Matt Miles is a writer, poet, maker, permaculturist, and ambivalent web developer. His writings have appeared both in print and on the weekly blog of The Dark Mountain Project. Among other topics, Matt is interested in the breakdown of complex societies and their relationships with technology. He currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina with Tasha Greer. Together they run the reLuxe Ranch, a small whole systems farmstead on which they attempt to live sustainably while experimenting with appropriate technologies and raising pigs, ducks, chickens and dairy goats. They occasionally blog about their experiences at www.the-way-back.com. Matt enjoys rock climbing, running, fermenting, growing food, building things, and spending time in the natural world, either directly or vicariously through the written word.
This is the first of a three-part series on pig slaughtering and butchering. Photos from the author.
A month ago, Tasha and I and several friends spent a long weekend immersed in what has come to be for us an annual event — slaughtering our pigs. It’s never a day we look forward to especially, but when the days grow short and the overnight temperatures dip into the 30ºFs, our thoughts turn to planning the pig slaughter.
This year as in past years, our main concern has been to dispatch each pig as painlessly and humanely as possible. The Wendell Berry poem, “For the Hog Killing,” has become for us a sort of invocation at slaughter time, as well as a standard to uphold: “let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall.” In other words, as one commentator on the poem has put it, let the slaughter take place “with a minimum of violence.”
Tasha and I respect the lives of all the animals we care for, maybe even more so the ones we know we will eventually have to slaughter. Like all the pigs we’ve raised, we cared for these from the time we brought them onto our farm as piglets until, over the course of the better part of a year, they’d grown to almost 400 lb. Unlike past years, these piglets were obtained from our friends and neighbors Donnie and Anita Collins, whose breeding pair of Berkshires had produced these three males.
From the time we moved them onto our farm in early spring, the pigs had as carefree a life as we were able to manage for them, never wanting for food, water or shelter, and having almost an acre of paddock to root and forage on. When the heat set in over the summer, we provided them with a wallow, watching them roll happily in the mud or doze in the shade of a thicket of bushes and trees. They had a good life here indeed.
As Joel Salatin has famously said, “So what if the pig has one bad day?” But we have endeavored to eliminate even that one bad day, slaughtering here on our farm instead of having it done at a commercial abbatoir. Ideally, the pig is shot in the forehead with a .22 rifle while feeding and then loses consciousness from the shot. While unconscious, his jugular vein or carotid artery is immediately severed with a stroke of the knife, and within seconds or a minute or two at most, succumbs from loss of blood.
Bleeding a pig is a necessary part of processing pork and recovering edible meat. With this in mind, it is also crucial to the process on practical as well as ethical grounds that the pig not be stressed or frightened before the slaughter, as the stress hormones that are rapidly dispersed into the pig’s bloodstream can sour the meat. This is just one more reason to carry out the slaughter with the utmost care.
This year our friend Tom, an avid hunter, offered to be our shooter. He expertly took down each pig with a carefully placed shot to the forehead, straight between the eyes and about an inch or so up. For full effect, the shot must be placed perpendicular to the pig’s skull. This is trickier than it would seem, even at point-blank range, because the pigs are constantly moving around and jockeying for position to get closest to the food.
As the first pig — our largest — went over at the shot, I hopped the wires of the electric fence and stuck it in the neck with a very sharp boning knife. I swept the knife blade up and back until blood gushed forth in a thick stream, alerting me that I’d cut the right the vein. This pig was so large that I had some difficulty getting my arm around its neck to the spot where i needed to plant the knife, though I did quickly find it and make the cut.
With the next two pigs, I opted to make the stick almost at the breast and closer to the heart, a technique I’d seen done before, but one with which I had less practice. The cut involves sticking the knife in just above the pig’s breastplate and sweeping the knife blade under to sever the carotid artery just above the heart.
With either of the two techniques, whether severing the jugular vein or carotid artery at the neck, or the carotid artery closer to the heart, a quick and humane death and a good bleed are ensured, if done properly. Having now gained more experience with the second technique, I feel it is the better way to go, especially with larger animals with a lot of fat around the jowl and neck, which makes locating the right spot in the neck a little more difficult.
In order to avoid the repetitious description of the identical process involved in scalding and butchering each slaughtered pig, I’ll try rather to encapsulate and summarize the salient details and describe the process more abstractly from here on. I will also note that from shooting and sticking to splitting the carcass takes us on average about two hours for each pig.
When each pig had finished bleeding out and we were certain that it was no longer alive, we attached ropes to its feet and dragged it the twenty-odd feet to our 4-×-6-in crossbeam where we had hung a couple of engine hoists suspended over a scalding vat a little more than half full of 150ºF water. It’s important to leave room in the tank for the water the carcass will displace. No one likes to be burned by overflowing water as the pig is lowered into the tank.
This tank, incidentally, started life as a heating oil tank before it was used as a stock tank on a local farm. It was brought to us by our friend Ted the first year we slaughtered pigs because we had trouble finding a large enough tank we could safely heat. With a few welded modifications and a spigot to easily drain water from the bottom, we had a custom-built tank that would be big enough for our pigs.
Bringing the 60 gal of water necessary to scald a pig up to 150ºF and holding it there for the duration of the slaughter can be a challenge; it is sometimes the most time consuming part of preparing for a slaughter. Anticipating this, I now start the two propane burners that heat our scalding tank first thing in the morning — that is, around 5:00 a.m. if we are planning to start slaughtering at 9:00 a.m. If the previous night’s lows dip into the 20ºFs, there is frequently a layer of ice on the surface of the tank and the water will take several hours to reach temperature. One way we conserve heat is by covering the top of the tank with foam insulation board. If it is very windy we also try to enclose the underside of the tank where the burners are situated with cinder block, foam board or other insulative materials.
Scalding and scraping is not a strictly necessary part of the process of butchering a pig. Like most other large animals, pigs can be skinned, and depending on your meat preferences and situation, this may be a better option for some. Since we prize our bacon cuts and hams above all else — the latter of which we turn into prosciutto or aged country ham — the skin is an important and necessary part for us.
With the pig carcass transported as close to the scalding tank as possible, I use a very sharp boning knife to make cuts in each of the front and rear legs, between the bone and the strong, tight tendons just below the knee joints. This can be tricky work with a sharp knife, so slowly and carefully is the way to go here. When each set of cuts has been made, I insert a steel gambrel through both the front and the back legs. A gambrel (or singletree) is a sturdy hanger with curved, pointed tines on each end that fit through the slits in the legs. In the center of the gambrel is an eye for attaching a hook or connector at the end of a rope or chain with which to raise the carcass and lower it into the scalding tank.
In the months before we first slaughtered pigs in 2015, I built a crossbeam from several lengths of pressure-treated 4-×-6-in beams (see first photo). Two uprights set in concrete and braced diagonally at the base where they contact the ground suspend a horizontal beam about 10 ft in the air. The height is necessary to clear the top of the tank with the length of the vertically suspended pig. With the hope of scalding two pigs at a time (impractical as I now know), I drilled through the top of the crossbeam in two places and attached a heavy-duty eyebolt through each hole. From each eyebolt, we hang an engine hoist, which is simply a ratcheting, locking, geared pulley that provides a significant mechanical advantage for lifting a heavy object overhead. Pulling a chain loop attached to the gears either raises or lowers the attached object . . . very slowly.
With the front gambrel hooked to a chain attached to the engine hoist, one person pulls on the chain loop and begins ratcheting the carcass up and forward into the scalding tank, while at least two others hold onto the rear gambrel running through the back legs and steer the back half of the carcass up and over the rim of the scalding tank, carefully placing it into the hot water. Since the mass of the pig carcass will quickly absorb heat and lower the water temperature, it’s not a bad idea to heat the water hotter (155 or even 160ºF) than the target temperature of 150ºF, keeping in mind that contacting the flesh of the pig with the possibly overheated metal of the scalding tank may set the hair follicle, making it impossible to remove with a scraper.
With this in mind, we typically run at least three lengths of chain across the width of the scalding tank. With these in place, between the bottom of the tank and the mass of the carcass, people on either side can pull the chains, thus rotating the carcass and keeping it from settling on the bottom of the tank. While several volunteers are employed agitating these chains, another dumps buckets of hot water across the exposed parts of the carcass such as the legs, which never fully submerge in the tank. Every minute or so, it’s a good idea to check the status of the hair by yanking on a tuft of it. When hair pulls easily from several places, usually after about five minutes of submersion in hot water, the carcass should be raised as quickly as possible from the water.
At this point, the pig carcass is now hanging vertically over the tank and completely out of the water. Working as quickly as possible, four people, each one armed with a bell scraper (basically a bell-shaped hemisphere of metal attached to a handle), begin working the flesh. Ideally, the movement of the rough edge of the scraper over the hair follicle removes the heat-loosened hairs relatively easily. In practice, there are usually some parts that require the hair be shaved off with a knife blade or straight razor. If there are large areas of the pig where the hair doesn’t scrape off easily, then it’s usually necessary to return the carcass for another dip in the scalding vat, again making sure not to set the hair follicles by overheating the tank.
When each pig has been satisfactorily scalded and scraped, the second hoist comes into play as a means of lowering out, or transferring in tandem with the first hoist, the pig carcass onto a hanging spring scale attached to the second hoist, where it is weighed and processed further. Weighing is not strictly necessary either, but we like to collect as much data as possible to assess our feed-to-meat ratio, figure out our cost per pound, and so forth, and hanging weight is a key metric in this regard.
With the pig now hanging on the second engine hoist and safely away from the scalding vat, we note the weight and lower it to a comfortable working height and begin the process of evisceration, which I will describe in detail in the second part of this series of posts.