Raising Backyard Pigs: Butchering

Posted on December 12th, 2012 by Tonia 22 Comments

Well, here it is. The promised pig butchering post. Please be aware that the images in this post are upsetting–even to those of us that eat meat–and I encourage you to not look at this post if you don’t want to see a dead animal/some blood. We are choosing to share this story and these photos because we want to discuss with you, our brave readers, what it really means to be an omnivore. Most of the world consumes meat products daily without a second thought to where it came from/what the life and death of that animal was like. If these photos disturb you, then please take a moment to think very carefully about where the meat you eat comes from–or whether or not you even want to eat meat at all–because I assure you that this is about as “nice” as it gets in the world of animal slaughter.

First and foremost, we want to say THANK YOU to our friends Jenn and Trevor, who helped us with the entire process. They arrived bright and early in their work pants and mud boots, sipping coffee, and they didn’t leave until well after dark when the very last pork chop was wrapped and taped and laid to rest in the freezer. You guys are amazing and I don’t know what we would have done without you! Thank you.

Mike prepared for this day by helping to butcher a hog at a nearby farm and reading nearly every book ever written on the subject. While we intended to prepare some of the traditional American cuts, we also wanted to prepare the meat for some of our favorite traditional Spanish and Italian specialties. Doing so requires a slightly different approach to the butchering process.

While you can gain nearly all of the knowledge you will need to properly butcher a hog from books (this one helped us immensely: Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing) and YouTube videos, nothing beats experience. Any kind of butchering experience will help, but knowing and seeing the anatomy of the hog and understanding the natural anatomical guides would be very difficult without experiencing the process firsthand. Mike had previous experience from butchering deer but stressed that it is both figuratively and literally, “a different animal.”


It’s not the same thing as hunting. When you hunt deer, you’re not killing an animal that you have an emotional connection to. And most of the time you’re physically removed from them as well–too far away to see their eyes or hear them breathing their last breath. When we killed our pig, we were kneeling right next to her. We petted her and thanked her for her life. She was eating breakfast, and then it was all over. Mike used a gun and she dropped immediately.

We all cried. But I was–even then–struck by how fast it all went and how humane it seemed. She was alive, and then she wasn’t.

After the hardest part was done, I was overcome with energy and the desire to get to work. There’s something therapeutic about physical labor, but I think what I was feeling was more than just a desire to distract myself. I didn’t want any of the meat to go to waste. I wanted us to do the very best job we possibly could, to honor her life.

The first task at hand was to move the carcass over to the scalding tank, dip it in, and scrape the hair off. Seeing as she was about 345 lbs, this was a job for the tractor. Trevor and Mike wound wire around the legs, clipped the wire to a pallet on the front of the tractor, and slowly transported her to the tank.

The water needs to be around 165F for scalding hair. We built a fire under the tank to heat the water, and then kept it from getting too hot by running cold hose water into it now and then.

We submerged the carcass until the hair pulled easily from the rough part of the shoulder, and then it was time to start scraping. The tool for scraping off hair is called a bell scraper, and it is your friend. A knife would work in a pinch, but the bell scraper makes this tedious job go much smoother. It is only necessary to remove the hair from the sections that you want to keep the skin-on (some ham and bacon recipes require this). You can filet the skin off of the rest.

Once most of the hair was removed, we cleaned the skin with the hose and moved the carcass over to the barn. This was an exciting moment because it was when we finally were able to weigh her and see how big she was. I guessed 325, Mike guessed 320. She was 345 lbs!

Mike made the first cut, down the center of the belly, so we could remove the organs. This part was fascinating. The insides were so clean and beautiful. Anatomy has always interested me, and it was so neat to get to touch every organ and examine them up close. Bodies are amazing.

We removed the liver and heart and packaged them for the freezer. We then pulled out the small and large intestines and removed the sheath from around them (an external lining that fixes the organs in place.) We squeezed any remaining contents out of the intestines, ran fresh water through them with the hose, turned them inside out and soaked them in water. They are then placed in a salt brine for storage until they are used as casings for sausage.

The small intestines are generally used for fresh sausages like bratwurst and chorizo and are fully edible, while the large intestine is used for traditional European recipes like Soppresata and other salumi varieties. The large intestine is generally not eaten, but used as a casing that is peeled away upon consumption. They are commonly called hog middles.

After removing the head and jowel meat, Mike and Trevor sawed the carcass in half so we could start to section it into the different cuts of meat: hams, belly, picnic ham, shoulder, etc. This was an exhausting job, as you’re cutting through bone. At this step, many folks follow the process similar to butchering a deer–removing limbs and cutting away pieces from the carcass while it hangs. There is no right or wrong method, really. However for our purposes, “halving” the hog was best. We wanted to end up with bone-in porkchops, which require this step. It also allows you to lay the half-hog on a table and to methodically partition it into its respective cuts.

Jenn and Trevor worked on skinning the parts of the carcass where we didn’t need the skin on while Mike cut up the other half on the butchering table. Skinning portions of the hog allow you to gather back fat, which can ultimately be turned into lard, or even more preferably, used in sausage. As Mike would finish each cut, he would pass the meat to me and I’d package them in layers of freezer paper, tape each one tightly, and label them.

This is the pork belly, which is what bacon and Pancetta are made of. In this photo Mike is sectioning the ham {hind leg} away from the belly. The ham can be used for American-Style glazed holiday ham or can be made into your own version of Italian Prosciutto or Spanish Iberían Ham. It is best to use a giant meat clever and a mallet instead of a bone/meat saw. A saw tears the meat while a clever leaves a clean cut.

This is what one of the hams looked like after it was packaged. HUGE!! I could barely lift it! It is okay to freeze hams that you intend to cure and/or hot smoke, though if you intend to salt and air-dry a ham (Prosciutto) then it is best done fresh.

This is what over 300 lbs of meat looks like in the freezer…When it was all said and done, we only had about 20 lbs of waste. The only parts we did not use were the head, the stomach and the gall-bladder (all of which we could have used, but we’re not particularly fond of the products they make–such as Head Cheese.) It felt really great to have so little waste! The fact that every part of a pig’s body is useful and edible is the main reason it is the most popular meat animal in the world.

The next steps for us are to render the lard we saved, cure the cuts that need curing–such as the belly and hams–and to make different kinds of sausage. We will follow up with posts about these projects soon, so stay tuned!

So tell us…after seeing the process from beginning to end, how do you feel about eating pork? I’m anxious to hear your thoughts. I’ll leave you with the closing point that it is our belief that this pig’s life (and death) was much more humane than it would have been in a commercial slaughter-house.

22 Comments

  1. Pam says:

    WOW! You guys did an amazing job! Our pig weighed 600 pounds, but even at 345 I wouldn’t have attempted the butchering myself. You saved a ton of money, I’ll tell ya! (Over $500 sty to freezer to have it done for us). I absolutely agree that our pigs had a great life and even though it made me cry and I miss ours, I am super proud that I witnessed her death and have a freezer full of meat that I know. Also, you did a marvelous, non-gorey job with the photos. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures, but wish I had. Thanks for the recommend on the book! We want to try curing next time. How do I feel about eating pork? I won’t ever eat it out or from the grocery store again.

  2. Karen says:

    Thank you for posting this story! Your writing and photos were very tasteful (no pun intended… I swear) considering the macabre subject matter. It looked very difficult for you considering your obvious fondness for her but Miss Piggy had a life that was lightyears better than her factory-farmed counterparts and I think you should feel really good about that.

    I used to work for an animal welfare nonprofit that lobbied strongly against factory-farming so I’ve seen MUCH worse pictures. This story actually makes me feel BETTER about eating pork when it’s raised humanely.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Tonia, I just wanted to say that when you posted about the chicks and turklets and piglets (all those “lets”), I had no idea how you’d be able to butcher the animals when the time came. I am an ignorant omnivore (grocery store or bust), and I have made myself read your posts about butchering because you’re right – if we can’t face it, how can we eat it? I don’t know that butchering will ever be something I am comfortable doing, but I will say that your blog (which I started reading because of the eco tips) has made me much more thoughtful about what I eat (it’s a process…I had fast food for lunch today while in a hurry), and I’m trying more and more to eat humanely-raised-and-butchered animals when I do buy my meat (increasingly from places like Whole Foods instead of the mainline grocer’s).

    Thank you.

  4. Devin says:

    Wow! I honestly don’t think I have what it takes to butcher an animal. I commend you both for following your food from farm to table. Not only would I have a hard time actually doing the deed without becoming a blubbering mess, I could never commit to learning what I’d need to know, and doing all that work! It is really cool to see the traditions of how meat is butchered and prepared, and why. I actually don’t cook a lot of meat, because I’m not very good at it, and I’m cheap! eating veggie is sooo much cheaper! But when I do shop for meat, this makes me really think about where my food is coming from. Thanks for sharing Tonia and Mike!

  5. Carla says:

    When I was a child I witnessed the traditional pig slaughter done in villages all across Portugal. It was traumatic for me and more so for the pig. He didn’t die quietly at all, apparently tradition implies inflicting as much pain and agony as possible. That image is still with me more than 2 decades later. Your images didn’t upset me at all, they are the reality of how we get our meat and not facing it is very hypocritical.
    I have a tremendous respect for all farm animals and am making the effort ($$) to buy from humane sources as much as possible.

  6. Lea Ann Neamy says:

    Congratulations on your first endeavor of family farm to freezer. Years ago we also butchered some of our own turkey’s and chickens. Our neighbors Pat and Kay also helped us with the process. Our oldest daughter Becky was quite the little helper as well. I will never forget when she discovered that the turkeys eyeball was actually bigger than the brain. ( This explains why I was convinced turkeys are one of the most dumbest animals I have ever encountered!) With that being said, I had no problem when it came time to butcher them. I think the hardest part was getting all the “pin” feathers off even after we dipped them in scalding water. As far as any “waste” of meat, there wasn’t much that was wasted.
    Looking back over the years of raising animals, and living on a small farm I am forever blessed to be able to say that I would’nt have changed a thing. The experiences that both our girls had from 4-H, FFA, and learning that
    life did not revolve around video games, TV, or the shopping mall is priceless. The quality of life in general is by far the best example of what is really important and what really does not matter.
    Thank you for choosing to be a “Itty Bitty Impact”!

  7. Sarah says:

    I’m deeply grateful that you shared this. It’s a hard thing to read, and I imagine it must be a hard thing to do. But the connection to what feeds and sustains us is so vital and crucial, and we’ve lost all of that. I had tears in my eyes, but this is so important. Thank you.

  8. Trish says:

    Good job – how fortunate you are to be able to do something like this yourselves. Pork is one thing I try to avoid as I am so disturbed by how factory hogs are raised. I wish we could do something like this but we would have no idea where to begin, and I don’t love pork enough to figure it out, other than the cured meats and ham.

  9. trailz says:

    I have to admit, this goes over the line for me (not quite being vegetarian). This post certainly makes me want to become a vegetarian. I find this too disturbing (um, er, real) I’m now taking your great blog out of my bookmarks. sorry, and all the best to you all!

  10. Sasha says:

    Being a meat-eater, posts like this comfort me – It’s important that we understand where our food comes from. Your pig was well cared for, it’s life served a purpose and little waste resulted from it’s passing. I wish this process was the norm – Good for you guys!

  11. Peter says:

    I’ve been reading this post over and over, trying to understand… what I’m feeling, what you are feeling, what it all means. I wonder if perhaps I’m misunderstanding your relationship to the pig.

    On one end of the spectrum there is complete indifference, like seeing a wild animal grazing on the side of a road somewhere; you acknowledge it and then never think of it again. Maybe next to that is putting a bird feeder in your yard, a little less indifferent, a little caring, paying attention. Maybe next to that is leaving out milk for the neighborhood cats. On the other end of the spectrum is owning a pet, it lives in your house, you hug it, it sneaks into your bed on a cold night. At the very end of the spectrum is caring for one’s own parents and spouse and kids, as close a relationship as one can have to another being.

    Where is your relationship to your pigs in relation to all that? Do you think you could elaborate on what you felt toward her? What you think she felt toward you? Thanks.

  12. I eat meat- and understand that in order to eat the meat- it has to come from ‘somewhere’.

    I appreciate that you did this humanely.

    Similar to the above comment- I feel that if I truly cared as much about the pig, as you’re implying, I would not have killed her. Humanely or not.
    For me, it’s not comforting to eat every bit of her, to honor her.

    I’d rather it be a pig I didn’t “know”- and then butcher it humanely.
    You fed her.
    Kept her warm.
    Talked to her.
    Watched her grow.
    And then watched her die at your hand.

    Again, I don’t think you’re bad people :) Just my personal feeling on it.

    Love,
    Eat Cake

  13. tricia says:

    Thank you Tonia for sharing these pictures. Its helpful to see a realistic picture of what the process involves. What a huge task! I’m imagining your pig was one very happy pig. I like that she didn’t have to endure a stressful trip to the abattoirs.

    My five year old daughter just spotted one of the pics over my shoulder and asked what was happening. I showed her all your pictures. Rather than be horrified she was intrigued and asked to see the pictures four times. We then headed off to look at some images of sow stalls and industrial pig farms as a comparison.

    Inspiring Tonia. Thank you.

  14. tricia says:

    Coincidentally this report about the pork industry popped up in my feed this morning. http://civileats.com/2012/12/13/the-pork-industry-out-of-touch-and-out-of-time/

    Horrifying! Makes the process you went through to get your pork look like a fairy tale.

  15. Meredith says:

    Most of the people horrified by this slaughter will drive their cars to yoga class, heat and cool their homes year round, and buy their vegetarian grain based foods trucked in from literally hundreds and thousands of miles away and grown in massive, ecosystem destroying agricultural enterprises. All of it depleting non-sustainable fossil fuels and destroying environments which support life.

    That hog will supply your family with a years worth of food – raised humanely and locally, utilizing biowaste from your own kitchen. You honor her with your kindness and your gratitude. And you help preserve the Earth for other living things.

    You did well.

  16. [...] in ground pork. He cranked out two types of sausage last week: Spicy Italian pork sausage from our pig and tomato-basil-chicken sausage from the chickens we raised last summer. We ate the Italian [...]

  17. akamat says:

    How sad. what a completely horrible thing to do to a beautiful, intelligent animal. The ultimate betrayal.

  18. Please ignore the negative comments here. I want to thank you so very much for sharing this with us. I have my dairy and meat goat does off being bred for the first time, and our first three litters of meat rabbits born just before Christmas. I know I am going to cry when it comes time to butcher the babies, but I take solace knowing they were given the best food, care and love while they are here, and that they will be feeding my family and I home raised organic meat when they are butchered. Once we have rabbits and goats “conquered” we plan on trying our hand at a pair of hogs. I will never understand someone who would rather eat factory farm raised pork because they didn’t “know” the pig. I prefer my meat without antibiotics, growth hormones and raised in a clean, “friendly” environment. Keep up the good work!

  19. Alaina says:

    Thanks for putting a spotlight on how humanely this should be done! My husband and I have harvested a few wild pigs when we lived in Hawaii. We followed a very similar process and the actual killing makes me cry every time. I think it’s a good thing though; Even though I’m an omnivore I think we eat too much meat overall and, for me, knowing the animal(we’ve butchered animals we’ve raised too) gives me a greater respect for what I’m putting in my body. My personal belief is if you’re not willing to kill an animal you shouldn’t eat it.

  20. [...] How to butcher a pig by Itty Bitty Impact - Our pigs, as with everything on our farm serve a purpose.   Even though we love playing and visiting with our pigs we know in the fall they will fill our freezer, so learning how to properly butcher was high on our learning curve. [...]

  21. Isabel says:

    My comment is a little late but similar to Carla I witnessed many pig slaughterings as a child in portugal. Killing via a gun shot is a much more humane way versus a knife (which is what I experienced). I also agree with many of the comments, this was a well written post, given the subject matter. Even though you may have lost one or two readers, you have also gained one and I will be adding you to my bookmarks. Thanks, Isabel

  22. Bob says:

    Amazing article. We have our first two coming near slaughter right now. I learned a lot from this. We also enjoy our animals, and slaughter will be less than easy. We raised them from piglets, but they were brought here to be eaten. We know where our food comes from and what has to happen to table it.

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