January is our time to butcher pigs. Last year we raised two females and this year three males. We spent the better part of a week on the process and I hope, with what I share, that folks will find this post helpful and informative if they choose to raise pigs on their urban or suburban homestead.
In June we found an ad on Craigslist for a litter of little weaners from a farmer about 45 minutes north of Reno. I reserved three for pick up in August and come time we loaded our kids in our friend Weston’s old VW van and headed to the farm. The farmers were a nice couple very attached to and proud of their pigs. Our kids got a big kick out of seeing the 700 pound sow and boar. The boar was a duroc and the sow a Yorkshire and Hampshire cross. After showing us around for a while – the nursery was busy with a new litter of 11 and a healthy mama – we stepped into the pen and appraised the weaners. They had already castrated the males (this litter was about 7 ½ weeks old) so recommended we take males as they gain weight quicker. With a little help we managed to get three into a sturdy cage we brought along and then put that into the van. Unfortunately, we made a city-slicker faux pas by leaving the windows open while visiting and now the van was full of pig-poop loving flies set for the ride back to town. The farmers wouldn’t let us leave without sharing an arm load of their golden spuds and some starter feed to get us by for a few days. We paid $80 per pig.
Immediately, as we rumbled along batting flies by the dozen, the poor little porkers started vomiting. Fortunately, we had the foresight to cover the floor with mats. Then they started squealing. Mainly it was just “Elvis” (so named for his dreamy eyes) causing a ruckus that was ear-piercing! None of us had ever really heard squealing and it is a force…especially when done in a small metal box. Weston put in ear plugs and the rest of us rode most of the way home (45 minutes, that is) with our ears covered. We put on some music in an attempt to calm them but Elvis was not to be quieted. The didgeridoo tracks, I should comment, did seem to appease him temporarily; a fact we attributed to some cosmic primal law of sound. Then, after the vomiting and during the squealing, they all began to shit in the cage and over its low walls. I felt really bad for the pigs and regretted my role in causing them this duress but I admit, with the overwhelming smells and sounds, I was mostly concerned with keeping myself sane.
We made it home and released them into their new pen – a large corner of our backyard with trees and shade and plenty of dirt with a spacious Balecob pig house. Elvis quieted down slowly; so slowly, in fact, that I began to consider butchering him right then and having a pig roast. I am especially conscious of not annoying our neighbors and not quite sure whether having pigs is even legal inside our city limits. But settle in he did along with Cheetah (lots of spots) and Pinky, the smallest and pinkest of the trio. They had a good life full of love from us, companionship from one another, fresh air and sunshine, good mud, room to root, and good food (minus the cakes and pies, perhaps).
For the next 4 ½ months we fed them almost entirely on city waste-stream food: school lunch scraps, corn from a local farmer, and lots of expired eggs, milk, eggnog, yogurt, bread, cakes, and such from a local food pantry. They also got Jerusalem Artichokes along with their stalks, pumpkins, and lots of greens from our garden and local gleaning. They particularly loved milk and dairy products and went sumo with one another over eggs, shells and all. All told I spent $15 on one bag of feed for when we left town for a week and left the pigs in the care of friends. These pigs were markedly different in their eating habits than the two from last year. First off, they were much more aggressive eaters. I don’t know if it was because they were male or because they were three or because of their individual personalities or what but they ate with gusto and a fair amount of snapping at one another. Also, they were less picky even eating lots of bread and school lunch pasta and seeming to enjoy it. They gained weight quicker than last years and were 225, 220, and 209 lbs when killed (using the formula Heart Girth squared times Length divided by 400).
On butchering day we had six folks on hand to help. We shot each pig (in the center of the imaginary x between their eyes and ears) and drug it out to our monkey bars where we hung it and cut open the neck to bleed out. Earlier we had tied up a large tarp to block the scene from traffic and passersby lest we attract too much attention and get undesired inquiries. Each pig was happily munching eggs when their time came and none the wiser to their missing friends. After they bled out we slid them over to my friend’s pickup bed trailer on one of my kid’s plastic sleds. I thought this a brilliant idea as we still had a bit of snow on the ground and moving a 200 pound animal is tough even with strong men on hand. Once loaded we pushed the trailer (it’s very well balanced) out our driveway and along the road to our friends place two houses down. I include this because it was a bit of a surreal scene to see four men pushing and pulling a trailer with three large, dead and bloody pigs in it down a city block. Not your average day in the ‘hood. I should also note here that I had informed our nearest neighbors about the events for the day and we planned the killing for a workday so there would be fewer people home or driving around. Not that we were doing anything (or much) illegal but we do our best to keep a low profile on intense goings-on.
From there we hung the carcasses in my friend’s garage –rope from behind each hock and between the large tendon there up to an eye hook. This being only our second go-round with pigs we found the Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery a great resource. We decided to skin the pigs again instead of scalding because scalding just seemed too much work with the set up and all. Also, none of us had done it before or knew of anyone who had. Skinning and gutting and halving them took a few hours. We also scraped the fat off of all the skins to save for lard. We hung them for about 4 days in the cool of the garage.
The next day brought butchering. Armed with nearly useless pictures from the internet we set about cutting up the pigs. All in all I think we fared rather well: some of the chops are thicker than normal, there were some bacon miss-cuts and strangely shaped roasts but, hey, it’s still meat. We decided to forgo curing hams and instead made them into steaks and opted for a lot of sausage, as well. The third day was four hours of hand cranking sausage, mostly solo, with a yield of about 45 packages of ground pork sausage. We wound up with about 10 quarts of lard, too, which Katy worked on for days in our home over the wood stove. For the meat itself, we gave away about a half pig to friends, helpers, and neighbors, sold half a pig, kept 1 ½ for ourselves, and gave another half to a friend who helped feed them. Like last year, our family had a celebratory dinner of pork chops, homemade applesauce, and a salad from the garden. We had a blessing to share our deep gratitude for the meat and the animals and for the life we get to live. May their meat give us the energy and courage to do good work in the world.
In summary, raising pigs and slaughtering them is not always easy work but it is good work. It takes time, energy, and some soul work. Killing them is not something I enjoy. However, we feel it is a great way to meet our family’s food needs off our land in this urban setting. Pigs are something that could be raised throughout the city in humane conditions in many backyards solely off the waste of our culture. Lastly, the butchering is big work that gives more glue to our community and further connects us with each other, spirit, and place. We are grateful for these animals and for the opportunity to raise and harvest them.