24 December 2012

Processing the Pigs

Things as as settled as they can be here in Whitefield.  I've started training at Johnny's Selected Seeds to work at their Contact Center and this has taken up most of my time.  All of a sudden all the time I thought I would have to devote to winter projects and business planning has disappeared.  Nevertheless, I have decided to make time to write another post mainly because it feels good.

As previously promised, I will write a post on butchering.  I am by no means a professional and I will confess that at times it got sloppy.  What do you really expect from a guy who lost sleep the previous two days about the logistics of killing, skinning, gutting, and cutting up a pig?  Combine that with cold weather that makes your hands work a little slower and it makes for a long day.

My previous post details how we got the pigs into the trailer, etc.  After the long day of driving, we still had to set up a physical pen using 16' long metal hog panels that we borrowed from a friend.  They were setup using 2 panels we had already set up as a funnel towards the trailer for the other 6 pigs.  We added two other panels to close off the two ends to form a trapezoid where we could trap one of the two remaining pigs and exclude the other.  We distracted the second pig by putting out grain a distance away from the pig we were about to dispatch (she was very hungry because we didn't feed her the night before; this makes it less messy to gut afterwards).

The night before we also had to set up a couple of tripods using long poles, rope to tie the poles together at the top, and a couple of block and tackles to pull them up.  This seemed like a pretty easy and ideal setup...we wish.

WARNING: The next few paragraphs describe scenes that may be disturbing to some people.  Not any pictures though.

Ken, Adrienne, Kate, and I were all there at about 8am.  I had spent a few minutes practicing shooting the .22 Ruger pistol we borrowed from Kate's dad.  I pretended a plastic milk bottle label was the pigs head.  It is recommended that you use a higher caliber bullet, but I read in several places that a .22 is enough provided you fire at the right angle and aim correctly.  You basically imagine an X drawn from the ears to their respective opposite eyes.  An old trick is to make the pigs hungry and then lure them with grain.  Kate passed me a small rubber trough with some grain in it while I was prepared with the loaded .22 trying to stay calm and collected.

I placed the trough on the ground and eventually the pig started eating out of it.  Nothing is as easy as it seems.  The pig's head of course moves up and down every time it scoops a bit of grain into its mouth and chews.  The key was to be really patient and wait until it picked up its head for a split second while it was chewing.  I put the barrel about an inch away from its head, waiting for the right moment, angling the gun so that the bullet would enter its brain perpendicular to its flat forehead, and pulled the trigger.  A puff of smoke and like that it dropped and would no longer feel pain nor be conscious.

Kate quickly passed me the sharp, sturdy, foot-long knife that I would use to cut it from ear to ear after I adjusted the carcass so its head was slightly downhill to facilitate blood flow.  It died quickly and painlessly.  At the same time, the other pig didn't have much of an idea of what was going on since it was busily eating in the woods 100 feet away.

We repeated the procedure with the second pig, which went even more smoothly.  This time Ken made the killing incision after I shot it.  From here on was the real hard part.  There is a fair pressure to complete skinning and gutting pretty quickly as the guts can quickly start rotting and make a mess if left to its own devices in the carcass.  Before we could even gut, we had to skin after cutting the head off by slicing neck meat, twisting, sawing, and pulling.

The tripods were not as high we thought they were.  They were 10' tall and we really needed them to be at least 11' tall to be able to work on the pigs at comfortable working level.  One of our blocks was actually a comealong that ratchets up a steel cable with a hook.  We tied the hind legs of the pigs to a singletree.

We then had the arduous task of trying to ratchet one up.  This took two different tries and two other people to support some of the weight of the pig so that I could get enough leverage to ratchet the ~300 pound pig up to 6' in the air.  This was the easier process of the two.  The second pig had a simple block pulley with a wheel; therefore we had to hold back the weight ourselves.  The tripod didn't cooperate with all the sideways force we were putting on it in order to pull the pig up so we tied the rope to the back of a truck while i held the tripod down.

Ahhhh so it was mid-morning and we hadn't even started skinning or gutting.  At least it was around freezing temperatures.  Skinning the pig took really long.  Really, really long.  Combined with cold hands and greasy pig fat, starting at the anus and ending at the head, skinning took a total of almost 3.5 hours.  Several times during the process you have to stop and sharpen your knife because it dulls very easily on the pig skin and especially hair and bones.  Skinning around the limbs is especially tough because it is tighter to the muscle and has a very curved surface.  Once one gets to the back and belly it gets a little easier.

Fast forward to the gutting.  This is my least favorite part because if you puncture any of the organs it is messy and can ruin the meat if allowed to persist on any of the surfaces.  It is also difficult and nerve-wracking to carve around the anus and make an incision down to the chest plate.  Pig poop stinks and you obviously don't want it on your meat.  This also took a really long time on the male pig because his anatomy is a little less obvious to cut around.  After you open up the abdominal cavity, you kinda stick your hands in there and free up all the connective tissue inside and start pulling things out into a container so you can save the liver and heart.  This is a smelly job, but a nice opportunity to warm your hands up.

By this time it was getting dark around 4:30 and we still had to cut the pigs in half down their spine with a handsaw.  Sawing was pretty easy.  Then we had to rinse the carcasses with cold water down at the house and hang them to dry and cure for a few days in the barn.  Of course there were like 5 other things we had to do so we broke down the "breaking down" of the carcasses into several stages.

First we broke the animals down into primal cuts: the head, the shoulder (roasts and hocks), the midsection (pork belly, bacon, ribs, chops), and the hindquarters (ham, hocks, ham steaks).  This way we could control their temperature in our chest freezer and fit all four halves into it.  A few days later, the four of us would proceed to break the carcasses down into the cuts we are familiar with; also a whole-day process.  We also made our own sausage which was a fun family activity.

Any questions?  No?  Good.  Thanks for reading!

PS- We made lard.

PPS- We own a horse!!  More on this later.