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Tools of the Trade, Part 1 - The Slaughter

While this task, that of moving an animal from field to plate, can be accomplished using the barest minimum of tools, having the right tool for the job not only makes the job easier, but much safer. Let us explore basic butchery tools as well as some alternatives.
To do this, we will consider each step of the slaughter process and tools to make it both safer and easier. For this article I will be assuming scald and scrape method instead of skinning. Ready? Put on your water-proof apron and let’s get started!

I prepare for slaughter by isolating the pigs the day before, giving them fresh water and fasting them from food for 24 hours prior to kill. This allows the digestive system to empty somewhat and makes the weight of the intestines much less, therefore, easier to handle. It also assures that the pig’s attention will be on the small amount of feed that I give them and not so much on the rifle in my hand.
Set up your slaughter area with your chosen water vat. This is the place to be very creative as there are endless possibilities: an old cast iron bathtub, a 55-gallon drum, a metal trash can (30 gallon), or a stainless steel commercial sink all can be heated with direct heat. I use a propane camp cooker base which allows me to adjust the flame from low to high keeping the water between 145 and 155^ F. Don’t guess on the water temp; keep a long probe thermometer and/or a laser thermometer handy. By removing the legs of the cooker, I keep the top of the vat to a comfortable working height. A wood fire is another way to heat your water, though more difficult to adjust the heat. In absence of a vat large enough to submerge your beast, burlap sacks or old towels can be draped over the carcass and scalding water poured over. I have done both and find the dipping the carcass into the water makes less mess at my feet and requires less water overall.

How will you kill your chosen dinner? My preferred tool is my 22-gauge rifle, point black aiming for a spot between the eyes and just above the X formed from ears to eyes. Alternatively, I have also targeted from just behind the ear toward the opposite eye. Take your time; do not rush this step. Far better to make the kill clean with one shot than to rush and require several! A wounded animal in not only dangerous, but a sad thing to see.

Immediately after the kill/stun, use a sharp knife to ‘stick’ the hog. I prefer a bonified Sticking Knife which is sharp on both edges. Insert just in front of and under the sternum aiming toward the spine to sever the arteries near the heart for a fast and thorough bleed out. An ‘ear to ear’ cut across the neck destroys fabulous meat, opens the esophagus and risks contamination from stomach contents, and creates a large wound for contamination by dirt and debris. One stab wound is far better.

In your preparation for The Day, consider how you will hoist the carcass from the ground to the vat to the table. Small pigs are simply hand lifted; at our farm, larger hogs are lifted utilizing the bucket lift of our tractor. A block and tackle pulley system is another option. What weight you have to lift and the abilities of the folks involved dictate your preparation needs. Keep your own safety foremost in mind while you plan your work.

I have a dedicated 6ft plastic table near the vat as a comfortable and washable work space.
On the table and ready for use are tools for scraping the hair and top layer of skin. Bell Scrapers, so called because of their shape, somewhat dull knives, or even canning jar lids are all suitable for the job. I also invested in long silicon gloves that allow me to reach into the scalding water to turn, test, and lift the hot carcass. After the Bleed, carefully lower the carcass into the vat and let soak, moving the carcass about, for several minutes. Test pull some hair. Once large clumps of hair come out easily, hoist the carcass onto your work table and get scraping!
Getting the carcass clean may require repeat dips. This is especially true when the weather is cold or windy as the skin rapidly cools. Laying hot towels over one end of the carcass while you work the other helps slow down the cooling.
A final touch-up on the hair-removal can be done with a small propane torch, singeing the remaining straggling hairs. The thick black hair of the American Guinea Hog does make this job more time consuming than scraping a bald pink pig, but the effort is grandly rewarded. Leaving the skin intact protects the meat and fat for smoking, freezing, or for making fabulous pork rinds.

Once the carcass is cleanly scraped, make slits between the hock and foot to insert your gambrel. The gambrel keeps the hind legs spread to allow for easier work splitting the pelvic bone and cutting around the bung (anus). Hoist to a comfortable height.
I use a Skinning Knife to loosen the bung from the tail and pelvic and to cut between the hams, then cutting the cartilage of the pelvic thus opening the body cavity. A Gut Hook makes the belly splitting fast, hooking the skin at the top near the pelvic cut and cleaning slicing down to the sternum, releasing the intestines to fall into your waiting tub. Yes, don’t forget the tub! You may also want to have at ready a kitchen clean container for any offal you wish to keep (kidneys, heart, liver).
Cutting through the sternum on a younger pig is often done with the Rigid Boning Knife; an older animal may require a Bone Saw.
Because I use a bullet for the kill, I cannot utilize the head. It goes to the dogs. I use either the Breaking Knife or the Boning Knife to cut behind the jaw, under the head, and behind the ears, separating the spine at the axis and not needing the saw.
A final rinse and the carcass is ready to hang and cool.

There are endless choices of knives, from brand, to type of handle, full-tang or not, forged or stamped blade, stainless or steel, price…How do you choose?!
My knives are all full tang (blade extends fully into the handle, end to end). I have several brands; some I found used, some I splurged on at a cutlery outlet in Missouri. Most are Stainless Steel, some are not.
Choose the best that you can afford. An excellent knife is a worthy investment.

Next time: Tools of the Trade, Part 2 – Butchery