If you want to buy beef cattle and butcher a cow, here are some important tips to remember.
A healthy Gelbvieh bull with a whole lot of meat on its bones.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/MARGO HARRISON
All cattle can be fattened by careful feeding, but the muscular development and mix of fat and lean that make for best eating are found in breeds that are meant for beef rather than for milk production. If you know you'll be doing your own butchering, then, you might consider breeding a dairy cow or two to a beef bull.
Prime beef comes from a quickly fattened steer or heifer between a year and a half and two and a half years old. Look for a sleek, vigorous animal with a broad, deep body that's well filled out and covered with a smooth layer of fat. The ideal weight is about 800 pounds . . . and, since you want as much as possible of that mass to be edible, it's best to avoid a critter with heavy bones.
Naturally, the health of a meat animal is of first importance. Watch the beast you plan to butcher for several days before you actually kill the animal to make sure it looks well and behaves normally. If there's any doubt about its condition, check with your veterinarian. When the carcass is opened, look carefully for signs of tuberculosis: pockets of pus or granular material on the lungs, liver or spleen and possibly hanging from the ribs. If you find such traces, the carcass needn't be a total loss—you can boil it until the meat falls from the bones and feed it to chickens or hogs—but handle it with care to avoid infection. It's best to wear gloves, and to sterilize all tools after using them.
If you have to kill an animal because it's injured, bleed it at once to avoid spoilage and discoloration of the tissues and then handle it just like a slaughtered carcass . . . but if the critter died of overheat, its meat is unfit for human use (though it too can be boiled for livestock feed).
To prepare an animal for slaughtering, put it by itself in a clean pen (or shelter if the weather is hot, cold, or wet) for at least 24 hours. Keep it quiet and give it water but no food . . . and you'll also do well to clean its coat so that the meat won't be contaminated when you skin the carcass later. Remember that beef from an animal that's bruised, hot, or excited—or has just eaten heavily—will discolor and be quick to spoil.
If you're butchering in warm weather, it's best to kill in the evening and hang the carcass to cool overnight (but take it down early next morning before flies gather). During cold weather, of course, you can make your kill at any time of day. Pick a clean spot outdoors and rig a block and tackle over a strong tree branch or wooden tripod 15 feet high. Do your slaughtering with the help of this setup and you won't damage the carcass by dragging it.
Cattle to be killed are brought down either by shooting with a small-Caliber rifle or stunning with a sledge or axe that weighs four to six pounds. (If you stun, it's advisable to tie the animal with its head down and to blindfold it.) Whichever method you use, draw an imaginary line from each eye to the opposite horn and aim at the point where the lines cross.
When the beast is stunned and lying on the ground, put your back to the body, set one foot against its forelegs and force the head back as far as you can with the other. Then use a sharp knife to cut along the bottom of the neck for 10 to 15 inches from the breastbone forward, deep enough to expose the windpipe 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 about four inches to cut the carotid arteries and jugular veins.
A good bleed is important . . . you can help drain the carcass by putting one foot on the paunch of the carcass and pulling up on the tail with a pumping motion.
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