With the onset of cooler weather, late fall/early winter is traditionally the time larger animals such as pigs and cows are slaughtered on the homestead for the freezer. Now that fall is upon us, let’s talk about the butchering equipment for the self-reliant homesteader.
For us meat eaters, raising animals or hunting for them is only part of the equation. Slaughtering is required before the roast, chop or steak appears on the table. Most people send their large animals such as pigs, cows and sheep off to a slaughter house retrieving the cut and wrapped packages from the shop as if they were picking them up from the supermarket. To me this seems a bit like paying a hit man to do the job. If self-reliance is your goal, you’ll need to arm yourself with equipment to do the job at the homestead.
Butchering Equipment for Fowl
To slaughter chickens, turkey and the like all you need is a sharp axe to chop off the head, a chopping block large enough to support the bird during decapitation and a sharp boning knife to cut off the feet, do some cutting to eviscerate the plucked bird and cut up the carcass into pieces if desired.
We put 2 nails in the chopping block slightly off center and spaced just wide enough apart so the head fits in between them. That way the neck can be slightly stretched making the slaughtering step easier.
Although we’ve never done this, in lieu of an axe and chopping block, you could use cones that have a hole big enough on the small end for the birds’ head to fit through. The cones are mounted such that the bird is suspended upside down with their head through the small hole enabling you to sever the neck artery with a very sharp knife.
In addition to sharp knives, a meat cleaver is beneficial too for splitting the breasts in half, but not an absolute necessity. You’ll also need a kettle of scalding water that’s large enough to accommodate dunking the bird to facilitate feather removal.
Butchering Equipment for Larger Animals
First you’ll need some way to stun the animal prior to its demise. A bullet to the brain is the way we’ve always done this task, hence the need for some kind of gun. Once the animal is stunned, you’ll need a sharp hunting style knife for the exsanguination (drain the blood) step then a skinning knife for removal of the hide.
You’ll need a gambrel stick, a device that’s inserted through the hind hocks of a slaughtered animal for suspending it. Ours is a wooden one that Ron carved many years ago. A block and tackle for hoisting the carcass weighing several hundred pounds is necessary too as well as a place from which to hang it. Hanging makes for easier skinning and gutting plus any slaughtered animal should hang in a cool place for at least 24 hours to thoroughly chill. Obviously this means waiting until late fall/early winter before slaughtering any large animals unless you have some sort of walk in type cooler.
If you have a cool place where a beef carcass can safely hang for several days so much the better. Not only do chemical changes take place in the meat to improve taste and texture but the sheer weight of the hanging mass will also help to tenderize the meat. When we homesteaded in Maine, we always slaughtered our big animals in the early winter when temperatures were favorable and we hung the carcass from an extended barn ridge pole. A tractor with front bucket raised up is also an option.
A meat saw is invaluable for splitting a carcass in half once the animal is gutted. It’s also needed to cut through bone when cutting the carcass into usable pieces be they steaks, chops, roasts or even larger cuts such as hams.
The bone must be cut somehow and a meat saw is specifically designed for the job. Its teeth are sharply angled so they don’t clog up with meat fibers, sinew and fat the way a hack saw would. We used a hack saw on the first pig we ever processed and the “hack” saw lived up to its name. We received our meat saw as a gift and treasure it to this day. Boning knives, chef knives and a meat cleaver are the knives of choice for cutting up the carcass into usable pieces.
A word about knife quality. Don’t go to your local 5 and dime and buy cheap pieces of junk. Invest some dollars in good quality knives, the kind that are locked up when you go in a kitchen store. They will last you a lifetime and will do a far better job than the bargain basement stuff.
Also invest in whet stones to sharpen your knives. Before commencing any butchering, Ron always sharpens all our knives with his whet stones so they are razor sharp and ready for action. A butcher’s steel is the tool of choice for honing to keep a sharp edge on the knives throughout the process.
Large cutting boards, the largest you can find, protect counter tops from gouges from the meat saw. We have a cutting board that has a lip that actually goes over the counter top’s edge and would recommend one like that if you can find it. Ours has numerous scars on the lip that would otherwise have been on the counter’s edge. Sheets of flat cardboard will also help protect counter tops not from cutting operations but merely from laying down cutting tools when not in use.
Equipment for Processing the Meat
A scale large enough to accommodate heavy cuts of meat such as hams, sides of bacon, pounds worth of meat cubes to grind for sausage is a must. Accurate weights of these large cuts are important so you know how much curing mixture will be required to do a proper job. Years ago we bought scales that hang from the ceiling and register up to 60 pounds.
If you plan to make sausages or hamburger, you’ll need a meat grinder. A manual one does the job so long as you are willing to expend the energy to crank the handle. Expect your biceps to improve from the workout of hand grinding 100 pounds or more of meat. Why so much?
First you’ll do a coarse grind, then put the same meat through a second time for a fine grind and if you stuff sausage into casings (which of course requires the purchase of casings from a butcher shop), you’ll be cranking the same meat through a third time.
We used manual grinders for years, but have gotten lazy in our old age and now use a small electric grinder. Whichever version you opt for, you’ll have to cut the meat in small chunks no bigger than 1”. Chunks larger than that bog down a hand crank grinder and burn up an electric one. I learned that the hard way when I put meat chunks that were too big through our first electric grinder and burned up the motor. To make grinding easier, have your chunks partially frozen.
If you plan to make large diameter sausages such as bologna or salami, you’ll need some sort of muslin casing to stuff the meat mixture into. See this post for what we use.
Some sort of container is required for holding hams, sides of bacon and corned beef while they are curing. We use 5 gallon food grade plastic buckets dedicated to this purpose. I wash and scald the buckets prior to filling.
If you plan to smoke any of your meat, you’ll need a smoker of some sort. Initially we rigged up a homemade smoker using a 55 gallon drum and used it for years. Some years ago we bought a commercially made smoker. It does the job but I think the homemade version we put together does just as good a job as the commercially made one.
For freezing any meat you’ll need some kind of moisture proof packaging to prevent freezer burn which results from the food losing moisture. Freezer paper that is coated on one side to create a vapor barrier (this is not to be confused with butcher paper which is NOT coated), plastic wrap, foil, heavy freezer bags or a vacuum packaging system are all possibilities. Some methods work better than others so will therefore store foods for a longer period of time.
If you plan to can any meat, you’ll need canning jars, preferably the wide mouth types as it’s easier to get pieces of meat in and out of the jars, lids and a pressure canner. Canning meat in a boiling water bath is NOT considered safe no matter how long the jars are processed. Do NOT can meat in a boiling water bath!
Taking Self-Reliant Homesteading to the Next Level
Home butchering takes self-reliant homesteading to the next level and means you’ve added an invaluable skill to your survival basket. If you’ve never done home butchering before, start with the smaller animals such as poultry, then graduate to a pig and finally move on to the bigger animals such as a beef critter. The butchering equipment for the self-reliant homesteader given above will ensure you are ready for the job.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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