Harvest day comes with a lot of preparation: sharpening knives, preparing the tractor, pulling out the meat grinder and cleaning every inch of the kitchen in preparation for a full day of chaos.
All of our pork processing is done at home for a number of reasons. Primarily, we like knowing we were responsible for putting pork on the table from start to finish, rather than outsourcing the less pleasant parts.
In a years time we get very close to our animals, and perhaps I saw Old Yeller too many times as a kid, but when the time comes, I’d prefer the moral responsibility of shooting my own pig. We’d also rather not put undue stress on any of our animals in transporting them to a processing facility. Since all of our meat is consumed by us rather than sold, there are no legal issues with home processing in Vermont.
How to Slaughter a Pig
Our pigs are first shot to stun them, and then throats are cut. I’ve heard that the European method is to just go right in for the throat cut. I can’t imagine how hard that is, and how much skill that would take. Even after the pig has been shot, there are somewhere between 1 and 2 full inches of hide and fat before you reach the arteries in the neck. It takes all the strength I have to cut the throat quickly even with the pig stunned by the bullet.
After the throat is cut, a pig needs to be bled out. The easiest method we’ve found is to hang them by the tendons on their back hocks from our tractor bucket. This process was a lot harder before we had the tractor, as the pig below weighs between 300 and 350lbs. Our first pigs we pulled up by hand, which is a process I’m not eager to repeat. This time, it went a lot smoother.
Scalding or Skinning
Perhaps scalding and scraping a pig is an easy thing to do, but it’s something that still intimidates us. We don’t have a way to hold or heat enough water to scald a full sized pig. Our neighbor built a fire under an old oil drum, which though probably fine in reality, just seems not quite right to me.
Anyhow, our current process involves skinning. In the end, you lose a bit of fat to the skin, but for the most part, the end result is the same.
A skinning knife really helps with this process. It has a rounded edge the allows you to cut with the leading edge without puncturing the skin. The pointed end on most knives will pop right through and you won’t get a clean skin.
Butchering and Sausage Making
Bleeding out, skinning and gutting a pig takes about an hour. Once the pig is skinned and gutted, the hard part is actually pretty well over, but the work is just beginning. Cutting the pig into 1 to 2-pound packages and vacuum sealing, along with chopping sausage meat into small pieces to fit through the grinder takes us 3-4 hours in total.
The first time we made sausage, we used the meat grinder attachment on a KitchenAid stand mixer. It got the job done, but really that attachment was designed for a hobbyist that’s planning to grind up a pound or two. We timed it, and the KitchenAid attachment took a full 5 minutes to grind a single pound.
This time, we invested in a LEM 3/4 hp meat grinder and were really impressed with the results. Not only did we get really clean sausage, without the mashing or emulsification from the KitchenAid attachment, but it was really efficient. Instead of 5 minutes per pound, we were able to grind 7 pounds per minute. You read that right, 7 pounds of meat turned into sausage in just 60 seconds!
This year we heavily biased toward sausage because, well, it’s delicious and we felt like we didn’t make enough last year. Instead of leaving whole bone-in shoulders, I boned everything down to small roasts and cut a bulk of it up into sausage chunks. This is the first year we experimented with making cased sausage, and it came out beautifully. Truth be told, cased sausage is a lot easier to make than you’d think and very much worth the effort.
Perhaps someday we’ll go through the process of cleaning our own sausage casings, but for now, we buy natural sausage casings ready to use. They come pre-packaged in salt. Soak them to remove the salt and moisten them, and they’re ready to use in about half an hour.
The actual cutting of a pig takes a bit of practice, but to anyone with a bit of knowledge of anatomy and skill with a knife, it’s easy enough to pick up. If you’d like to learn, I’d suggest watching the Scott Rea video below. Scott is a true artist, and all of his videos are well made and informative:
How Much Meat Does a Pig Yield
For the most part, a pig yields roughly 50% of its live weight in marketable cuts. On top of that, you have oddments like lard, bones and organs that are still usable and tasty. We make and can pork bone broth for our winter soups and stews, and the organs make a tasty organ stock. A single pig yielded enough bone and organs to pressure can 42 quarts of stock. That’s three full batches of 14 quarts each in our 30 quart All-American Pressure Canner.
Beyond meat and stock, we were able to render 5 full gallons of lard. Yes, that’s right. Five full gallons of rendered lard. Pigs are usually harvested much younger than 1 year old because feed conversion is better. We planned to breed this pig, but plans changed and into the freezer she went.
We first grind the fat to make it easier to render, and then slow process it on the stove at low heat. It’s an all-day process, but the finished product, if done right, tastes clean enough to bake into a pie crust without the slightest hint of pork flavor.
Here are the final cut weights from our pig at nearly 1 year old. We estimate that her live weight was roughly 350lbs, and she yielded about 175lbs of marketable cuts.
90 lbs Sausage
40 lbs Ham Roasts
15 lbs Shoulder Roasts
15 lbs Ribs (with bone)
8 lbs Chops
5 lbs Shank (with bone)
4 lbs Tenderloin
42 Quarts Stock
5 Gallons Rendered Lard
What do you think? Are you ready to try processing your own pigs at home?