How to Buy Beef Cattle and Butcher a Cow

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A healthy Gelbvieh bull with a whole lot of meat on its bones.

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.