The Steaks Are High

Learn to process your own livestock so you can adapt to changing economic landscapes and gain a marketable skill for future farming endeavors.

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No matter where you are in your farm or homestead journey — from being “agricurious” and exploring your options to working a full-scale commercial farm — you’ll likely find it necessary to process your own livestock. It’s both a practical and marketable skill to carry into the future of your farming life. Your processing setup and style can be anything from bare-bones to elaborate, depending on your needs and end goals for your operation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we all experienced the fragility of the food system and how it can profoundly impact our daily lives. For many consumers, it meant limited amounts of certain products. For farmers and ranchers, it meant shutdowns and order backups at processing facilities across the nation. Many farmers dealt with the urgent need to offload livestock because of the upended supply chain. These bottlenecks affected both large- and small-scale processors and brought economic hardship to the farmers who used them, and they affected our dinner plates too.

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With a little planning, you can set yourself up to easily adapt to any situation that may arise. No matter which path you choose, learning to butcher can be a wonderful way to complete the circle of farm life, and can gift you the satisfaction of meeting the needs of your farm business.

Numerous cows are spread out grazing in a lush, green pasture. A

Plan for Success

One of the most important steps you can take when deciding to process on-farm is to assess your goals. Do you want to feed your family, sell at the local farmers market, or sell wholesale? If you’re planning on wholesale volume, you can explore U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) facilities in your region, but it’s also good to know how to process for yourself if the need arises. To say farm life is a daily adventure might be an understatement. It does have its fair share of idyllic moments that’ll etch themselves into your memory, but it also has many days that embody the old saying, “Some days you run the farm, some days the farm runs you.” If you are prepared with the proper tools and skills, you’ll even be able to quickly and humanely dispatch an injured animal and preserve the carcass for consumption.

Three pigs graze outside on green grass in the sunshine. Mountai

Choose Your Livestock

Another important step to take before launching your operation is looking into your county’s rules and regulations on which animals are prohibited in your area and what your zoning is. It’s entirely possible to raise a respectable chicken flock or rabbit colony in some residential areas. In many cases, you may find yourself with more than you personally need, and, depending on your state’s regulations, position yourself to make a little additional income off the extra or gift the extra to friends and family. Many states allow individuals and agricultural enterprises to sell these types of meat products without the need for USDA inspection at a facility or any special permits. Asking questions at your local extension office is a good place to start. Once you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to determine which animals you can raise on your property.

Animal Care

Chickens of various colors roam a green lawn in a backyard, with

Great meat starts with great animal care. Famous barbecue joints and exclusive steakhouses have long been the subjects of playful debates, serious competitions, and media sensation. Barbecue lives in American culture as a science, an art, and possibly the source of some bar room brawls. Ask any good chef about how the quality of the meat impacts the success of their craft, and they’ll resoundingly agree that the meat matters.

Starting with an excellent system of animal care and living conditions is one of the most vital components of running a successful operation that’ll either stock your freezer or keep your customers coming back for more. If you’re a small farmer, build your livestock practices on a foundation of enough space for the animals, pasture rotations, and good biosecurity measures. Good quality of life for the animals will ultimately result in a measurable impact on the product you’ll produce. I’m a big proponent of grass-feeding ruminants and pasturing pigs and poultry. It’s amazing what a little grazing can do for the health of your animals and the overall quality of their meat.

Someone in khaki pants and a red shirt supervises a metal chicke

On-Farm Processing

Successful on-farm processing is entirely possible, no matter what animals you choose to raise. While there are limits to sharing or selling the resulting meat, there are many benefits to learning to process at home. If your goal is to provide for your family, then you’re generally free to raise and process as you wish on your property. I’ve processed an entire hog and packaged it on my farm with little trouble.

When you set out to perform your first on-farm processing, be prepared and understand exactly what’s necessary. Not everyone possesses the mental kilter to go through with it, and you may need to steel yourself for what you’re about to do. Being capable of emotionally inhabiting a solemn personal space of reverence for the animal’s ultimate gift to us can make the entire task effortless; it can also create a beautiful connection to your food and the land it was raised on. Possessing the necessary skills to process your own animals can be utilized as a handy alternative revenue stream for a farm. It’s become popular for farmers to hold small processing classes for those wanting to learn these skills, and you can charge a premium to teach them and market your farm products at the same time. Another related use for on-farm processing is hosting agritourism events, such as a farm-to-table feast or a boucherie event, where ticketed guests can experience the best you have to offer — processed, prepared, and served on your property.

A row of pink, plucked chickens sit on a table outside.

Strategize Your Setup

Even if you choose to have your livestock processed at a facility away from your operation, I’d strongly recommend having the basics on hand. An unforeseen situation could arise, and if you find it necessary to put an animal down, you’ll want to be prepared to honor the animal by making good use of everything you can. It can be an unfortunate and costly mistake to find yourself unprepared for such an instance. Here are some items to always have on hand:

  • High-quality knives. This can’t be overstated: One of the most dangerous tools is a dull tool. Having good-quality knives that you care for and keep sharp is key.
  • A solid table. I’d advocate for one that’s nonporous and can be wiped down easily with bleach water.
  • Large cutting boards. Keep large cutting boards on hand that can also be easily sanitized.
  • Totes. Simple plastic totes to contain and cool several chickens or a quarter-hog will be useful during processing and good for food safety.
Closeup of a tray full of butchering tools. In the background, s

These listed items are necessary for doing the bare minimum. If you’re serious about your processing vision, invest in a scale, meat grinder, and sausage stuffer. When in doubt, go big. Having a larger-capacity tool at your disposal is preferable to being stuck doing smaller batches. This will save you valuable time in the long run — and possibly the headache of overloading and damaging smaller machines not made to handle the volume. If you can find a quality food-handling certification class, invest in it to safeguard your health and the health of your potential clients.

Mobile Processing

If all the above seems untenable to you at this point in time, you’re in luck: You can still revel in those cute piggy snouts and the breathtaking plumage of a heritage-breed flock without having to do any of the dirty work.

An up-and-coming trend I’ve had the opportunity to witness in-person is the use of mobile slaughter units for smallscale producers. In the United States, meat sold in the marketplace must be processed at an inspected processor. These mobile units vary in size, but they’re an excellent option for providing safe, quality meat to your clientele without the hassle of excessive travel. These units are sometimes able to move farm-to-farm to carry out these operations right on your property. If small-scale farms don’t have a nearby USDA facility, these mobile units are a game-changer, providing valuable market access. Part of the convenience is that farmers don’t need to factor travel time and costs into their products, which can save them a significant amount of time and money.

Virginia State University has one of these mobile processing units.

Red barn out in a green forest, with a couple brown cows walking

Custom Butchers

If you’re in an area where it’s not convenient to go to an inspected USDA facility, then using a custom butcher might be a good alternative. This will require marketing your product “on the hoof,” meaning you’ll technically sell the animal while it’s alive. Selling an animal this way typically doesn’t require USDA inspection, but be sure to check your state’s regulations.

To sell meat on the hoof, you’ll generally take a deposit from your client upfront. It’s common for pork and beef to be sold in this manner throughout the country. You have a lot of different options you can offer your clients, such as breaking down the animal to quarter- and half-cow shares or allowing your clients to choose the cuts they want to buy and control how they’re processed. The theory behind selling on the hoof is that the animal is then “owned” by the buyers, and they’re free to choose how it’s processed for their own purposes. Once the animal is ready to be processed, your customer will pay you — the “producer” — a set amount that’ll typically factor feed costs, processing costs, and labor into the balance you collect. At a custom butcher, you’ll end up with packages usually labeled “not for sale,” as an uninspected facility can’t be used for retail or wholesale cuts of meat.

Selling an animal on the hoof is a good option for small operations that don’t have a large amount of freezer storage space. If you think this might be the way to go, conduct a little market research in your area before deciding on the type of livestock you plan to market this way.

Closeup of a piece of butchered meat with a brown tag on it.

USDA Inspection

If you’ve ever read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, you’ll understand exactly why we have federal oversight and inspection for meat, eggs, and poultry. The Meat Inspection Act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, generally protects us from adulterated, mislabeled, and unsanitary slaughter conditions. We’ve come a long way since then, with current trends moving toward more grass-fed and pastured animals and raising animals in a way that honors their existence. These types of farms create a holistically better life for the livestock, operating under the premise that conditions are so good, the animal only has “one bad day.” The demand for these types of meat and premium products has grown exponentially over the last two decades. It can be a great way to command top dollar.

If you’re lucky enough to have a reputable USDA-inspected facility nearby, and if you have the ability and marketing skills to get your products in front of local fine-dining establishments interested in offering locally produced high-quality meats, you may find yourself sitting pretty.

Closeup of three small piles of vacuum-packed red meat, all around

However, do your research before diving in. Make sure to call the nearby facility to confirm it’s accepting new clients. You may have to carefully plan your animals’ lives around processing schedules. Many of these facilities require you to make appointments far in advance, so be sure your timeline for slaughter lines up with available processing appointments.

One trick you may want to try is to find a long-standing customer of the facility you choose. If the facility isn’t taking on new clients, and if you have a good relationship with a fellow farmer who has an account there already, your friend may be able to call and make the appointment under their name on your behalf. It’s not an uncommon practice, and it can be a valuable relationship for your operation.

As people’s relationship with their food continues to evolve, and as the world continues to adapt to interruptions in supply chains, it may be an opportune time to bring livestock processing into your farm operation. Research and outline your goals for your family and household, and watch how a new skill set can benefit your farm for years to come.

Amyrose Foll is a fervent advocate for food sovereignty, earth and people care, and resource sharing. She’s a U.S. Army veteran and former nurse, and she continues her duty to protect and care for others through Virginia Free Farm.