Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Butchering: The Whole Enchilada

14-Week Copper Marans & Dressing

I blasted my first rooster some 18 years ago. I say “blast” because I used a 12-gauge. I didn’t know any better at the time because “voluntary” homesteading wasn’t really a thing yet and we didn’t have the plethora of information available at our fingertips like we do now.  (And well, there was some social justice involved in that decision as well, since the rooster was just starting to become obnoxious…) It took me about 3 hours to sort through that process on my own, and since then, I’ve worked up to some 200-300 birds a year. It has gotten much, much easier and I’ve added rabbits, goats, deer and pigs to my repertoire, with sheep soon to come.

I’ve also been involved on homesteading groups for all of those years. It used to be Yahoo, now it’s Facebook. There has never been more information available. And homesteading is a thing. A BIG thing! Most everyone wants fresh. They want chemical-free food, if not completely organic. But always, the biggest test of a homesteader’s true mettle is butchering day. That’s when the excuses start flying….

“I have 11 obnoxious roosters that are gang-banging my poor hens to the point of being barebacked, but I just can’t kill them. They are pets and I shall find them forever homes!” (yes, because roosters make such nice pets…. until they put your toddler’s eye out! – sadly, a true story)

“My pot-bellied boar pig just gored me and I had to go to the ER for stitches, but I just can’t eat him. He’s so sweet!” (um, he just tried to kill you and will likely do it again! also a true story...)

“I raised this little ram from a baby! How could I kill him?” (ram lowering head and backing up…. YOU are about to learn to fly!)

“My sow just killed and ate all her piglets. For the third time! No bacon bits for us this year. Should I give her another chance?” (no, you should keep pouring money into her until you are broke and homeless and she eats you!)
Hair Sheep & Nubian Goats On Pasture

Decide Quickly
The longer you stall on this decision, the poorer quality your meat becomes. (More later on butchering older animals.) When you are just starting out, you have likely already put quite a lot of time and money into your animal projects, and you have this picture in your mind of perfectly plump, juicy, grilled birds or succulent pork chops. In reality, you have a very small window during which that animal is in an exothermic stage of growth (that is, still growing), but has just about reached its prime in terms of tenderness and weight. Uncut male animals especially reach this plateau early, then enter the endothermic stage of growth where their bones harden and muscle/sinew toughens. Many of them actually lose weight as they enter rut and the meat quality continues to decline. They may take on an unpleasant flavor or odor. Roosters will become “gamey” and I can speak first-hand about how essential it is to avoid boar taint! Nasty stuff it is.

American Guinea Hog -- "Haunch of Beast"

In addition, older animals are harder to kill. They do not go gently into that good night! A .22 shell may not even stun an older pig (but it will piss them off!), and I’ve watched older roosters’ blood clot from a clean cut to the carotid. An older ram’s or buck’s head is so hard a .22 may actually ricochet if the placement is even slightly off. (We don’t even bother with .22s here anymore, just in case….) 

One more thing here. It gets easier, and that is NOT a bad thing. I for one, am sick of hearing the whiners out there saying “Oh, it should NEVER be easy. You are taking the life of another, after all!” Well, bullshit. Yes you are, but that's why you raised them. Even if you have a personal relationship with every animal you butcher, it will make no difference in the end. If YOU are hesitant, the first animals you kill are likely going to suffer more than if you’d not listened to your inner Disney-child’s idiotic, moronic rambling. We have only had the luxury of other people killing our food for us for maybe 100 years. Not even 50 years ago, a woman would go to the town market and buy a couple of ducks or a brace of rabbits and take them home to butcher (often in her apartment) and then lovingly serve them to her family. She wouldn’t have dreamed of having her husband kill them for her. Woman up! You raised them for meat, now kill them and don’t make a drama of it! They aren't cute like this for long:...

American Guinea Hog Piglet
Chicken Pluckers and Other Specialized Equipment
I SWEAR I’m not picking on any one person here, but always, ALWAYS, the first thing the new-to-homesteading person gets hung up on is a freakin’ chicken plucker! (I did it too, so I can’t laugh too hard…) But here’s the deal: specialized equipment costs money and/or time, even if you repurpose something to make it. And you have to clean it after each use and find a place to store it. Building or buying a chicken plucker to pluck your measly 20 chickens makes about as much sense as building a brick-fired oven for pizza when you’ve never made pizza before.  Or buying a bread machine to knead and bake bread when you’ve never made bread before. You’ve learned nothing and you’ve sacrificed your money for time, and now you have to waste your time earning more money to replace the money you shouldn’t have spent in the first place. At least get some experience before you opt to spend money on labor-saving devices. Scalding and plucking a bird shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes, and I can do it in about 3. (I can even do larger birds, like 50# turkeys in about 5 minutes.) Even if you pluck 200 birds a year, that’s still only maybe 12-16 hours in a year. If you divide up the labor amongst say, 4 members of your family, can they not afford 3-4 hours in a year for this homesteading job? (And incidentally, for all you folks who think plucking is the hardest part and you'll just take them to the Amish, that's just pathetic, it really is!)

Pork Sausage Links
The Homesteading Family
Your family may test you on butchering day, oh yes they may! Especially if this is your dream and not theirs. I see this more and more with stay-at-home women (I’ll get to the men in a moment). A wife/mother decides that she’s going to improve the quality of her family’s life by “starting a farm.” Her kids don’t actually like vegetables that much (or they only like a few kinds), and her husband doesn’t like milk. But by golly, she’s gonna fix them! Of course they all like the IDEA of living in the “country” and watching the deer and bunnies frolic in their yard, but hand them a T-post driver or shovel or knife, and watch them disappear! And if the husband is working full-time to support the family, he may become resentful at having his weekend interrupted with her honey-do list while she plays Farmville on Facebook (true story). Ladies, if you can’t handle the T-post driver by yourself, you should find a more suitable hobby. And then there are those wives who refuse to participate in their husbands’ homestead efforts, like hunting and fishing. If she works full time and doesn’t have a lot of time to cook, do you really think she’s going to be that enthused over helping break down a deer or clean fish? It’s your hobby, you do the work. And you can cook it afterwards too. Be proud of your own accomplishments and stop trying to foist your dream off on everyone else!

Jamaican Jerk Chicken
I watched this very scenario play out with our neighbors in Texas. An older couple moved from Dallas to their 80-acre “ranchette.” They built houses for themselves, their two daughters (plus spouses and 3 grandkids). All 5 adults had jobs when they moved there and the older couple had a sizeable retirement savings. At the end (maybe 8 years later), there were 21 horses that had to be carted off to the glue factory (no one ever rode them) along with the giant Black Brahma cows (of course their cows had to be bigger than everyone elses, even though they never ate one), all but the controlling matriarch (whom we referred to as  Ann Tandy!) were on disability, and not one of those kids or grandkids would lift a finger to work on the farm. And the couple was broke! Of course, it didn’t help that the older couple wanted to sit on their porch drinking cocktails while watching everyone else do all the work, but there are some people you just can’t homestead with. It’s not their dream and you’ll drive yourself nuts trying to make them.

Baby Hair Sheep Ram -- Cute for now....

 Meat Breeds vs. Heritage Breeds
Like most every new homesteader, after being disappointed in how little meat was on my “plain old chickens” I started raising those god-awful Cornish Crosses! I was butchering them (off the books) for my produce clientele and that’s what they wanted. What could be better, right? A chicken that gains a pound a week with supposedly excellent feed conversion rates. What. A. Lie! There are so many things wrong with those birds I don’t even know where to begin. For starters, you can’t accurately measure the feed conversion rate on a DIVERSIFIED farm. By this I mean most homesteaders free-range their chickens and there is a great deal of sharing of feed and living space between meat birds, laying hens and other livestock and pets. Unless you keep your meat birds separate and completely confined, you won’t really have any idea how much or what they eat. And I don’t know how many times I’ve found that my egg layers got “bored” and started cannibalizing the broilers. It’s not like they can run fast enough to escape them! Or that they would be inclined to actually RUN in the first place. They can’t breed naturally either and they constantly drop dead from organ failure. One May, the temps spiked up to 95 and I lost about 25 out of 100 broilers in one fell swoop. Have you ever had to buy high-protein chicken feed by the ton? I have. It is hard on the bank account! Meanwhile, my healthy, agile hens were out chasing grasshoppers and outrunning coyotes down on the Back 40. Well, MOST of them outran the coyotes….

But when it comes to chickens, here’s the #1 reason you don’t want to have to butcher Cornish X’s:  Picture your great-grandmother sprinkling a little corn or bread crumbs around for her precious birds as a treat. One day, she finds that a hen hasn’t been laying or she has a rooster too many so she gets out the ax. Economy was precious to “involuntary” homesteaders – they couldn’t buy feed by the 50# bag and wouldn’t have even if they could have. Do you honestly think she EVER butchered 8-25 chickens in a single day?! Well, that’s what you’re facing with commercial broilers. The minimum order you can get away with from a hatchery is 25 birds and they MUST be butchered before they start dropping dead of health problems. You MIGHT manage to get a few of them to 15# at 16 weeks, but you can’t count on which ones will make it. Ideally, you might butcher 6-8 of them at “Cornish Hen” size, another 6-8 of them at “Broiler/Fryer” size, and let the last 6-8 go until 12 weeks, which will be “Stewing Hen” size. But still, you are locked into that schedule for a full month of weekends (more or less). And that’s for only one batch of birds!

You may be saying “Well, I want to get it over with all at once!” You have now just admitted that you hate butchering, plain and simple. And if you hate it, your family will hate it. With experience comes familiarity and… SPEED. If you always have your tools ready to go and a dedicated butchering area, you’ll hardly notice the drudgery. It can, in fact, be relaxing and something to look forward to. A beer or glass of wine or herbal tea, some music – mommy sharpening her knives….. what’s not to love?! I can do 2-3 chickens or rabbits in about an hour and half, including set-up and clean up. While dinner is in the oven or crockpot. Just about anyone can make time for this butchering schedule a couple times a week.  Two birds or rabbits twice a week is…. yes, about 200 small animals a year. You may be able to do more, but it isn't a competition.

But you can’t pace yourself like this with commercial broiler breeds, only with heritage birds. And rabbits. And ducks. And fish, if you have a fisherman in your family. If you make butchering a regular part of your life, it will be a commonplace thing to your family and no one has to get stressed over it -- least of all, YOU! And the heritage animals really do taste better, even though they grow more slowly and it takes more of them to produce the same quantity of meat as the commercial animals. Which is why 200 birds or rabbits a year really isn’t too many.

Monthly Incubation
There are 2 exceptions to the rule of “Never Again” regarding broilers: 1)You live in the suburbs or city limits. Cornish X’s are quiet and can’t fly, so they might be an option – especially if you can split an order with someone. Still, I think I’d opt for rabbits rather than them, but that’s me. 2) The other exception is the slow-growing broilers, but they still eat a lot. I like raising 25 Black Broilers every fall so I have a few nice, big (6-7#) birds for holiday meals. They are beautiful, they get along well with other birds (the Red Broilers were horrible cannibals!) and they can reproduce naturally. The roosters will tear up the hens’ saddles and shouldn’t be kept for breeding, but you can breed other heavy breed males to the females and you often get a nice bird from that cross. There are some other slow-growing broiler breeds that are also nice, like Dixie Rainbows and Freedom Rangers. Buckeyes are fast becoming a popular broiler breed, though they are heritage.

4-Month-Old Black Broiler
We finished a couple of Hampshire pigs a few years ago and butchered them. They weren’t bad, but that lean commercial pork is not what I’m looking for in a pig. Our heritage American Guinea Hogs are so much more flavorful in comparison. And there’s lard – lots and lots of lard!

2-Year American Guinea Hog Sow

Begin With The End In Mind
This applies not only to the butchering process, but to the age and breed selection as well. Even within a species, breeds have different growth rates, growth spurts, mentalities and slightly different musculature and meat/fat ratios. One of my favorite things to do most years is to order a big batch of “Heavy Breed Assortment” roosters from the hatchery. (I always specify “No Americauanas/Easter Eggers” because sometimes they cross Araucanas with smaller birds to get the pretty-colored eggs. And they tend to be vicious, independent little bastards who insist on roosting in the trees and getting killed by owls and raccoons…) They will send you quite a panorama of breeds and even though they all start out the same size, the differences will soon become evident. I can’t go into all the differences here, but (for instance), Rhode Islands are perfectly plump for butchering at 16-20 weeks making them great for grilling and frying. Barred Rocks have an early growth spurt (great to butcher very young), then they stay kind of scrawny until about 6 months, at which point they will surpass most of the other breeds. They were very popular with my Mexican clientele in Texas due to their style of cooking – it’s not necessary a bird be completely tender at 6 months (you wouldn’t want to toss them on the grill or fry them at that age!), but they need not be so tender for the braised, pulled meat in enchiladas. And so on it goes. It’s part of the fun of discovery to see which breeds best fit your style of cooking and your family’s individual tastes.

Filling For Chicken Enchiladas
Male Animals and Older Animals
Male animals can be a pain on the homestead and unless you have a lot of land, it’s generally best to castrate them or butcher them young so they don’t become a bigger pain later. We have a very “spirited” boar I would regretfully send to freezer camp if his genetics and phenotype (conformation) weren’t so exceptional. I say “regretfully” because it is my husband he hates with a passion, not me! LOL We have another boar I would gladly butcher except that I didn’t castrate him young and it needs to be done before butchering due to taint. Please don’t try and sell me on old wives tales for getting rid of it – ours definitely have it (as do many other AGH breeders) and from a small farm perspective, I don’t have the space to keep him separate from the females.  I’ve not butchered a full-grown ram before, but I’m told the meat is inedible if they are in rut. With the hair sheep we raise (the females can reproduce any time of the year), it’s best to butcher them young or castrate them as well since the females can always bring on the rut. We’ve had no behavior problems with our buck goat, and the one I butchered a few years back was over a year, uncut and tasted great. 

Kiko Goat Wrapped For Freezing
With age comes toughness, but it isn’t insurmountable. Author Adam Danforth has put out a couple great books on butchering and he’s very fond of the flavor of older animals, the meat properly aged and prepared. Still, with the possible exception of slightly older rabbits, there is a cutoff date whereby you can’t just slap a chop or small varmint on the grill right after butchering. With birds, it is always 20-21 weeks. With hogs, it’s 6-7 months, although many AGH breeders like to butcher around 10-11 months. (And I’ll have to butcher a LOT more of them before I’m satisfied with the answer to how old is too old for the grill!) Always remember too that size isn’t indicative of age or tenderness. A stunted plant will bolt at the same age as a larger specimen regardless of size. The same is true with animals – a smaller breed of pig or mini-goat or bantam chicken may be much smaller than commercial breeds, but they are still the same age and will have the same degree of tenderness.

The Dedicated Butchering Area
For the last 18 years, my warm-weather butchering area has been outside under a couple of trees with a sink/work area balanced on top of a couple of barrels. My cold-weather butchering area has been in the sunroom or on the porch on top of the deep-freeze. Skinning and plucking are done outside, but the rest really isn’t that messy once you get the experience. And it’s nice to have a sink and running water nearby. A few years ago, I bought a heavy canvas tool-bag on wheels for all my butchering tools so no matter where I go, I can take it with me. I can clean fish at the lake or skin and break down a bear or moose if one presents itself. It is in easy reach of my butchering area, which encourages me to butcher more often because I don’t have to go around frantically finding all my tools.

Earlier I mentioned avoiding specialized tools, but there are a few that are really nice to have. One of these is a “captive-bolt stun gun.” I am not fond of wasting pellets or bullets on a rabbit, nor do I care for breaking their necks or hitting them in the head as I have botched both those jobs before and would rather not put myself or the animal through that again. Plus, if you live in the city limits but want to butcher your own backyard rabbits, there isn’t a loud bang. They make captive bolt guns for every size of mammalian livestock and if you butcher a lot, they are a nice investment.

I would love to have a dedicated scalding tank, but they are expensive, so I make do with a large pot on a propane turkey fryer. I am about to invest in a new “flame-thrower” for singeing the hair off a hog because skinning a pig ruins the carcass for some uses and scalding/scraping is a pain and very difficult to do alone.

I just ordered a new 1 hp LEM meat grinder, but it has taken me nearly 20 years to justify that.

Do It Right!
If you are a dedicated foodie, there can be no greater insult than when some idiot pops off “Why don’t you just skin that bird (or pig)?! That’s how we do ours and they turn out great!” You are a moron and I can never take you seriously again. With rabbits, deer, sheep and goats, the skin comes off easily and readily – no big deal (and that’s the only way you CAN process them). I have skinned pigs and it’s not only difficult and time-consuming, it’s a waste of some of the best parts of the hog. In fact, some charcuterie cuts (curing) cannot be done after skinning. That being said, I would still skin a pig if I had no other choice. Birds are another matter! My father was an avid quail hunter and he always skinned them. He always skinned scaled fish too.  Most hunters who dove- and duck-hunt carve out the breast meat and toss the rest. No disrespect to them, but it wasn’t until I tasted quail with the skin on that I realized what I had been missing out on. The skin has so much flavor and with both fish and birds, the fat in and nearest the skin contains most of the healthy Omegas. The skin also helps seals in the juices when cooking for a more succulent meal. And who wants to look at a naked bird?! Some cultures devote special care to the skin because they think it’s the tastiest part.

On packaging. You see a lot of people buying vacuum sealers and shrink bags and special bags for packaging their meats. These products make the meat look great and honestly, if you sell any of your meat, people won’t buy it unless it’s professionally packaged. However…. I have tried most of them and have never been that impressed with these products, especially vacuum sealers. They tend not to seal well if any moisture is pulled from the meat through the seal, and inevitably, the seal gives way several months later resulting in freezer-burnt meat. The bags are ridiculously expensive too. Ideally of course, you would not keep meat longer than a year in any case, but sometimes it happens and I don’t want my efforts to be wasted. The best, the VERY BEST way to package your cuts and whole birds is with simple plastic wrap. ALL of the air can be squeezed out while you wrap it and it will not re-enter unless the plastic is severely damaged. I have pulled venison out of the freezer that was over 3 years old with not a bit of freezer burn or off flavor using this stuff. I buy it in 1000 feet rolls, both in the 12” and 18” widths.

Packaged & Labeled For The Freezer
With whole birds, learn to do a bar cut across the abdomen when gutting to tuck the feet into. Tuck the last wing joint behind the back. This results in a compact package for freezing, though the bird will still have to be trussed for cooking if it is very young, as heat may break the cut. If the legs attempt to push through the plastic while wrapping, cushion them with a paper towel folded into a small square. Whole rabbits can be rolled into a tight ball before wrapping, with the limbs tucked into the body cavity. All boneless larger cuts should be rolled tightly before wrapping.

Bar Cut - White Skinned Copper Marans
Label, label, label! You cannot put too much information on those labels. In addition to date, I write down a breed description or the animal’s name (if it was a large animal), age, any anomalies (crooked breastbone, pinfeathers, etc.) and assign it 1-5 stars for quality (in case I’m cooking for company or want to share with someone).

10-Week Barred Rock "Poussons" 1.5# Each

 We now have so much information at our fingertips, you can literally watch a butchering video WHILE butchering. I still break my larger animals into primal cuts because I’m generally doing the job by myself and just want to get the carcass chilled as quickly as possible, but there’s really no excuse for botching a butchering job. Do it right, or not at all!

Relax, Have A Homebrew
In the words of my favorite homebrew author, Charlie Papiazan, “Relax, have a homebrew!” Or whatever is your cup of tea. Put on some music or a movie if you’d like. (I used to have a TV/DVD player in my sunroom just for butchering/starting seeds.) Or just enjoy the solitude or the outdoors. Build a smoker and tend the fire from one batch of meat while you butcher the next batch. Make it your personal time in your personal space. Butchering is no more of a drudge than any other homesteading activity – it all depends on your approach. It is part of our genetic memory, along with meat roasting on a spit over an open fire. So take your time, relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Nubian Doe Kids -- Off Limits! LOL