I have a friend named David. Dave has a great sense of humor. When we first met Dave my wife and I were still living in town 10 years ago. My wife and David’s wife, Jane, took our children to the same home school group. Jane and David are real farmers. At the time David worked for a large farmer and they kept rabbits, chickens and turkeys at their home. I didn’t really know any of this when Julie invited them over for dinner.
Picture in your mind a young, 28 year-old me with a bookshelf full of dog-eared, bookmarked, annotated farming books and zero experience. No chickens of my own. No pigs of my own. No experience butchering. Just a city kid with a dream.
I also need you to understand that the things Julie and I do are very unconventional…backwards even. David and Jane are conventional, modern farmers and are very good at it, not to mention frugal and otherwise like-minded.
Through the evening I keep asking David about this or that referencing a book I had read. COULD you do this with pigs? WOULD this work with goats? How about chickens with this or that? I read about this in a book.
David, who I hadn’t met previously, starts teasing me about all my book learnin’. “So-I-read-a-book…” became referenced constantly. “Wow. Did you learn that from a book?” “What did your book say about that?” “You don’t have a book about this?”
If you are squeamish and just read my blog casually this is the place to stop. Really. There is a big dose of cold reality just ahead. Meat comes wrapped in leather before it is wrapped in plastic. So if you are finishing now, Dave and I are good friends and we all lived happily ever after. The end.
Still with me? Hang on. I have some great pictures to accompany this post but my wife suggested I painted a sufficient picture with words.
Fast forward a few months. We were invited to Jane and David’s to learn to butcher rabbits. Oh! My! Gosh! The book didn’t say anything about screaming rabbits! David is an enormous bear of a strong man. He grabbed the rabbit by the hind legs and it starts screaming and struggling to escape. Then he grabs the head with the other hand and breaks the rabbit’s neck. Let me tell you, that takes some muscle and it’s not something I can do even now. I don’t know what I was expecting. You know…you raise rabbits to a certain size then you kill, dress and eat them. You know…like in the book. It’s easy. Clean. Quiet. The book says so!
So then he hangs the bunny up by its back legs using some baling twine in the shed and pulls out his pocket knife to start skinning it by tracing a line around each ankle then cutting toward the pelvis. Then, after finishing the entire process, he turns to my lovely bride and says, “Your turn”.
The worst part of the day was cooking the rabbit. Look, it’s not a chicken. It’s lean meat and it can turn out tough and dry if you don’t know what you are doing (we didn’t). So we had all of this trauma of killing a rabbit we had never met, complete with details that weren’t in the book, and this …eeew…blood clot on the neck… ending in a bad meal nobody wanted to eat.
And that’s how you transition from books to reality.
Several years later David and Jane have moved closer to her parents to work on the family hog confinement floor. We got our first few batches of hogs from them as floor rejects as each were ruptures (they had a hernia that caused a balloon somewhere along their bellies) consequently making them very cheap. Really, it’s a loop of intestine that pushes out of the wall of the stomach. This rupture can be torn open by hogs or by wear on the production floor which doesn’t end well for the pig. Hogs with ruptures sometimes survive to slaughter weight but the processing plants seriously dock the purchase price of a rupture because of the additional care needed to slaughter one. Sometimes the bag on the belly is filled with infection or just dark fluids that taint the meat. Most commonly ruptures are executed and sent to the rendering plant, reporting the data for the benefit of the vertical integration manager as ruptures are largely a genetic thing.
Remember when I said to stop reading a minute ago? That might apply more here. The piggies and bunnies were magic friends forever. The end.
I decided it was time to process a hog of my own. David had gotten busy and a few ruptures made it above 250 pounds and invited us to buy one of the ruptures from the hog owner and help with butchering day. Hoo boy! Remember above about the screaming rabbits? Yeah. Times 10. I don’t recommend this for the uninitiated…no matter how much you like bacon.
On a cold morning, David calmly walks one pig down the lane in the confinement house to the exit door where he has set up a temporary pen. Then he grabs a youth-model single-action .22 and puts the pig down, immediately cutting the carotid as the pig begins having a seizure. The pig bleeds out quickly and we hang it from a singletree, spray away the blood and, in turn, walk out two more pigs for the same procedure. It is important to clean up the blood as it will make the next pig anxious.
David did a final scrub of the pigs then we drove the tractor to the shop where we skinned (easier than scraping) and gutted the pigs. I’m not going to go step by step into the butcher process but I’ll share a few observations. Remember the line in Empire Strikes Back where Han says, “I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”
The confinement floor the pigs were raised on was having a ventilation fan issue. All three pigs had black spots on their lungs…I assume from the dust and ammonia in the building but it could have been a secondary infection brought on by their ruptures and the accompanying weakened immune system. Who knows. Cutting around the ruptures proved interesting…challenging…frustrating. We had to cut around the ruptures to gut the animals. We couldn’t cut into the rupture without fear of tainting the bacon (mmmm…bacon!) It was a lengthy process of making little cuts and exploring the rupture to find where the problem was so we could cut around it. Geez.
Once the head, skin and innards were separated from the meat and bone we left everything hanging in a cold shed. By this time it was late morning and everybody had work to attend to. We made plans to cut and package the meat the next day.
The next day was a lesson in both anatomy, frugality and hard work. We cut, trimmed and ground our way through three hogs: pork chops, roasts, ham steaks, pork steaks, sausage and they kept most of the leg bones for stewing. It is amazing how lean pork sausage really is. I wonder what they do at the store to make it so fatty. Anyway, some of this I knew from reading…but that’s not the same as doing. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t have shot the pig…if I had, it wouldn’t have been a clean kill. It wouldn’t have been a kill at all. The shot doesn’t kill the pig, cutting the carotid does…and fast! It’s all well and good to read the books but if I hadn’t found a mentor I would have been up against a steep learning curve. We continued to work with our friends as time allowed. They even brought their equipment to our house to help us butcher a couple of pigs and a goat for our own freezer. Let me tell you, there is nothing like sausage that’s 50/50 goat and pork.
Each time got better. Each time we knew and handled more of it on our own. If it hadn’t been for the experience our friends shared we would have had a hard time getting started…either with rabbits or with hogs. Or with a greenhouse. Or with any of a dozen other things they taught or gave us. Find yourself a mentor…even a conventional farmer has a lot to offer you. There is more overlap than we recognize sometimes. The books and blogs don’t have all the answers.