the halves to butcher yourself. This is a great option if you don’t want to participate in the slaughter portion, yet you prefer to process the meat yourself.
On-farm slaughter is not for the faint of heart, or the faint of stomach. It can be difficult to participate in the slaughter of an animal that you fed and interacted with daily. Pigs are especially endearing animals. Maintaining an emotional distance from the animals you raise for the table will make this process easier. The emotional aspect of slaughter is always the most difficult part for me. In fact, the first time we slaughtered pigs, I couldn’t eat pork for two months.
If you or any of your family members are overly sensitive, be it emotionally or to smells, sights, etc., on-farm processing might not be the best option for you. Also be particularly mindful of other animals on the farm. We always keep dogs and cats indoors and away from the process on slaughter day. Not only do you not want them in the way, but some animals can be sensitive about their friends. Our livestock guardian dog is especially sensitive to loud noises and strange people—she spends slaughter day indoors away from the action.
Our processing happens in the winter, once the weather has turned cold. Here in Maine, that means we slaughter in late November or early December. If you don’t have predictable weather, you will need some way to cool the carcasses and keep them cold. You will want to hang the halves, at least overnight, as the meat is easier to handle when cool and after the muscles relax. We hang the halves for five to six days in our unheated back porch. When we had a warmish day during hanging a few years ago, we used a window air conditioner unit with the sensor by a light bulb to cool the space. Make sure the hanging space is safe from rodents and animals, and that it is out of direct sun. Also, be sure you have enough freezer space for all the meat. The amount you pick up from a processing facility and the amount you will have when you slaughter on-site can be radically different.
The actual slaughter is fairly quick. We used a gun, brought by our friend who performed the act of slaughtering. It’s the gun he always uses and one he is comfortable with. After shooting, you stick the pig to bleed it out. We chose to hang ours and collect the blood. This can be used for blood sausage, for feeding other farm animals, or you can dilute it and use it in the garden as a fertilizer. The larger the animal, the more they kick, so keep clear. We opt to scald and scrape our hogs, but other folks we know skin their hogs because they don’t have access to a tank large enough for scalding. We start in the morning and are usually finished with the slaughter before lunch. The carcasses are hung on our back porch, and we butcher the following weekend.
Tools of the trade
Having a few key tools will make the slaughter and butchering much more enjoyable. You will need a gun with enough power to kill the animal, yet not something super powerful. A tractor with a bucket can make it much easier to handle the carcasses, though you can use a pulley on a strong tree limb or a winch, and a heavy-duty chain will keep the meat off the ground.
You will want to have a bone saw or sawzall to cut hogs into sides—wrapping the sawzall with plastic is a good idea. Then you need a scalder and scraper (you can use knives for scraping) or skinning knife for processing the carcass before cutting. Our scalding tank is an old heating oil tank cut in half. Some people use 55-gallon drums as scalders. Meat hooks and spreaders are worth sourcing. If you don’t want to purchase them, ask friends who hunt and process deer if you can borrow theirs.
Be sure to have a large supply of freezer paper or other wrapping—restaurant supply stores are the best place to purchase these very inexpensively. Consider purchasing or borrowing a heavy-duty meat grinder with different size grinding plates. This is particularly important if you plan to make a lot of sausage. Have available a large table or two, large food-grade containers, lots of salt (coarse sea salt is best), a scale that can weigh up to 25 pounds, and spices for sausage, ham and bacon cure. Premixing spices for sausage in advance can save time during processing. I measure spices to flavor sausage in 10-pound batches (usually Italian, sage and chorizo). Mixing bacon cure and ham brine in advance will also save time on butchering day. I particularly like the recipes from The River Cottage Meat Book for bacon and hams. There are lots of recipes online, but be sure to select the ones you want to use ahead of time and have all ingredients ready.
Setting aside an appropriate amount of time will make the process less stressful. Processing two 300-pound animals is not quick. Including hanging time, it takes us about 10 days to process two hogs. This time frame does not include the time needed to brine ham and bacon or any of the meat smoking. Our hams usually brine for 40 days, the bacon cured for 10 to 15 days before being smoked for a few hours for four to five days.
Having extra hands on deck will make it faster. You might be surprised at how many people are interested in the process and would be willing to help. There is a reason pig butchering used to be a family or community event. Pigs are large animals, they are heavy, and having a few strapping folks around makes the process easier. Not only do strong arms help with the physical work, but having more people helps lighten the emotional toll of the slaughter. Sending folks home with fresh pork is a great incentive to encourage friends and family to participate.
There is a time for everything, a time for life and a time for death. So often we try to shield ourselves from things like death because we see them only as negative. In a way, death can expand our experience and allow us to truly appreciate what life is, and that new life is borne of it. On-farm slaughter allows us to gain a deeper appreciation for the food on our tables. Not only will you be able to participate in the daily rearing of animals, but you will also participate in their death. Through this, you will have a deep sense of exactly what it takes to have bacon for your table—no part of the process will be hidden. Through this experience, you will be even more thankful at Easter when you carve the ham, you will be deeply appreciative of the sausage you enjoy for breakfast, and you will be grateful for the bones that made broth for the nourishing soup that warms you in winter.
Susy Morris is a Maine-based writer, photographer and hobby farmer who loves experimenting with different techniques to make her farm and garden more sustainable. Find more from her at her Grit blog, Chiots Run.