Homesteading

Pig Butchering Review

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I’d like to do a review of the pig butchering process. We raised 2 pigs for butchering this year, and decided we’d butcher them ourselves. Lots of people we talked to thought we were a little nuts for planning to butcher ourselves rather than taking them in to be butchered, so we were interested to see if their thoughts were justified. And I’ve got to say, they weren’t. Not really.

We felt fairly comfortable with the idea of doing it ourselves since we’ve butchered our own deer the last several years. Honestly, while the first pig presented a learning curve, the process really wasn’t harder or much longer than that of a deer. I was more nervous about raising healthy pigs and not having them escape than I was about the idea of butchering them ourselves.

I do understand the hesitation other people feel about doing this themselves. When you’re raising animals for meat, especially larger livestock, there’s always a little bit of attachment between the farmer and the animals, and some people are just not comfortable being the ones to slaughter the animal. I definitely get it! However, there’s a lot to be said for doing the butchering yourself. I think the feeling some people have is that it’s just a lot of work, or they wouldn’t want to do it because there’s a whole set of tools you need just for the job. If you butcher any other animals, it’s kind of a non-issue.

We knew from day one that the plan was to butcher the pigs ourselves. That decision right there helped everyone to remember what the purpose of these animals would be. There were two primary reasons we decided we’d do the butchering. The first is that we very rarely do something because it’s the “easier” way to do it. If we wanted easy, we wouldn’t grow our own food and preserve it. We’d go grocery shopping like “everybody else.” We figure it’s worth trying all of these skills at least once to see how we like it, and go from there.

The second reason is that ever since last spring, the butchers all over the place have been very backed up. The Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020 lead to a backup of butchers all over the place. Farmers are struggling to get dates to slaughter their animals and are having to wait an extra 6 months or more. Even if we had wanted to take them in, we would have struggled to get a butchering date within the timeframe that we wanted.

We know quite a few farmers that have had a hard time getting butchering dates, and have had to travel great distances or are constantly checking to see if there are new cancellations or openings in the butcher’s schedule. In fact, we discussed a little the possibility of learning the process of doing a cow last fall in order to help some neighbors out, but they were able to figure out a different solution before it came to that.

We knew that gaining this skill would be in our best interest and would allow us to help out other farmers if they need it. Last year when the bigger farms weren’t able to get their livestock into the butchers because factories were being shut down whenever there was a Covid outbreak, they started selling them off to people willing to take them off their hands, but a lot of animals were killed. The farms needed room for the next round of animals they were already raising. It’s a sad state of affairs, and if we would have had the ability at that time, we would have purchased some pigs then.

Please, be warned that this post contains some images some may find a little gruesome. If you are unfamiliar with the butchering process, the description of slaughter may upset some. From what we know, this is the most humane way to slaughter a pig, and this is the reality of the process for any meat you purchase from a grocery store or a restaurant. There are no pictures of the slaughter itself.

We initially planned the butcher date for Saturday, but after further reflection, decided it would be best to do the pigs on two separate days. So day one, pig 1 was Friday. We slaughtered, skinned, and gutted Sausage first. Day two, we slaughtered pig 2 (Bacon), and butchered pig 1. I butchered pig 2 on Monday and Tuesday.

The pig pen is empty and quiet once again. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

Slaughter

The slaughtering process is most definitely the most difficult part of butchering if you are butchering an animal you’ve raised yourself. It’s not physically very hard, but it’s bittersweet, and you want to make sure you get everything right so you don’t let the animal suffer at all.

When we butchered chickens the first time, I knew they would have an electrical response and their nerves would keep working (which is why a decapitated chicken can run around with it’s head cut off). I also knew that this would happen to the pigs. We’d watched some videos in preparation, but honestly, nothing can really prepare you for what that looks like, except experience.

After you shoot or stun the pig and stick it (cutting the artery and bleeding it), you have to continue to work the legs to help expel any blood still in the veins. We opted not to save the blood this time around, because there’s just too much to learn with the first experience.

The pigs were slaughtered in the pig pen. Feed was withheld for 24 hours prior, and when it was time to kill, we brought in some watered down milk for them to drink. This keeps them still for the stunning or shooting.

Scott shot both pigs. I helped to hold the legs still during the bleeding process. The pigs nervous responses continue after being shot, and the legs need to be held still to help the person doing the bleeding to be able to stick the pig safely and quickly. Scott bled the first pig, but our friend did the second. The first one went well, but our friend had to stick the second pig twice, because he didn’t fully sever the artery. (I think we all got kicked at least once, which is why the legs need to be stilled for the sticking.)

Everything we’ve read and heard says that they can’t feel anything after a clean shot (which both were). They stop breathing, blinking, and making noise, but like the chicken, those impulses continue for a bit. It takes longer for the impulses to stop on a larger animal than it does a small one.

If sticking the pig goes well, the function of the body continuing to move helps to bleed the animal completely. Once the artery is cut, the pig is still sort of held down to keep it from moving too much (like the chicken with it’s head cut off), but when things slow down, and the kicking stops, we work the legs for awhile longer to pump more of the blood out.

After the bleeding was finished, we rolled the pigs into a game sled, and then pulled them from the pen for the next step.

Hanging

One of the many wonderful uses of our new tractor is using it to hang animals after killing. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound wonderful, but if you’ve ever tried hanging a deer, you know what a difficult and stressful job it can be without good equipment. The animals need to hang to help drain extra blood still in the system, and it makes gutting and skinning much easier, cleaner, and safer.

We bought a gambrel to hang the pig with, and we got a giant, heavy duty carabineer clip and a big hook to attach the gambrel to the loader bucket. In order to hang the animal, you need to cut between the bone and the Achilles tendon, being sure not to sever the tendon. The hooks on the gambrel go into this cut on each leg by the rear trotters. Once we had the gambrel attached to the pig, we could hook the gambrel to the bucket of the tractor, and then lift the bucket up and move the pig easily.

The gambrel is the hanger-looking thing. The pig will continue to bleed out a bit longer once hung.

Once the pigs were hanging, we could wash them off with the hose, cleaning off any blood or dirt. The first pig we just washed down really well with the hose, but the second pig, we got out a brush, and our friends washed it off more thoroughly. We used a big scrub brush like what you can get for cleaning cars. This process doesn’t take more than 20 minutes if you are thorough, and would maybe not be necessary if you plan to scrape instead of skin.

Skinning

We opted to skin our pigs this year. I don’t know if we’ll skin them or scrape them in the future, but skinning was the easier way to go about it for the first run. Too many things to learn to try to do ALL the things!

The first pig, Scott and I took turns skinning. We were only able to pull some of the skin off, everything else had to be cut. If you skin a deer, it’s a lot quicker of a process. With a pig, you want to save as much fat as possible to use in sausage making and for lard, but with a deer, there’s almost no fat. The fat actually makes skinning much more difficult, and not just because you want to save the fat.

The first pig took us several hours to skin, but Scott was able to skin the second pig pretty quickly with our friend. I think they were both working at the same time to skin the pig, which probably saved quite a bit of time. The legs are the hardest part of skinning. The head was not skinned, but cut off once we skinned down to the neck.

I guess you could say that part of skinning is the transition to gutting, cutting out the bung. Scott tried using a bung out on the second deer, and it was apparently quite a failure, so he said he’ll just cut it next time. But that was a nerve-wracking experience for him, I think.

Gutting

Gutting or eviscerating the animal is potentially the most disgusting part of the process. If everything goes smoothly, it’s not bad, but if you have any mistakes with the intestines, it’s not pretty.

As some of you may know, it is possible to save the intestines from the pig, clean them properly, and make natural casing for sausages. That’s not something we are ready to tackle at this point in time, and I’m not entirely sure it’s something I’ll ever want to do. If we felt it was necessary, we would learn how to do it, but for now, it’s not a necessity.

The first pig went as smooth as could be expected. We were surprised that it was as difficult as it was to gut the pig. With fowl, it takes a bit of tugging, and everything pulls out quickly. With deer, it practically falls out. On the pigs, it required some cutting of connective tissues. There was some muscle we didn’t know about that helped to hold things in place. It was a challenge, but not awful.

When you gut a pig, you need to cut out the bung (or anus) without cutting into the intestine, and they recommend that you tie it off to keep things from leaking into the carcass. We did do this, and I would highly recommend that you do this if you plan to butcher any big animals yourself. We did withhold feed for about 24 hours before slaughter, but they will still have food in their intestines at that point.

From the gutting, we saved the caul fat and the heart from the first pig, and from the first and second, we saved the liver as well. If they hadn’t had some issues with the gutting of the second pig, they probably would have saved the heart and caul fat from that pig as well. (My understanding of the situation is that all did not go as planned with the bung, and they had to work quickly to clean everything off, so it wasn’t worth saving those organs at that point.)

The guys said that removing the pizzle (where the male pig urinates from, the penis) was more complicated than they anticipated, and Scott initially said that maybe we’d just get females (gilts) next time. I don’t know why they struggled or what they struggled with exactly, but Scott did say that he would probably have had an easier time if he had read that part of the book thoroughly before beginning the process. Females do not have this extra anatomy, and he said it made for an easier evisceration.

I said we should wait to decide on males or females after the butchering process to see what difference there was in the amount of meat, to which Scott agreed. It’s not an impossible task, but it is an extra task. The butchering is completed, but we have yet to sit down and do a thorough comparison.

We gutted after skinning to help ensure that everything would be as clean as possible when we were salvaging organs and to help ensure that the whole carcass stayed clean.

Breaking it Down

Breaking down the carcass is the next step after evisceration. We actually left the heads on until after evisceration was completed. Once the skinning and gutting were finished, we removed the head and spilt the carcass.

We saved the jowls to make face bacon from both pigs and we also saved the cheek muscles, also called the masseters (the name of the main chewing muscle) or “bath chaps” (don’t ask, I have no idea where that one comes from). We’ve never encountered either of these products before, so we are interested to try them out. The masseters are very dark meat in comparison with the rest of the pig. The jowls are layers of thick fat and thin meat and can be cured to create a type of bacon that people often use for cooking, like adding into a dish of beans for added flavor.

Scott decided to use the sawsall to cut apart the carcass instead of using the bone saw, which did make things go quicker. He sawed the front trotters off of the first pig with the bone saw, and then used the sawsall for the remaining trotters on the pigs. He removed the front trotters while the pigs were hanging, and the hind ones after we moved the carcass to the table.

We lifted the carcass with the loader bucket to just above a table we had set up outside, and we had one person hold the side that would stay hanging, while the other person lifted off the other half. The pig was already partially on the table, so one person could manage this part. Having one person steady the hanging half keeps it from slipping and hitting the ground and getting dirty.

Carcass, split, with back legs removed.

Cooling the Carcass

With one half on the table, we removed the hind quarters from the pig, and put everything into our big chest cooler.

If the weather had been cooler like it normally is this time of year, we could have let that first pig hang overnight. We also could have done this with the second pig. However, it got unseasonably warm for the first week of November, and we had to decide to get the carcass into a cooler with ice to ensure the meat wouldn’t spoil.

It’s recommended to get meat chilling as soon as possible after slaughter at a temperature of 40F or just below. Since it was too warm outside this past weekend, we had to get it into ice water to help cool things down.

From what I read, pig meat should be aged for 2-3 days before freezing. Aging is a process in which you wait for rigor to pass. If you freeze your meat before this, the meat can be tough and unpalatable. Some meats improve in flavor the longer you let them age, but pork is recommended to age 2-3 days only before freezing.

We staggered the butchering of the pigs on purpose, so as not to create too much work at one time. We didn’t want to leave one pig alone for too long as they like to live with others, which is why we did slaughter two days in a row. This meant we had to get the first pig butchered before we could get the second pig into the coolers. The meat from the first pig continued to age in the smaller coolers and our refrigerator after butchering until it was time to freeze.

Butchering

Once all of that is done, it’s time for the actual butchering. The first round of butchering didn’t go badly, but it was SLOW. I thought I’d be more comfortable with the process since I’ve done deer before, but I felt so lost at first! There’s so much more meat on a pig than a deer.

The first day, it took two of us between 3 and 3.5 hours to get both ham legs butchered (somewhere between 6-7 hours total). We really struggled to figure out what was going on, and removing the pelvis was tricky because of it’s odd shape, which we had to learn from doing. I didn’t butcher on Sunday, but on Monday I did again, and I got one ham done in just under 2.5 hours. The final ham took 1.5 hours! It’s a relief to know that it was all about familiarity with the product. Once I had it figured out, it was easy.

Inside Round, Eye of Round, Bottom Round, and Inside tip. (From left to right) My cuts might not be quite as clean, but much better than the first round!

There are several parts to the ham leg, and I really struggled to keep it all straight on the first legs, but on the second, my cuts looked more like the pictures in the book, and I could easily identify my roasts.

It was very similar with the remainder of the pig. The butt (shoulder) and picnic get separated from the loin and belly, and you’ll be sawing the rack of ribs. I did different cuts with the first pig than the second. The first pig was mostly made into roasts, while the second pig I did a lot of chops. I did both bone in and boneless chops from the loin. We also saved ribs and spare ribs for bone-in cuts, though most of the meat was packaged in 2.5-3.5 pound roasts, which is a perfect size for our family.

Here I am cutting off some of the excess fat from the chops. This part is not especially “clean” in that while Scott was splitting the pig, the saw slipped quite a bit, so it went into some of the meat. But this back fat will be used for sausage making sometime soon. A nice layer of fat still stayed on the chops.

We ended up with about 160# of useable product from each pig. We’re saving most of the bones for feeding to our dog, but we’ll also be making stock with it too. There was quite a bit of fat, especially from the male pig. He had significantly more useable fat. I think the leaf lard was comparable, but the back lard was obviously different. His belly was much thicker than hers, too, so we’ll get thicker bacon from him.

We’re looking forward to curing this meat to make some bacon!

We went from about 10-7:30 on the first butchering day, taking a total of 1 hour for breaks. That timeline included cleanup and packaging and was 2-3 people working the whole time. The second one I worked on solo from 9-5 and got everything but the final ham leg completed. Then, as I said before, I spent another hour and a half to finish the last ham leg.

I set aside meat for making sausage, and I saved several odd cuts to use for canning. Once I had the last leg all butchered, I cut up the meat for canning, and I made stock from bones to use in the canning process.

Canned pork and pork broth! I seasoned the pork with some salt and brown sugar, and it’s canned in pork broth. The leftover broth was canned separately for use in soups or other cooking purposes such as making rice.

I opted not to save an entire ham this time. I’d like to in the future, and I had considered it, but I want to be sure that I can get down some of the storage processes and play around with curing before I try doing something on a larger scale. We did set aside the bacon (pork belly), and a friend will be taking a side to cure for us. We’ll see how that turns out, and then decide if we want him to do more with it, or if we want to try an alternate method.

We’ll do sausage making soon. We plan to make seasoned ground pork for making breakfast sausage patties, but we have a sausage stuffer and would like to try making links. The kids say we need to make sausage for pizza, too. We’ll see. Two pigs is a lot of meat, but we’ll see how far it takes our family! I’m not very familiar with cooking with certain pork parts, so if we find we don’t like some things very much, we can always do more sausage in future years.

Packaging and Freezing

We decided to mostly use vacuum seal bags for packaging the meat. The book we have said that’s the best storage method for freezing, and since we had the supplies, that’s what we did. We did get a big roll of freezer paper, some large, 2.5 gallon ziplock bags, and plastic wrap for packaging odd things. The ribs were wrapped in plastic wrap and then in freezer paper, and I did that with some of the pork belly (uncured bacon).

My butcher’s knot could use some work, but I got a lot of practice tying roasts before putting things into the freezer. Most everything was vacuum sealed.

After 3 days, we put the meat into the freezer. Pork can carry a parasite called trichinella that can be passed to humans if it’s not cooked properly, but the best way to ensure the parasite is killed off is to freeze the meat for 106 hours at 0F . You can give pigs ivermectin for parasites, but even if you do, it’s not a guarantee they won’t be carrying any at the time of slaughter, so proper freezing will cover all of your bases to help prevent thrichinosis.

Just days before butchering, the kids and I were learning more about pigs for science class, and it’s interesting to note that the Israelites were told not to eat pork, despite pigs split toe. They would not have been able to freeze meat, and cooking the meat to the right temperature every time would potentially have been difficult to do. Abstaining from pork was their best bet to keep from getting infected.

Chest freezers or deep freezers are usually set to freeze at about 0F, but if you would be unsure if your freezer is cold enough, you’d want to put a thermometer inside of it before hand to make sure you’ve got a solid temperature of 0 or below before putting any meat into the freezer. You can freeze the meat for 21 days or more at 5F or in just 25 hours at -22F, but I didn’t read anything about going anywhere above 5F. It’s not recommended to initially freeze pork in a freezer above the refrigerator.

For the sake of properly aging the meat and ensuring that any harmful parasites are killed off, we decided it would be safest to share the meat from the pigs with those who helped us once we know it’s been frozen properly.

Properly canning the meat is also an effective way to kill of any harmful parasites or bacteria. Meat is canned at a temperature of 240F (or 10# of pressure) for 75 min. for pints and 90 min. for quarts, so I feel quite comfortable with the idea of cracking open one of these jars to use immediately.

Conclusion

To address the two primary questions we got about butchering our own pigs (before the actual butchering): Was it hard? Yes, physically. Emotionally, not really. Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely.

Butchering is an incredibly intense and physically demanding process. My mom said while we were working, “No wonder butchers are always portrayed as having big arm muscles!” Sawing through a ribcage is strenuous. A single leg of ham is heavy. Butchers can have some flexibility in their butchering timeline, but generally speaking, there is a deadline to meet. Things need to get cooled and frozen in a timely manner. You don’t want the meat to heat up too much while breaking it down into cuts, so you have to work quickly if you aren’t working in a cooler.

Emotionally, the only part that was a hard for me was the slaughter. Killing the first pig was harder than the second, because I knew the pigs were so accustomed to being side by side. They’ve been together since the day they were born. The day before we slaughtered Sausage, they were cuddling in their shelter for a nap, and I couldn’t get that out of my head. But he generally seemed as if he was not phased for that 24 hours until it was his time. I did feel like maybe he was looking for her at one point, but he mostly seemed happy to have a little space for awhile.

Overall, however, once you start the process, you need to work fast to get the pigs hanging, and you’re too busy thinking about all that to think about anything else. I admit, it’s a little weird, and maybe sad, that the pigs are not in the pig pen anymore. It’s weird not hearing their grunting and barking and playfulness when I go into the yard. But I’m grateful for the food we’ll have on our table in the coming year, I’m grateful for the many ways we’ll make use of everything we harvested. Poppy will get bones and food, and she’ll be happy and healthy because of it. We’ll have lard for baking, and maybe soap making, but definitely for sausage making.

And yes, next spring, we’ll get more pigs and do it all again.

For us, yes, this was absolutely worth it. We get to use the whole pig (well, almost the whole pig… someday we’ll use even more of it), and we get quality food and we know where it came from and how it was raised. There was a sense of completion to our homestead in raising pigs. That’s not to say we won’t get other animals someday, but pigs were something that we didn’t even know were missing from the farm until we got them. They were a very good fit for our homestead. We loved having them here, and we love that we’ll be fed well for months to come, and in the spring, we plan to do it all again. Maybe next time we’ll get more than just 2.

And again, I’d like to thank my mom and our friends for their assistance on Saturday. It was a huge help and a blessing to us. Thank you!

I’m planning to write up a review of our whole experience of our first time raising pigs soon, and I think I might try to write up something about what tools and supplies we use to butcher animals on our homestead, from chickens to deer to pigs. I may also do a post (or a few) on some of the ways we use the meat and biproducts. Let me know if you have any questions about that or anything in this post!

Love and Blessings~ Danielle

4 Comments

  • Trudy

    I thought the whole process was really interesting, and like you said, it was the actual killing of the pig that was the most difficult to be there for. I honestly can’t help but feel that it’s different for a hunter because of the distance from the animal and by the time you reach it, it’s been out a while, so no viewing nerves reacting up close and personal. And obviously, those that do this sort of thing regularly will obviously get used to it.

    At first spending time watching any of the process being done (chickens or pigs; I have yet to be part of the deer process) is definitely a learning experience. Funny how once you get going and start looking at the animal, you realize “I recognize that meat cut from the store/butcher!” and suddenly you understand what needs to be done. Once you and I got going later, I had a better comprehension of what we were doing, but it was funny how once you had things ‘apart’, at least the first time, it was disorienting in the sense of ‘what exactly am I looking at and what am I trying to do?’

    Again, in the end, it kind of doesn’t matter too much because it all gets eaten and tastes good, but obviously it’s a skill worth learning and to be proud of no matter what kind of animal it is.

    • Spring Lake Homestead

      Yes, proximity at the time of death does play a big role in how it feels. Scott wasn’t as impacted as we were, however. I think that may be partially because of hunting experience and partially because of butchering the chickens and turkeys.

      I’m glad you were able to assist and learn a valuable skill! It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re capable of doing it if need be.

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