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February 14, 2012

Hog Harvest 2011 - What Really Happened

We can't say enough about the quality of the pigs we got from Spring Hill Farms for 2011. Those Tamworth hogs were so incredible - I'm even looking forward to getting this year's pigz! So while I'm dreaming of setting up the new hog lot and all the bacon that we'll get next winter - I thought I'd tell you about Hog Harvest 2011.  But first, a disclaimer.....

Gentle Readers, due to the mature content of today's post,  the very young, vegetarians, and folks who don't want to know where their food comes from should look away. There will be pictures! We'll talk about blood and guts and there will be shooting and meat flying everywhere.  Don't read this or scroll down if you might burst into flames or puke on your keyboard! Look away! Here! Look at Nibbles instead! I'M NOT KIDDING. Consider yourselves warned.....

So you may be wondering why I'm even gonna show you? Easy - far and away the single most popular post of my blog is the How to Hog Harvest Step by Step.  You'd think it would be fluffy little ducks or something but nope. Its how to butcher a pig in your own yard.  More and more people are saving money - and learning how to be empowered - by raising their own food. So I figure you'd like to know. Here goes. Ready?

Best day ever - pigz, tractors, and booze. Whoot!

Unlike our sweeping saga (Parts One, Two, Three, and Four) there really wasn't a lot of drama on our butchering day. Actually there wasn't any drama. It all went off without a hitch. We had to wait until the second weekend in December to butcher. This was a little late but we had to wait until we had a couple of really cold days - and we had to coordinate our schedules with our pal, Bourbon Red.

Altho you can butcher in other seasons, waiting until its freezing has its advantages. First, if the ground is frozen you don't have to work in a big muddy mess. Second, its best to allow the pork to hang overnight to chill. You need below 40* weather for food safety and the meat is easier to cut if its well chilled. It also works out better for me if I have a couple cold days and nights in a row. That way I can work on the cutting at an easy pace over a couple of days. When it gets cold our big garage works great.  Of course if you have a huge meat cooler you wouldn't need to rely on "organic refrigeration." 

Bourbon Red and his kids ("the Poults") showed up the night before as its a pretty long drive. After some coffee the next morning we all ran right out to get to work. A couple days before we had set up a pen outside the hog lot so we were ready for action. We set up this pen so that we could confine the pigs for easier handling. And to stay out of the mud that the pigs worked so hard to make all summer.

Leading them out to the new pen where the ground was frozen.

A bucket of corn helped lure the pigs into the holding pen. We secured the gates and then someone sent me up to unplug the electric fence - which we should have done before. By the time I got half way up the hill the shooting was over. By the time I started back down the hill the pigz were being bled out. And that was it.

We used our ancient garden tractor to haul the carcasses up the hill to our work area beside the garage. Once there we used a hose to wash all the dirt and stuff off the carcasses and propped them up on their backs so we could do the gutting. True to our hillbilly ways, we used a 4x4 and a tire. It totally worked.

That's how to gut a pig.

I eagerly stood nearby with my biggest kettle during the gutting so I could get every precious piece of leaf lard - and all the usable organs. The rest of the guts went into a feedbag to be disposed of later. I think for one of the pigz we were so excited that we didn't saw off the head first... I'll admit we were very eager to get to the liver. You know how I love my pate!

Once we got the carcasses gutted we rinsed them really well and had to heave-ho them up onto our makeshift skinning table. This is really why you need a couple of big guys - even field dressed those pigs were huge! We removed the trotters with our handy meat saw.

Making short work of skinnin' them pigz.

For me, skinning is the hardest part. I'm just not very good at it. The trick is to keep your knives extremely sharp, to pull the skin toward you, and make a series of small cuts to keep as much fat on the pig as possible. Start at the hocks on the forelegs and work your way back. Once you've worked your way down the sides and skinned the back leg of the pig,  you can roll the carcass on one side and work on the back, then roll the other way to release the hide.

Then its just a matter of sawing the carcass into halves. Of course.... there's the hard way and the easy way. We grabbed a sawsall with a new blade and made short work of the halving. Yes we did.  Why cut them in half? So they will cool quickly and so they are more easy to manage.

Hanging the carcasses from a rafter in the garage makes sure they are far enough off the ground that your barncats cant reach the meat, and will allow the air to circulate around the meat to chill it as quickly as possible. I think it was about 25* the day we did this which was perfect. Just cut a hole in the meat between the bone and the big tendon in the back leg, push a piece of baling twine thru, and string it up on a hook. We used a 'come-along' secured over a rafter and just cranked it up to the right height.

The skinning table is really just some 2x6's whacked together on a couple of saw horses.

Then there was nothing to do but march victoriously into the house and have some cinnamon rolls and a bunch of coffee. All told it took several hours to get this done. But we weren't in any hurry so we took our time. We had a great day , the work was interesting, and we were wow'd by the size of the hogs and the quality of the meat. And the lard! Oh so much lard!

About this time there is usually some questions so I'll toss out the most common ones and you can let me know if you have more....

Q: Did you cry? Where you scared? Eeeewweeeee! How could you do that?!
A: Nope. Nope. And please calm down. If we can do this, you can do this. We aren't emotionally attached to the pigz at all and by the end of the season, frankly, we are sick of feeding them. But if this isn't your thing then that's OK, everyone has their limits. If you are interested but freaked out, try and find someone to mentor you. Or see if you can help or observe a mobile butcher that will come to your place. Or call these guys up and have them come and teach you.

Q: Why don'tcha just take 'em to the butcher or something?
A:  Why not do it at home? Provided you don't have problems like these jokers, there's no reason you can't. The tools are simple and just about anyone can master the technique. If you are scared, pray for courage. If you are freaked out, focus on the task. If you need help, ask - almost everyone knows someone who hunts, see if they will assist you.

It would have been silly for us to spend the entire day trying to get 2 huge pigs up the hill and into a scary stock trailer just to pay someone to do the work that we can do ourselves. And you know who cheap I am. The only reason we'd take them in to be processed is if for some reason we had to butcher out of season - and the only reason we'd take them in is because we don't have a big enough cooler for a whole pork.

Also I read on another blog that someone got their pork back from the butcher and the liver was funky. They didn't want to take a chance that the pig had been sick or whatnot. So they tossed all of the meat. That breaks my heart. I'd rather be able to see exactly what is going on and have everything under our direct control.

And I think its easier on the pigs. All they knew was that one minute they were happily munching on some corn and the next minute someone was handing them some bacon-angel-wings. They didn't even know what hit them.

Q: Why did you skin them? Aren't you supposed to scald them?
A: I'm not sure that having that much hot water around is such a great idea. And trying to heave-ho these monster pigs into a vat of hot water just sounds like it would be fraught with danger. I don't even think they would fit in a 50 gallon drum and I'm not sure there would be any benefit in buying some kind of specialty tub. One year we torched the pigs and all that really did was remove the hair. We ended up skinning them anyway. I don't think we'd be gaining much by not skinning them - for most of the cuts you'd take the skin off. Besides what I really want to get to is all that lovely fat.

Q: What about hanging them up to gut them? Why didn't you do that?
A: Ugh. For us that just sounds like more work than necessary. Bourbon Red tried this method and it ended in just a big pile of guts everywhere. Gravity is not always your friend.

Q: What tools did you use?
A: Check out this page for a complete list. You'll notice that we just used everyday stuff. And a sawsall. 

Q: What do you do with all the leftover "stuff" and "residue" and um.. heads?
A: Depends. If the weather is fitting we have a huge burn pile. Sometimes we let the chickens peck on the hides for a while. As for the heads... the local garbage guy knows not to look to closely at anything we put out there at the end of the drive.

So that's the way of it. Everyone still with me?

Remember this was just an overview - you can check out the detailed step by step directions of how to butcher a hog here

Do you want to learn more about where to get pigs? 

Or what you need to know to get started raising pigs?

Or how to feed pigs cheaply?

Or the benefits of putting pigs on pasture and feeding them from your barnyard?

What do you think - are you ready to give this a try?  Who's excited to get this years feeder pigs and turn them out to pasture?

Happy Tuesday everyone!