How to Butcher a Cow

If you eat red meat, you can take one more step toward independence by learning the process of killing and butchering a cow yourself.

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If you eat red meat, you can take one more step toward independence by butchering beef at home. Learn how to butcher a cow yourself, including humanely killing and processing the animal.

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.

Here’s How to Butcher a Cow

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 the ground.

At that point you (or your assistant) should be 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 veins.

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.

two people suspending a cow carcass

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.

person slitting the hide of a cow down the belly

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.)

person using a chain saw to cut a cow carcass in half

Here’s the technique: The saw’s operator works from the backside of the carcass, while the 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…

person cutting the organs out of a cow carcass

…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 (Garden Way Publishing Company) and Butchering, Processing and Preservation of Meat by Frank G. Ashbrook (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 filled with detailed processing instructions.

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 (in 1979):

500 lb steer  (@ 60¢ /lb)        $300
Pasture rent  (@ $3/month)  $33
250 lbs grain                              $30
Hay                                              $15
Total                                            $378

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:

Expenses    $378
Income       $338
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.

a quartered cow carcass

Originally published as “KILL AND QUARTER YOUR OWN BEEF” in the September/October 1979 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

  • Updated on Jan 9, 2022
  • Originally Published on Sep 1, 1979
Tagged with: beef, butcher, cattle, chainsaw
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