By Roger Sherfield – The hardest part of getting that homestead hog from pen to freezer is the part that most people don’t like to talk about: harvesting. While using such words may soothe the conscience of some, it avoids the hard truth. We have to kill the pig to eat it, and this means learning how to butcher a pig. People who are not willing to accept that truth should not eat. Do I mean not eat pork, or not eat meat? I mean not eat. Almost everything we eat was alive. Almost everything we eat, from the grain we grind for our bread to the roots we pull from the ground, is killed so we may live. It’s the way the system is designed. If you like to eat pork chops and ham and bacon, if you like to eat pork sausage and pork roast, then, we have to kill the pig. It is the hardest part of the job of getting the hog into the freezer.
While the ideal weight for a butcher hog is around 265 pounds according to the packing industry, I seldom managed to butcher at that weight. There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is my dislike for killing. I keep putting it off and putting it off until I can’t avoid it any longer. This has led to our butchering hogs in the 400-pound range. We now prefer that size range as we think it is more economical to raise them to that size, and we like the larger pork chops and hams. After all, the packing industry is just that, an industry. Things work better for them when everything is uniform and therefore cost effective, and has little to do with what is best for the consumer or farmer. We get the best rate of gain on that last 100 pounds and we think a more mature animal has more flavorful meat.
I would not recommend butchering a hog on your own if you do not have at least some butchering experience. If you have no experience, even if you have researched how to butcher a pig, try to get someone who does to assist you or help them butcher a few times. You are legally obligated to ensure that any animal you butcher is killed in a humane manner. The exact specifics of the law vary from state to state, so I would advise finding out how to butcher a pig humanely where you live, before you start. The main reason we invest in raising pigs for meat is to practice natural pig farming, which ensures the life and death of the pig is humane. Although the answer to “what can pigs eat?” is extensive, we prefer to feed our pigs natural foods. We also want to ensure that the meat is handled in a sanitary manner and not contaminated with feces or other contaminates.
A disclaimer here, I am not a professional butcher nor am I a professional meat cutter. There are other ways of butchering a hog, and if you want all of the grocery store cuts you should hire a professional to do it for you. This is how to butcher a pig based on how I do it on my homestead.
The tools you will need are simple: a .22 caliber rifle, a very sharp knife or two, and a hand meat saw. Some method to lift and hang the hog, such as a come along or winch is very helpful. You can butcher without it, you just don’t want to. A couple of 8-to-10-inch diameter blocks of firewood are handy to wedge under the shoulders to stabilize the hog while gutting and starting to skin. A couple five-gallon buckets of warm water and a few towels will also be needed.
How to Butcher a Pig
Step one in how to butcher a pig is to render the hog unconscious. This is done with a single shot from the .22 caliber rifle. Bigger is not better, do not use a larger caliber gun, which will kill the hog instantly and it will not bleed out. The shot must be placed so that the animal is stunned, unconscious, but not dead. The hog is killed by the loss of blood due to cutting the jugular vein. In order for the shot to be effective, it must be placed at a point where an X drawn between the ears and the eyes cross. The hog should be standing with its head more or less level, not picking feed from the ground or looking up. Do not rush at this stage, stand calmly and wait until a proper shot can be taken. If hit correctly, the hog will collapse instantly. You now have about 10 to 15 seconds to cut the jugular vein. After that brief interval, the hog’s nerves will start to fire, causing the animal to kick and thrash about, making it very difficult to get the hog bled out. Professional butchers “stick” a hog in the throat, making a small cut to sever the jugular. I have not had much luck doing this and no longer try. I cut across the throat as close to the jaw as I can and I cut all the way to the spine. You will know when you have hit the jugular by the sudden outpouring of blood. Do this quickly and get out of the way because the hog will kick and thrash about quite violently. I use a knife with an eight-inch blade. It must be razor sharp.
When learning how to butcher a pig, I recommend keeping everything as normal as possible for the animal right up to the moment of death. This is more humane than loading the hog on a truck or doing other things that excite or scare the animal. If your animal is in an outdoor pen and is muddy from wallowing, try to move it to a clean area a few days before you butcher. This will make for a cleaner animal without causing undue stress on butchering day.
After you have bled the hog take a few minutes break to allow the animal to quit thrashing. This would be a good time to offer thanks to the Creator and to the animal for the food that will nourish you.
You should now wash the hog’s belly and the inside of the legs, as these are where you will be making your skinning cuts. Use plenty of warm soapy water and rinse with clear water. Now roll the hog onto its back. If you have help, which I would recommend, they can hold the hog in this position, but it is easier to block it there with a couple of pieces of firewood wedged under each shoulder. Start to skin by pulling one hind leg straight out towards you. Insert your knife just under the skin and cut towards the center. Make a cut completely around the leg near the hoof. Do the same from the other side, with your long cuts meeting at the center. Next, repeat this with the front legs.
I usually skin the legs down about a foot now. Then, using the hand meat saw, I cut off the foot just above the first joint. This removes one possible source of dirt, which could contaminate your meat. After the feet are removed, make a cut from the anus to the throat. If your hog was a male your cut should detour around the penis on both sides for now. All skinning cuts are just deep enough to cut the skin and should not cut into the muscle tissue. This is very important on the cut from anus to throat, as cutting deeply will pierce the gut. Make one more cut at the anus, circling completely around the anus and connecting to the long central cut. Skinning is done by grasping the edge of the skin at the cut and pulling it back, cutting connective tissue as needed.
Try to keep the skin folded back from the meat as you progress, to avoid contaminating the meat with hair and dirt from the skin. Skin the legs first and then pull the skin back along the body as far as possible for now. You should now have the hog skinned about half way down its sides.
Begin the gutting process by cutting around the anus, freeing it from the surrounding tissue, until it is loose and can be pulled outward slightly. Have your helper tie off the anus as tightly as possible with a piece of stout twine. This is to prevent fecal matter from being expelled during the gutting process.
If your hog was a male you must first loosen the penis. Pull upward on the penis and skin the penis back from the stomach to its point of exit at the anus. Then free it and the anus and tie both off.
The gut cavity can now be opened with a cut starting at the pelvis and extending to the beginning of the rib cage. This cut must be made very carefully to avoid puncturing the intestines. I make a cut with the tip of my knife just big enough to get two fingers in. I then use those two fingers to lift the muscle tissue up and away from the gut and to guide the knife. The pelvic bone and the spine form a tunnel through which the anus and urinary tract pass. Split the pelvis, which is done with the hand meat saw. Cut into the muscle tissue between the anus and the beginning of the cut made for gutting until you hit the pelvic bone. From the rear of the hog, cut through the pelvic bone with the hand meat saw. Watch the end of your saw, which can easily puncture the intestines during this step. Once you have completed the cut you should be able to slip the tied-off anus and penis through the cut and lay them on top of the gut. You may need to make a few minor cuts to free them from the surrounding tissue.
If you have a hoist or winch the hog can now be lifted by the hind legs. This is done with the aid of a gambrel or meat stick. This is simply a heavy stick with a central lift point used by butchers to lift the carcass. It is usually bent at the mid point so that it hangs level when in use. The gambrel is inserted between the bone and the tendon at the hock joint of each leg. This helps to hold the legs apart and makes finishing gutting easier. I usually tie each leg to the gambrel to prevent them from slipping.
With the gambrel in place, I attach the winch and start lifting. I lift the hog far enough to skin around the hams and to remove the tail. The tail can be easily cut off and left on the skin by pressing it backward as far as you can and then cutting with your knife at its base. After placing a clean tarp or sheet of plastic on the ground, I start to lift the hog, dumping the gut out. Carefully cut any connective tissue as you go. The diaphragm separates the gut cavity from the lungs and heart. Cut this as close to the ribs as possible. Once you have freed the windpipe and esophagus from the connective tissue, the entire gut should drop free.
An old saying about hogs is, “You can use everything but the squeal.” Let’s look through that pile. We have the heart and the liver, both of which are certainly edible, either on their own or as sausage ingredients. We have the intestines, which can be cleaned and used as sausage casings. If you’re not into all that and don’t want to eat them, maybe someone you know would use them. Cook them and grind them and you have top-of-the-line cat or dog food. The point is, honor the life you have taken by using as much of it as you can.
Lift the hog, skinning as you go, until it is off the ground. Traditionally the head is left on the hog and skinned out. There is a fair amount of meat on the head and at one time a bacon was made from the jowls. We just bone it off and use it for sausage.
Once the hog is completely skinned it is split into halves. This is done with the hand meat saw by cutting down the center of the spine from tail to the base of the skull. Before you can do that, however, you have to split the sternum, or breastbone, with the hand meat saw.
I slit the skull with an ax but you can cut it with the saw or you can remove it completely by cutting the joint where it attaches to the spine. Ideally, you have done your butchering in the fall and will now have a cool night to chill the meat. I raise the carcass up out of critter reach and cover it with a couple of old bed sheets we keep for that purpose. The meat needs to chill and set up before it can be cut. One last step before you cover with the sheet is to loosen the leaf lard. This is the fat which lines the stomach cavity and which makes your highest grade lard. Starting at the bottom, gently pull the fat loose, working upwards. Leave it attached at the top where it will stiffen as it cools. If this is your first butchering on your own, expect to take three or four hours. My wife and I can now butcher a hog in about 45 minutes.
Making The Cut
Cutting the hog into usable size pieces is a fairly easy job. The only additional tool you need is a meat grinder, and you only need that if you want to make sausage. Once again, have your knives sharp. Because you must force the cut with a dull knife, you are more apt to cut yourself, and it is tiring and frustrating using a dull knife. If you are going to butcher, you should definitely learn to sharpen knives.
With the half hog laying cut side up, note the point at which the spine ends near the ham. Your first cut is made here after trimming the belly back where it is attached to the ham, by following the contour of the ham and trimming into the narrowest point. Then cut straight from top to bottom with the saw, so that your cut hits the tip of the hip bone and the tip of the pelvic bone. If your halving cut was reasonably centered on the spine, both of these will be easy to see as they formed the top and bottom of the tunnel through which the anus extended.
Now make a cut across the ham section, leaving a wedge-shaped piece, and the ham. Make the cut square to the ham, just below the hip bone. As on all the cuts I’m describing, cut to the bone with a knife and then cut the bone with the saw. If you cut the unfrozen meat with the saw it will make a shredded mess. I should mention at this point that the meat should be well chilled, say between 32°F and 38°F, but not frozen. If it is frozen, all your cuts would have to be made with the saw. I do not let pork hang more than 18 hours unless it is frozen. Remember, the second the hog died, the meat began to deterioratedo not delay processing the meat.
Assuming the ham is to be cured, all it needs is a little trimming to improve its appearance. The wedge-shaped piece is a premiere roast, high on the hog, as the saying goes. Depending on the size roast you want, it can be left as is or cut into smaller pieces. If your hog had an excess of fat you may wish to trim the fat down to about 3/4 inch. Obviously, those trimmings are to be rendered down for lard. When making cuts with the saw, try to avoid or trim off odd little sharp points which will poke holes in your wrapping paper. Pork fat oxidizes fairly fast if exposed to air, causing a rancid taste and if there is a hole in the paper the meat will get “freezer burnt” or freeze dried. We always double wrap pork to delay this.
We now remove the bacon, spare ribs, and chops from the remainder. I do this by counting up from the shortest rib to the space between the 3rd and 4th ribs. Cut between the ribs with the knife and finish through the spine with the saw. Turn this piece 90 degrees, and look at the end that was next to the shoulder. The eye of the loin will be clearly visible. Parallel to the spine, below the eye of the loin, cut through the ribs. The top-heavy piece is your pork chops, the thin lower part is your bacon and spare ribs.
The only hard work in the cutting process is cutting that loin into chops. We tend to cut thick chops because it is hard to make thin uniform cuts through the loin. It works best to partially freeze the loin before cutting. I have often wished for an electric meat saw at this point, even though it would take longer to clean up than it would to do the sawing.
The loin is cut like a loaf of bread, cutting off parallel slices. Trim the fat to about 3/4 inches and they are done, except for one important step. Take a few minutes and using the edge of your knife, scrape the bone dust off of each chop. This will improve their appearance greatly. The remaining thinner section is bacon and ribs. Insert your knife along the edge just under the ribs, cut away the connective tissue as you pull the ribs away from the bacon. Toward the end of this cut, you will encounter cartilage extensions of the ribs. Leave these attached to the ribs rather than the bacon. The rib section can be left whole or cut into sections as you wish. The bacon can be trimmed and squared to make it neater appearing, but you don’t have to.
If you have never cured your own meat, bacon is an easy and fast cut to start on. There are thousands of recipes on the web, and you do not need a lot of equipment to cure bacon. Curing meat is another subject, which I’ll cover in a future issue.
The large section remaining is the front quarter, the shoulder and neck portion of the hog. The entire front leg can be peeled from the ribs with just your knife. Place the quarter skin-side up. Holding down on the ribs, lift the leg up and start trimming the connective tissue at the lower edge. You will soon find an area where the leg is only attached to the ribs along the edges. Continue lifting and trimming until the entire leg has been freed from the ribs. This is the part where real butchers are going to shake their heads. The only thing I do with that whole front rib/neck section is bone it out and make sausage. We like pork sausage, so we make a lot of it and almost any sausage recipe, regardless of what the main meat ingredient is, uses some pork. The leg portion, after trimming the lower third or so off, I cut into several roasts or slice into pork steaks. You are now done with half a hog, ditto for the other half.
Now that you have an idea of how to butcher a pig, good luck butchering on your homestead.
Originally published in Countryside September / October 2010 and regularly vetted for accuracy.