I woke up one morning last week to a friend’s farming emergency; a lamb had gotten its head stuck in the electric fence the night before and had died – most likely from suffocation due to its lungs filling up with blood after a heavy metal feeder collapsed and broke its neck. Sorry to see this little life taken through such a freak occurrence, it actually proved to be a great initiation into livestock slaughtering.
One of the neighboring farmers in Chimacum has built his own slaughterhouse and has all the implements and standards necessary to skin, eviscerate and butcher his own livestock (for home use, at least – not for sale.) I had never slaughtered anything bigger than a chicken or turkey and it’s been one of my goals to help in the slicing of a sheep, hog or steer, so I jumped at the opportunity to come watch and assist.
Since it had been dead for some time and had been under tremendous stress as it breathed its last, the meat really wasn’t fit for human consumption and so was destined for the dog – meaning that being uber-proper in the handling and cutting wasn’t so necessary.
When I arrived they had the sheep belly-up on a slatted wood table and were trimming away the belly skin from the carcass. Working around the teats was the hardest area since the mounds of hairless flesh weren’t as easy to pull away from the innards, but once they were removed and the head and feet had been sawed off at the joints, we strung up the pulley system for the gambrel, slid a caribeaner through the slit behind the Achilles tendon of the rear legs and progressively “fisted” away the rest of the hide while letting the organs spill into a trash can placed directly beneath.
It was now hanging upside down, fully skinned with its back knees about as high as our heads. Scraping out the lungs and heart came next, they were reserved as part of the prime dog food and we scrubbed the carcass down with soapy water and scrub brushes to clean away any apparent debris like grass and dust that may have collected. Slicing off each leg and then sawing apart the abdominal from the chest cavity came next and finally splitting apart the chest cavity at the sternum finished up the hanging carcass – a relatively quick process of unmeasured cuts.
Each of the cuts went into plastic trash bags that would get separated and quickly frozen once they got back home, so all that was left of the process was to wash every instrument (knives, saws, hooks, caribeaners, buckets and scrub brushes) down with hot, soapy water, spray and sweep off the cement platform of random guts, blood clots and locks of wool, and bring down the pulley and gambrel from the great heightened beam to be stored until the next planned (or unplanned) slaughter immersion.
Slaughtering a larger animal is much different than simply slaughtering chickens. With chickens, you become much more intimate with the body in your hands; from picking it up and either wringing its neck or slitting the throat, to dunking it in hot water, the steam rising up around your hands and arms, to the monotonous pluckingpluckingplucking of every last feather, (unless you happen to be the lucky owner of a ‘WhizBang Chicken Plucker’ or some similar appliance) to reaching inside the body cavity with your own hands to mangle out the innards, feeling the difference in the heart, liver, gizzard, intestines and finally to scraping out the lungs (they never seem to want to come out in one piece from inside the chickens rib cage.) But slaughtering something just as big, or bigger than you are, enlists a different sort of awareness, a much more hands on (as opposed to the “hands-in” approach with poultry) and stand back process. You let gravity do a lot of the work for you, for instance. Organs are significantly heavier, there’s a much thinner membrane between the pelt and the innards, the hide accounts for a lot more of the bulk of the animal than the feathers of a chicken do. The bones are thicker and not as snap-able, while the tendons are much stronger and less pliable. Hoisting an animal that large takes the teamwork of a few people and the more formal set up of beams, pulleys and hooks as opposed to the quick and dirty work of killing a chicken which one person can do and only require a table and knife and pair of scissors to complete.
For such a quick intro to larger livestock slaughtering, I felt I got a good picture. Though next time, hopefully the slaughter event will be more of the planned sort and really see the animal through from start to finish. Who knows? Domestic farm livestock today may even lead to bowhunting elk and Rocky Mountain sheep tomorrow………..