A lot of homesteading folks who have made the smart move of
raising their own beef steer turn right around when "harvesting time" comes and send that ready-for-slaughtering
animal off to a professional butcher. The truth is, however, that there's no need to pay someone. Although the job does entail a good bit of labor and no little mess—just like most any move to greater self-sufficiency—killing and butchering a cow is a task you and a single helper can accomplish yourselves in a few hours.
Start by choosing a nice late fall day (Here in Virginia's
Shenandoah Valley, we do our butchering—"before the
flies arise"—on a November morning. If you plan to
cool the carcass yourself, though, you might prefer
starting the job in the early evening.) Gather your
equipment—you'll need some knives, saws, a hoist, a
support, and a spreader—and round up
a helper. Then confine your steer and shoot it.
Take your time with the killing and do it as cleanly as
possible. Fill a 12-gauge shotgun with high brass No. 4 or
5 shot, stand about 10 feet from the steer, and imagine two
lines drawn from the base of each ear to the opposite eye.
Then carefully aim for the spot where the lines cross and fire. The shot will make a silver dollar-sized hole in
the animal's skull, and the beast will immediately drop to
At that point you (or your assistant) should keeping your
back to the body and watching for thrashing
hooves—set one foot against the animal's forelegs and
force its head back as far as possible with your other
foot. Then, using a sharp knife, cut along the bottom of
the neck for about 10 to 15 inches—the breastbone
forward—and make the incision deep enough to expose
the wind-pipe without piercing it. Next, insert the knife
to one side of the windpipe (with the back of the
blade against the breastbone) and press the
point—toward the spine—to a depth of four
inches or so to cut the carotid arteries and jugular
After the carcass has bled as much as it will, drag it to a
clean area to be skinned. (For obvious health reasons,
cleanliness is essential during this entire operation.)
Prop the animal on its back, then start your skinning cuts
by slicing the hide around each foot and making a long slit
down the inside of each leg. Complete these incisions with
one long center cut—down the middle of the
body—from the beef's anus to its throat. Then use
your knife to slice through any membranes and peel the skin
back off the body. Let gravity help with as much of the
work as possible.
This is also the time—while you've got the carcass on
its back—to cut through the brisket. Use a hacksaw or
handsaw, and avoid slicing into the internal organs. The
same tool can then be employed to remove all four feet just
above the ankles.
Your next job will be to suspend the animal so you can
finish skinning the beef and clean out its internal organs.
Cut large slits in each of the steer's two rear legs,
between the Achilles tendon and the main bone but
don't cut the tendon! Insert a crosspiece of
strong wood or pipe through the two gashes (we use a solid
steel "spreader" with hooks on the ends). Then fasten this
beef "tree" to your hoisting line and run that cable over a
very sturdy tree limb (or through a metal ring suspended
from a large tripod).
Attach the free end of line to a winch and start winding.
Each crank of the come-along will raise the thousand-pound
carcass only a fraction of an inch, but before long
you'll have hoisted the entire beef up in the air.
One worker should now skin the hide off the back side,
while the other makes the main body cut from the anus, down
the center of the belly, to the previously sawed brisket.
To begin this major incision, slice around the rear
opening until that canal is free and then seal
off the end with string. Remove the tail at its base and
start cutting the body wall membranes that hold the
intestines and other organs. The pull of gravity will help
clean those innards out. (Be sure to trim off the large
globs of fat positioned along the backbone.) Separate the
heart and liver from the other organs, slice open the heart
so that clotted blood can escape, and carefully cut the
bitter gallbladder sack from the liver. Immerse these two
major organs in a bucket of water to cool them
At this point, the skinner should have finished his or her
job. Roll the hide up carefully and save it (the leather
covering is worth about $8.00 to your local raw fur buyer).
Next, cut off the head, pry open the mouth, and slice
between the lower and upper jaws to remove the tongue. (Use
an old knife when working in the steer's mouth, because the necessary scraping against bones and teeth will surely
dull the blade.)
Now take a short breather and admire your handiwork. An
entire beef carcass is hanging right before your eyes. The
only major chore left is to separate the meat into two
parts by sawing straight down the backbone, from the
tail to the neck. You can do this job with your hacksaw
and a whole lot of arm power. Or you might want to
take the easy way out (as we do) and use a chain saw.
That's right, an ordinary tree-felling chain saw.
(Be sure, of course, to first remove ALL the oil from the
machine's reservoir and blade.)
Here's the technique: The saw's operator works from the
backside of the carcass, while his partner stands on the
opposite side and guides the sawyer—using hand
signals—to ensure a straight cut. (if
the extra help is available, a third person should steady the swinging
meat.) After that brief operation is over, hose or
douse the carcass with cold water, wipe it clean with a
cloth, and let it drain.
You're now ready to back your truck under the two beef
halves and load the meat. Make hand-sawed cuts just
above the bottom ribs and the two front quarters will
drop neatly into the rear of your vehicle. Then simply
lower the winch and unhook the hindquarters.
You're done. You've just killed and skinned your beef.
The meat will, of course, still have to be processed. I'm not going to explain the process of jointing and preserving meat—that's a topic for a different article or three, but if you do want to tackle the job yourself...
...Ready for Storage
More information about beef processing can be found in
Wilbur F. Eastman, Jr.'s The Canning, Freezing, Curing
Smoking of Meat, Fish Game ($5.95, Garden Way Publishing
Company) and Butchering, Processing and
Preservation of Meat by Frank G. Ashbrook ($4.95, Van
Nostrand Reinhold Company). Ashbrook's 318-page
book—the more comprehensive of the two—covers
everything from killing to "keeping." Eastman's 202-page
guide focuses on the various preservation techniques.
And, of course, Morton Salt's "Complete Guide to Home Meat
Curing" is fill detailed processing
Eat Beef for Just Pennies a Pound!
Because I kill and skin my own beef I've been able to
supply my family with meat at a cost of only pennies per pound. Impossible, you say? Not if you do
things my way.
Here's the scoop: In-late November, buy a good 500- to
600-pound steer at the market price. Pasture the animal
until the following October. On the first day of that
month, pen the beast up, and fatten it for 30 days on a diet
of grain ration plus good-quality hay. Then kill and skin
the steer and sell one-half of the carcass at
market price. Use the money received from that sale to
purchase another steer for next year and keep
the "leftover" side of beef for yourself!
Here's a typical cost breakdown:
500 lb steer
(@ 60¢ /lb) $300
(@ $3/month) $33
250 lbs grain $30
The hanging weight for one-half of your finished steer is around 300 pounds. You should be able to sell that meat at $1.10 per pound, or $330. Another $8 for the hide brings your total income to $338.
So the final tally is:
Final cost $40
You've got an approximately 300-pound side of beef that cost you
only $40 or a piddling 13 cents a pound! Not
only that, you also have $338 in cash to invest in next
year's steer, so no major investment comes out of your
pocket after the first year!
I know, I know. You think this sounds too good to be
true, that I must be juggling figures or something.
But I'm not. It works.