Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Old-Fashioned Hog Slaughter

Curt of CNJ Custom Meats Cuts Open a Hog

Pigs Are Doomed

Humans breed a variety of animals for their milk, meat and working ability. Unlike cows or goats, pigs are almost without exception raised for their meat. Roughly 1 billion domestic pigs exist at any given time, and almost all of them have been created so that we may kill and eat them.

Curt Removes a Head

Traditional Hogs

Wooly Pigs recently sold six very fat Berkshire hogs. We arranged to have them slaughtered on-farm by our favorite state-licensed slaughterer and butcher, Curt of CNJ Custom Meats. The six Berkshires we killed were unusual because they were so large and fat. For various reasons, heavy hogs make great cured products like bacon, ham and sausage.

The hog gets burned and scraped, then eviscerated.

Some of the customers wanted the butcher to kill and process the hogs. Others (from Culinary Communion - Seattle's extreme food instruction institution) just wanted him to kill their hogs; they'd do all their own traditional processing back in their kitchen. The Culinary Communion folks also wanted many of the organs from their hogs. As Curt put it, "they want it like in the 3rd World."

Traditionally, people didn't skin pigs, as they valued the skin. They removed the hair by scalding or burning. The skin appears in traditional preparations. In Central Europe, it is still common to serve roast pork with the skin on (the skin is called "Kruste" in German). Although modern equipment like a hog scalder or an Abflammofen (a chamber with many gas jets) makes dehairing easy, the typical process in the USA is to skin hogs.

As with most cases where there are options, the preferred way varies from region to region, and people who actually stick to tradition are very fussy, even about the tools used to scrape a hog.

In the modern world, people who will process their hog typically just want it skin-on. They will often insist on this, as the Culinary Communion folks did.[1] It wouldn't surprise me if the Culinary Communion slaughters their own pigs in the future.

Dehairing the boss sow.

None of the small USDA-inspected slaughter plants in our area can scald a pig greater than 300-lb live. Heavier pigs break or wear out their hog scalding equipment. That's really too bad, as bigger hogs make much better cured products. In any case, our customers wanted the hogs killed on site, for animal welfare and meat-quality reasons, so it was up to us to dehair the pigs.[2]

Slaughter is a business where small typically means "too small": a small USDA plant typically organizes their business as a high-volume, low-frills operation serving their local market, which is often economically depressed. It would be rare for them to have a scalder capable of handling very heavy pigs - as they cost tens of thousands of dollars when bought new. Harvesting things like blood or the intestines would complicate a small plant's operations too much and would require exotic equipment that would usually sit idle. Even if a small plant has the equipment, it is very difficult to ask employees (often family) to do dirty jobs like clean intestines.[3]

Given the size of our pigs, we opted to burn the hairs off. Building a giant scalder for a few pigs didn't make sense. Burning would be more work, but it seemed like the outcome was certain. Also, some think that burning gives the bacon a superior flavor.[4] As the burnt skin smells like roast pork, I can believe that it imparts a nice flavor to the raw material. As I worked scraping the hogs, I got hungry.

The first hog of the six. A little too brown, but he was a practice hog.

Curt was nervous about burning the hairs off, as he'd never done it. He came out a day early and did two hogs, just to practice on them. Three halves were going to customers who wanted Curt to process the pig, so he'd just skin them back at his place anyway. This extra trip meant he had to drive 2 extra hours - but we all wanted to do things as best we could.

Curt dehairs the hog while Gary Angell, the herdsman, operates the tractor.

The herdsman (Gary Angell, seated on the tractor) and I selected and penned up the pigs in an area with straw a day before slaughter so that they could get clean and also fast a bit. Keeping the hogs dry and clean makes the burning go smoother. Making them fast means there's less feces to deal with later, and less chance of contamination.

Cautious Pig Has a Close Call

Curt's method is to stun the pig by shooting it in the head. He's very careful not to shoot a pig unless he's going to hit it and knock it out. A badly placed shot can ruin everything.

As shown in the video above, some of the pigs move around a lot in response to Curt, making it impossible for him to stun them properly. There's a lot of suspense in those videos - you know what Curt wants to do, but the pig may or may not make it easy.

After Curt shoots the pig, he sticks it to bleed it out. The pig in the video below is sleeping. If things went correctly, and it appears they did, she wasn't at all conscious when he bled her out.

It is important that the pig not be stressed before death. Besides the animal welfare issue - which is absolutely crucial for us and the customer, glycogen depletion in the muscles, due to struggling, leads to stress-damaged meat. Stress can ruin an entire pig. For the customers who are buying a whole or a half, there's a lot at stake.[5] Hence Curt is extremely careful when stunning the pig.

Curt stuns the sleeping boss sow. The neighboring pig isn't very afraid.

After the stunning, the butcher sticks the pig in a main artery by the heart, to bleed it out. The massive loss of blood ends consciousness very quickly. I didn't video Curt sticking the pig, which I regret. If the hog is stuck properly, blood pours out. As the blood pours out, the pig often thrashes around, making the other pigs wonder what is going on. They usually investigate. After we pull the pig out of the pen, they eat the blood.

As the boss sow bleeds out, the other pig wonders what is going on.

The Culinary Communion folks wanted us to catch the blood that comes out after the sticking so that they could use it, but Curt nixed that. He didn't want to have to get into the pen to catch the blood. One could easily get hurt by a thrashing pig. As Randy pointed out, if one of those monsters kicked you it could break your jaw. I just imagined getting my eye poked out. Later Curt admitted that collecting some blood wouldn't be too hard to do - but then you'd also have to stir it and add an anticoagulant, so that it could be used later.[6]

I missed the stunning of the first pig. According to Randy, a farm helper, Curt walked over to the pen, sticking the barrel of the gun into the pen at snout level. Pigs are very curious, so some came over. The doomed pig sniffed the barrel of the rifle. After the pig lost interest and dropped his snout, Curt shot him in the head, dropping him.[7]

After each pig bled out, we moved it out of the pen with a tractor to a cleaner area for processing.

This pig is a happy cannibal. He just lapped up his fellow pig's blood.

After the humans clear out the pigs, one or more pigs typically busies itself eating up the blood in the pen. They really love it. If the blood falls in the dirt, they'll every bloody bit of dirt. In a few minutes, there's typically no trace - except perhaps a pig with a bloody nose. Even that vanishes soon.[8] Pigs like blood and meat for the same reasons we do: plants simply don't taste good in comparison, because they aren't as nutritious. A pig on an all-vegetarian diet is an unhappy, unnatural pig.

In response to some concerned remarks from my readers, I called WSDA and asked their custom slaughter bureaucrat (Roy) if they have a problem with the pig eating the blood. He said he didn't, and that he'd never even received a question about it.

Curt was so bothered about the dirty feet that he had to cut them off.

A bunch of us watched the remaining pigs either eat up the blood and go back to sleeping or go back to sleeping, skipping the cannibalism. We saw no stress, worry or compassion in the remaining pigs, which made us feel a lot better about what we were doing. Seeing them eat the blood of their fellow pigs so naturally reminded me that they'd eat me if they could.

Even if we'd wanted to stop the pigs from engaging in last-minute cannibalism, there's not much we could do about it: we had to work on the pig we'd just killed, not fool around the still-living pigs. And we didn't want to stress out the live pigs, as we'd be killing them soon. In any case, it isn't easy to get the big pigs to do anything they don't want to do.

After we got the pigs out, we burned off the hairs and scraped the skin. I volunteered to help with the dehairing. I wanted to help and see how hard it was. It takes a very long time, and the work was very sooty.

We looked for sources on how to dehair the pig properly (as if there would be just one way to do it), but we couldn't find much. In the end, we went with a simple burn and scrape. Maybe we'll do things differently next time, assuming we can get some good information.

Even if the pig is clean, his feet are probably filthy.

Some parts, like the feet and the head, are nearly impossible to clean.[9] Pig feet are absolutely filthy. I'll never look at them the same way again. Having tried to get them clean, I now understand why folks like Curt don't even like to attempt to clean them:too much work, and they don't seem to ever be clean, especially between the toes.

It is amazing that pigs, who are undeniably filthy, taste so good. Even their feet taste good.

Curt saws a pig in half.

After we dehaired the pigs, Curt cut them open and removed their gut and pulled out their organs. He's done that for about 15 years, so he's very smooth. After removing the organs, Curt split the pigs with his saw into two halves.

Eastern Washington is dusty and windy, even in April. Curt was extremely careful about contaminants while working on the pork: we parked some vehicles near the work area to block the wind, and Curt made sure to keep the meat clean. Even so, it didn't strike me as very sanitary - but clearly humans have lived through dirtier times and survived.

Fetal pigs from one of the sows.

We inspected the organs of the females. Some of them were pregnant. Pulling out the fetal pigs revealed tiny pig embryos with snouts, hooves and tails. If your pigs are outside, there's a constant risk that females will get bred. Their biological urges, and those of the boars, overcome most fences.

Boss Sow

The boss sow dwarfs Curt.

Just as people are envious and nasty, so are pigs. Pigs express their feelings with their mouths, which are full of sharp teeth.

For pigs, being nasty works: aggressive pigs eat the food at the expense of the other pigs. Aggressive boars (in the wild) fight off the other competitors and get to pass on their genes. Aggressive females also out-compete the less-dominant females.

The alpha-female is called the boss sow. A typical boss sow day might include standing in the trough and eating (and biting any other pigs that try to eat at the same time), biting any other pigs that don't get out of her way or biting a few rival sows in the vulva. A really nasty boss sow might eat the piglets of a rival or bite the penis of a boar servicing another female. Boss sow behavior gets worse with age.

Curt and I burn and scrape the boss sow.

Our boss sow was a long Berkshire we were hoping would produce some good piglets. She was quite sweet to people, even as she harassed other pigs. I remember scratching her back as she ate some feed, watching as she nastily snapped at other pigs that got too close.

When we finally decided to be rid of her and moved her from the breeding area into the finishing area, intending to kill her after she'd eaten the finishing ration for 60 days. She didn't like the finishing area, so she'd escape back into the breeding area, where she'd eat feed that that wasn't the best for her fat quality. So we'd move her back to the finishing area and start the cycle again.

In her final days, she came down with arthritis in her back leg. The cause wasn't clear, but it looked like it was a good time for her to go. Had she lived longer, she would have suffered a bit.

Her death was particularly nice, considering how awful she'd been to the other pigs. As shown in the video, she got shot while asleep. It took about two minutes for her to go from an alpha-female to a giant dead pig. She probably weighed 600 lbs live, which is about 3 times the size of a typical hog.

Watching the boss sow become meat was a strange experience. She was such a presence on the farm for so long, and now she was 446 pounds of pork. When it was all over I decided I was happy she got sold to customers who would use all of her.


[1] With experience, some people get less fussy. We recently talked with Seth Caswell, Executive Chef of Stumbling Goat. He said that in the future, he'd probably be willing to take our heavy hogs skinned. The last skin-on hog we gave him had (minus the head) had a 330-lb carcass. Seth had so much extra skin that he wound up giving a bunch of it away.

[2] Doing the slaughter on-farm makes it a lot easier for us to deliver the best pork possible. One downside is that the pigs have to be sold before slaughter, and customers have to buy a whole or a half, so it can't work for the average consumer.

[3] We don't know anyone who regularly processes hog intestines. The people we know who have done it have done it exactly once, as a learning experience. They say the hands reek for a week or so. You can't eat without smelling pig feces.

[4] Burning the hair is common in Hungary, Romania and some other countries. Scalding is common in Northern Europe. Scalding seems to require more equipment and less labor, while burning is the opposite. Here's one American source on the superiority of burning:

"In order to have good bacon the hair should be burnt off - not scalded - the flesh will be more solid and firm and it will keep better."
[5] Viewing slaughter is a good idea. You can ensure you don't get a stressed animal that way. Unfortunately, most USDA plants won't allow you to view slaughter - even of one's own animals - in the wake of the recent beef slaughter scandal.

[6] Ryan Tateishi, purchasing manager of Seattle's Canlis, asked me how hard it would be to get blood. I explained that if he wanted to buy it from a USDA-inspected plant, it would be hard to acquire locally, for the reasons listed above. On the other hand, if he was at a hog slaughter, he could probably get it for free.

[7] Randy commented that for all the talk of pigs being smart, going and sniffing the butcher's gun was quite dumb. Another way of looking at is that our pigs are incredibly pampered and trusting, because almost all their interactions with us have been pleasant.

[8] When pigs act as predators, there usually is no trace. If they are eating chickens, cats, kid goats, calves or other piglets, they'll finish off everything.

[9] Of all the pig parts, I don't understand how a head can ever be clean. The ears, mouth and nose have so many cavities for filth, food and other foreign matter. I recently found hay in the teeth of my pig heads.


Andrew said...

Great post, very informative. One quick question-it appears that you burned the hair off immediately after the hog was slaughtered-is that correct? Did you follow the straw technique described in the book you link to? I've got a farmer raising Old Spots near me, and I'd like to leave the skin on so as to cure the pig, but as you note, most meat processing plants skin the pig.

Heath said...

Andrew - We didn't use straw. Curt just wanted to use propane. It was a very windy day. He didn't want to start a brush fire.

pdxer said...

When we butchered our hog, we had a Hungarian guy show us how his family does it. We got into it because one of us is from a country where hogs come with the skin on, and he was appalled at how hard it was to get it that way, or to get the organs. After a yearly litany of how Americans throw away all the best parts, this was my solution. You can get a hog skin-on in western Oregon, one butcher does it, and it's called a "China pig" but good luck getting the organs. Carlton does a little better in the processing, you can get it skin on and you'll get maybe half of your organs.

The Hungarian guy always used a propane blow torch so that's what we did (and you can use it for "organic" weed/moss killing too) to remove the hair. I bought scrapers from Lehmann's and a double edged knife for sticking. I recommend the scrapers, but not the knife, it was one dull mfer. I had big plans for the blood (and had the anti-coagulent standing by) but the pig thrashed around so much we didn't get any (yes, we prestunned it and it dropped, but it still convulses when it bleeds out). You can easily buy some in a well stocked Asian grocery store, it's pretty common, but you won't know where it came from.

Our pig wasn't as brown as the one you show in your photo, I don't think you need to cook it that much to get the hair off.

We got the head and feet clean (using the whole thing was the whole point) but it is a lot of work. To get the feet clean you need to remove all of the toenails and have a really stiff scrub brush and lots of boiling water. Same for the head, the ears are the hardest to clean out because of all the wax, but you just need to get in there and scrub and rinse them with boiling water several times.

Besides scraping, my job was doing the guts. I thought I'd be squeamish, but it was so cold I was happy to be up to my elbows in warm pig innards and I've never seen anything quite a beautiful as the caul attached to the spleen.

Andrew said...

Would it be possible to hang the pig up by the back feet after stunning it and prior to slitting its throat so that a pail can be used to catch the blood?
Pdxer-I've seen pig's blood at Asian Markets, but it is typically cooked, and for boudin noir, I think it needs to be fresh (preferrably the day the pig is slaughtered).
didn't think about using a propane torch, but seems like a logical solution.

Heath said...

pdxter - Thanks very much for your comments. Do you perhaps know anyone who uses that method who could come to eastern WA to show us how it is done? I'd really like to learn how, and I think Curt would feel better if someone showed him how to do a really good job with that method.

I agree that the hogs look too brown. I think the first two were more brown than the later ones. To get that skin to come off, Curt, the butcher, figured that more heat was better than less. If you heat that skin up, the top layer scrapes right off.

These Moldovian guys really seem to blast that pig with the propane: http://fxcuisine.com/default.asp?Display=119

But then they clean it all off with water.

I think this is a more thorough desription of that method - in German: http://home.tele2.at/wsnaweb/IGWOE/

The lack of information on how to do pigs this way was really frustrating.

Another important thing: I'm not in charge of the slaughter, and legally, I can't be. Curt is the state-licensed slaughterer. He was in charge. I tried to coordinate things as best I could, to keep the customers happy - but really, there's not much I can do to make Curt do things one way or another. He can always choose to ignore me. It isn't like we've got a lot of these guys, and Curt is the most conscientious one we know.

I'm sure Curt will pay attention to customer feedback, and assuming we do more pigs this way, we'll change things a bit.

Heath said...

Andrew - if you could stun, immediately hoist and stick the pig (perhaps using a hollow knife blood collection system), you'd be functioning more like a slaughterhouse.

If you look at the videos though, you'll see that shooting the pigs from afar is a great way to avoid stressing the pigs.

The guys we know in Austria prefer to snipe the pigs like Curt did the boss sow. They make more money from a low-stress slaughter than they do from getting all the blood.

Heath said...

pdxter -- Did your hog have black skin? Black skin makes things worse. With white skin, you can have some epidermis still on there and it looks OK.

Whether you scald or singe, black skin makes it worse. All our hogs are black skinned though. Among other things, they have less problems with the sun.

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