The idea of “hog killin'” became an obsession for me after reading Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal – A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. But, my interest in it started much earlier. My grandmother was a farmer. She raised and butchered her own pigs and fed her family with food she grew. She taught her children to farm. But as the world modernized and making a living as a small farmer became increasingly difficult, her grown children ventured out to find work off the farm. When only my grandma and my mom were left at home, she sold the farm and moved to town. She continued to grow food in her postage stamp yard, but mostly she survived working as a maid for wealthier families. My grandma died when I was 8, but that short acquaintance and my mother’s memories ignited a fire for farming that survived my suburban upbringing.
According to Joel Salatin, his last hog killin’ was in 1985 because:
The old folks gradually died off and the young people were too glued to the television to care. Now when they want tenderloin they go to Wal-mart or Kroger.
Initially, Joel’s description of a hog killin’ made me realize my food insecurity. But as I read about Joel’s loss of his family tradition, I couldn’t help but think of my grandma and what it must have been like to trade her farm for a yard within city limits. When I connected Joel’s experience to my own family history, the desire to keep this vital community tradition from being replaced by lifeless rows of pre-packaged meat became even more important.
Reconnecting with Our Traditional Food
Hog killin’ is about so much more than meat for your meals. When you personally care for and take the life of a pig, you learn its real value. In every bite, there is appreciation for the work, wonder at how nature provides, a reminder of the community of people who helped you, and yes, some sorrow at the loss of life. You just can’t buy that at the grocery store. Slaughtering an animal you have raised is hard – physically and emotionally. It may be hard for some of you to read this posting. Yet, as a meat eater and a farmer’s granddaughter, I believe it’s important to know and share this information. The details that follow will not be politely packaged for the consumer, but they will be honest and written with respect for our pigs whose lives help sustain ours.
The hog killin’ itself really only requires a few things: a loaded gun, sharp knives, a bone saw, and the skill to use these tools. If you plan to keep the skin, you also need a hoist to raise the pigs, gambrels to hook through the ankle tendons, a scalding vessel, bell scrapers, and something to heat the water. Beyond equipment, you need good friends and family to help you with and support you in this adventure. When I use “we” from here on out, I am referring to Matt (my better half) and our wonderful community of friends and family who helped us in various ways from conception to completion.
Making a Scalding Station
We opted for skin on, so we erected a 10′ tall, 8′ wide scaffold using pressure-treated timbers set in 800 pounds of concrete. We plan to do this annually, so a permanent structure made sense for us. You can also use a fork lift, front-loader, or the tripod Joel talks about. We welded half of a 300 gallon oil drum into a deep-sided ark to put under the scaffold as our scalding vessel. Others have used 55 gallon drums, but our pigs became too rotund to fit. We set the scalder on railroad cross ties so that we could situate a propane burner below to warm the water. We used some manual engine hoists, attached to the scaffold by galvanized hooks, to raise and lower the pigs into the water. Once you start cutting the carcass, you’ll need a lot of buckets or pots to put parts in and a way to keep the meat from spoiling until you process it.
The Morning of
Two hours before our crew arrived, we started heating the water in the scalder. We planned the first shot for 9:00 am, but the water took until 10:00 am to warm. As we waited, I plied all our helpers with food and coffee, but stomachs were already turning at the thought of what was to come. Our posse of experienced help included a former cattle rancher, a former butcher, a friend who had been raised on a hog farm, a foodie/hunter, and some hardcore homesteaders. We also had help from a few newbies like us who had watched videos in advance to mentally prepare. None of us were the faint-of-heart type, but breakfast was still not on the agenda.
When the water hit 145 degrees Fahrenheit, I lured the pigs to the “kill zone” (a level spot close to the scaffold) using their familiar food bucket. I lined them up, and spaced them out, to give our shooter an easier time making the shot. When the pigs started eating, Matt pointed, aimed, pulled the trigger… and nothing happened. He checked the gun and tried again. Same result. The gun had malfunctioned. We fired with another gun, but the pigs had started fidgeting in response to our movements, so we missed the shot. The pigs took off running for higher ground. Daunted, but not deterred, I got the bucket and lured the pigs back to the kill zone.
The next shot, made by the former cattle rancher, was text book. The pig went down and began convulsing. Within seconds Matt straddled her and buried his knife deep in her neck, searching for the carotid artery. Blood flowed all around. The pig’s convulsing gentled, and Matt and I patted her and told her she was a good girl and that it would be over soon. She didn’t seem to be in pain, more like shock. This is what we wanted. The .22 shot to the head isn’t enough to kill a hog. It is meant to stun them so you can bleed them out while their heart is still pumping. When her body stilled and her eyes closed as if in sleep, the burly men in our group dragged her carcass the last fifty feet to the scalding area.
The other pigs had scattered at the shot, but once we moved the first carcass, I lured the other pigs back with a bit more food and touched their heads to make sure they would stand still for the next round. I could have waited, but like getting back on a bike after a fall, I thought it would be easier to do immediately. In Joel’s description, hogs are loaded into a trailer before the killing starts because:
Once you shoot that first one and some blood gets in the trailer, you’ll never load another hog in that trailer that day. This is wisdom.
Against the wisdom, we decided our pigs should be free range until their final moments. Our girls hadn’t been confined since their car ride to our place, seven months earlier, and I thought containment would be too stressful for pasture-accustomed pigs. We were relying on all the trust-building and practicing I did with the pigs in advance and had no back-up plan if it didn’t work.
Amazingly, even the fourth pig, having witnessed the demise of her three companions, came back later that day and ate calmly in our kill zone. Unfortunately, when we took our last shot, we missed our mark and wounded but didn’t stun her. She took off running to the top of our hills. Knowing she would be too heavy for us to carry down the hill, we took our time and coaxed her back to the kill zone. I wished, for her sake, that it had gone better. I won’t speculate on her state of mind, because frankly, I know it would simply be a projection of my own. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration of the United Nations (FAO) in their “Guidelines for slaughtering, meat cutting and further processing” available for free online:
Stress immediately prior to slaughter… causes stored glycogen (sugar) to be released into the bloodstream. After slaughter this is broken down in the muscles producing lactic acid. This high level of acidity causes a partial breakdown of the muscle structure causing the meat to be pale, soft and exudative (PSE).
We saw no difference in her meat while making primal cuts. But the following day we noticed that a couple pork chops from her carcass were paler than what we had seen from the other pigs. The meat was still firm and there was no exuding, but I believe there may have been some excess glycogen in her muscles at the time of her death. Next year, I will give more credence to Joel’s wisdom and reduce their paddock size using electric wire for their final day.
Scalding the Pigs
Postmortem, we dragged each pig to our scaffold, hosed them off, hooked the gambrels through their hind tendons, and hauled them into the scalder using the engine hoists. We lowered them in the water and sloshed them side to side for about 5-6 minutes, then tested their scruff for ease of hair removal. It was easy to scrape off the hair in the mid-section because that’s where the propane burner sat. But we had a hard time getting hair off the heads and hams. Because we didn’t want to cook the pigs, we ended up leaving the heads and the hams somewhat hairy with the intention of doing more detailed work with the later processing.
In the areas that were adequately scalded, thanks to the bell scrapers, the hair came off like moistened wallpaper in strips and chunks. Bell scrapers are exactly what they sound like, bell shaped blades with handles. As long as you haven’t over-heated the pig, the skin stays taut and the scraper doesn’t puncture the skin. Periodically you have to lift the scraper and sling out the hair and skin that clumps in the center. The hair we couldn’t remove with a scraper took a lot of time, elbow grease, and many disposable razor blades to remove.
Next year, we’ll use a big paddle to stir the scalding water more frequently, and we’ll check the temperature in several spots to make sure it is uniformly warm before dipping the pigs. We may also find a way to use two burners to distribute the heat more evenly. Finally, we’ll get a tighter fitting lid to contain the heat between pigs so less waiting is involved. We also thought about sharpening the bell scrapers during processing, but most of the recommendations online suggest that sharpness is not necessary – just get the scalding right.
Evisceration of the Pigs
After scalding and scraping comes evisceration or gutting. Not puncturing the intestines is the main goal here. We split the carcass by scoring our way gently through the layers of skin, fat, and muscle on the belly-side, starting between the hind legs. After we cut an opening of a few inches, one of us put a hand in, and used the curve of our palm and first two fingers to act as a guide for the knife, while the back of the hand and upper arm held the organs back out of the way. Before you get too far, you have to stop, go to the rear of the pig, and cut around the rectum. You free it from the surrounding tissue, tie it off to trap the poop, and pull it through the belly side so it comes out, intact, with the rest of the guts. This part required incredible dexterity and patience. After this, you finish opening the carcass cavity. The organs are heavy and want to “fall out,” but as they are all linked and can make a big mess if you don’t get them all out at once, you need to time organ eruption with tissue disconnection. To do this, I had to awkwardly prop the organs up using the front of my thighs and belly, while crouching and slicing my way through the connective tissue inside the body cavity close to the ribs and spine. It was incredibly physical, but also hugely satisfying to stand up at the end and see an alien-looking blob of unpunctured organs in a tub.
We kept the heart, kidneys, and liver (gall-bladder removed) for pâté. The rest of the organs we buried in a compost trench. We removed the heads by cutting through the fat and meat and then gave the head a good twist to separate it from the spinal column. We cut through the meat with a knife and used a saw to get through the bones of trotters. Heads and trotters went immediately into brine buckets (2 pounds of salt for each gallon of water). Since we hadn’t done a good job de-hairing the extremities, after our help had gone home for the day, I dragged them out of the buckets and spent several hours shaving and scraping until they were hair free. Then we brined them some more to get them ready to use for head cheese. We separated the picnic and ham cuts (front and back leg areas) and split the body-sections down the spine before putting the cuts in ice water. We also trimmed up some of the fat and put it in a bucket to save for sausage making.
At about 6:30 pm, we called it a day. There were seven of us who were deeply involved from beginning to end. We also had a few more friends jumping in on scraping the hair and running for supplies, and two others who came to assist later in the day as we rushed to finish the pigs before dark. In about 8 1/2 hours, we managed to kill and partially butcher four huge pigs. We were slowed down by the scalding water not being hot enough and by running after pigs as a result of our choice not to confine them for the kill.
Looking Back on a Long Day
All in all, though, our first hog killin’ went really well. We had the good fortune of recruiting helpers who had experience and/or “get it done” attitudes. It would have been impossible for us to handle four hogs in one day without their expertise. We may have been hard-pressed to get through one because we would have had to stop to refer to our butchering books and videos frequently. Even though Matt and I did extensive studying up on this before we set out to do it, there is no substitute for hands on experience.
As our first day of hog killin’ came to an end, a sense of relief settled over me – partially because I could finally answer “yes” to Joel’s question – “Have you ever been to a hog killin’?” But also because I could answer “yes” to another question that had been plaguing me for months. I am an omnivore – which means I eat meat, among other things. I know there is a dead animal on the other side of my meat, dairy, and egg transactions, and I don’t pretend otherwise. But some part of me had been wondering if there really was such a thing as “humane slaughter,” or was this just something I told myself so I could feel OK about eating meat? In the quiet of my kitchen, as I scraped the last of the hair off the pig heads and removed their eyeballs, I came to the conclusion that even for the fourth pig, her final moments seemed less traumatic than when I separated her from her mother and transported her by car to our farm – which is an act even prized house pets must suffer. I believe it was harder on me, as a sympathetic being, to watch our pigs die, than it was on them to endure it. Perhaps this is why we call the standard “humane,” as in pertaining to human beings, rather than relating it directly to the animals’ feelings.
Getting Ready for Day 2 – Butchering
I thought I would feel more food secure after I knew how to kill a pig, but, I actually felt more insecure than ever. The killin’ is just the beginning. Doing this as a two day process meant we had to find a way to chill the meat quickly and keep it cool for the next 24 hours since our weather was warmer than preferred. We had also heard the yips of coyotes hanging around our property the last few weeks, so we needed to protect the meat. We decided to use six retired 55-gallon honey drums, cleaned and filled with ice water, to chill and store the meat. We knew this would work because it works so well for quickly chilling champagne. Once cool, you can maintain the meat temperature with minimal amounts of new ice. We fastened the lids on the drums and weighted them with cinder blocks. We also kept the work lights on all night long to discourage coyotes. And we slept very lightly…
If the meat made it through the night, then the real fun would begin. And I couldn’t wait because on day 2, Meredith Leigh, butcher, farmer, educator, and author of The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie & Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore was coming to help us convert those carcass hunks into delicious meat cuts and gourmet goodies. So, stay tuned for part three in this series – “Hog Cookin’.”
This article is part 2 of a 3 part series called “Have You Ever Been to a Hog Killin’?” about raising, harvesting, and cooking pigs. You can read the rest of the series here:
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