This is the eleventh post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.
People lucky enough to live in wealthy countries tend to eat a lot of meat. Per capita, Americans consume about 200 pounds of meat per year or 230 pounds if adjust for vegetarians. To put that in homesteading terms, that's a market-sized pig per person (6-8 months to raise) plus about 20 chickens or ducks (3+ months to hatch and raise) each year. Alternatively, a 1200 pound steer (raised for 18+ months) yields about 490 pounds of meat and could feed just over two people.
The Difference Between Homestead and Industrial Meat
Thinking about meat consumption in terms animals lives and the resources it takes to raise them is a necessity on the homestead. It also makes it is easy to see why our current meat consumption is only realistic if you ignore the environmental and human side effects of an unsustainable meat industry.
Homestead meat, in my opinion, is instead about using animals to benefit your land while raising and slaughtering them with dignity and appreciation for their sacrifice. Caring for livestock changes your perspective on how much meat you can and should eat. The amount of work that goes into keeping healthy animals and slaughtering at home helps define the upper limits for homestead meat production.
On our homestead, we eat about one hog and ten ducks per year. We raise extra hogs for friends and family. We often luck into some free deer, beef, or rabbit meat. Our individual consumption works out to less than half of the national average and will be reduced further when our young fruit and nut trees begin to produce.
I also raise 75 extra ducks per year to sell at farmers markets. Raising more ducks than we can eat helps build fertility in our soil and establish our edible landscape (see The ABCs of Homesteading: E is for Edible Landscaping for more details) and helps off-set our feed costs. Many states allow on-farm poultry processing using simple tools like a kill cone, knife, scalding pot, washable table, and food-grade hoses. Dedicated freezers and water tests may be required. Labels with meat handling instructions and freezer bags are also needed.
The Realities of Raising Animals on the Homestead
Taking an ethical approach to raising livestock for meat doesn't mean accidents don't happen or that things don't go wrong. They do. We are still fallible human beings. In nature, not all animals make to maturity. Curiosity kills the chicken as easily as the cat. Animals wander too far from safety and get eaten by predators. Or, they have birth defects that manifest as they start growing.
Other concerns aside, industrial farmers do a pretty good job of raising animals to maturity. Pre-market mortality rates are only about 4.8% for broiler chickens and about 8.3% for hogs from weaning to slaughter. Compared to what you might experience, particularly in your first few years of keeping livestock, those are pretty good odds.
Part of the reason why homestead losses might be greater is because we often avoid culling weaklings and runts. As caretakers, we root for the underdogs even when it doesn't make sense from a financial or time management perspective. Having nursed quite a few sickly animals, I have learned that even with my best efforts, very few weaklings make it to maturity. By intervening, I prolong their suffering. Still, sometimes I just can't help but learn that lesson again.
Mostly though, homesteading losses are greater because in giving animals access to pasture you face a host of challenges that a secure, controlled poultry or hog house would not have. You also aren't likely to resort to antibiotics and other medications to ensure health. In offering animals access to a varied diet on pasture, you increase the chance that animals will become malnourished or poisoned. Wild animals may have good instincts about what to eat for optimal health, but not all domesticated breeds do. Animals on pasture are also exposed to the elements, predators, and accidental hazards that don't exist in an engineered environment.
Why Pasture Raising is Worth the Risk and How to Improve your Odds
Despite the extra challenges, I can tell you with absolute certainty that these animals prefer a life outdoors, and all the associated risks, over a life of confinement. I know this because my animals actually spend their first few weeks in confinement and I get to experience their sheer joy of discovering pasture each time I raise them.
To balance the risks with a reasonable rate of return, I confine young animals to protected areas for their first few weeks at the reLuxe Ranch. That gives me time to become friendly with our livestock, so they aren't afraid when I deliver food or water, and keeps them protected until their survival instincts are better developed. Our livestock also acclimate to a diet of formulated feed so that even when on pasture, they will still have a preference for, and access to, balanced nutrition.
Following are a few more details on how we keep our livestock.
Pigs get a small, electric-fenced area, inside a physical fence, until they are wire-trained. I introduce them to pasture slowly and increase the size of their paddocks when they demonstrate routine use of their centralized food and water supply and shelter. Pigs get lots of pets and come running when they see me which makes it easy to do health checks and make adjustments to their diet as needed.
Poultry spend several weeks in the brooder and greenhouse before I give them pasture access. In the interim, I throw them lots of cut greens and herbs in addition to their formulated feed.
Chickens get overhead protection until they are at least four months old because we have a healthy hawk population. Usually we just keep them under our fruit trees for a while.
All livestock get rations of formulated feed equal to at least 50% of their diet.
We raise animals adapted to pasture rather than confinement,e.g. heritage breed chickens instead of cornish crosses, even when that means it takes longer to grow them to maturity.
All animals have specific mineral needs for optimal growth. Ducks will become lame and die without sufficient niacin so I add it to their feed until they become good foragers. Goat health declines quickly without sufficient Zinc and Selenium so I tested our soil to make sure we had sufficient levels and I offer free choice minerals during periods of confinement (e.g. bad weather) or when any member of the herd shows early signs of declining health. Pigs have a number of specific needs you can learn about at the Pigsite. Since our pigs eat a lot of formulated feed, I rarely need to give them supplements, but I refer to the list and adjust their diets as needed if I notice any changes in their health.
Resources Related to Raising Livestock
You can check out my other blog posts about raising animals if you want more information.
Also, if you are specifically interested in raising chickens for meat and eggs, I recently teamed up with Marjory Wildcraft at the Grow Network to write a 154 page eBook companion to Marjory's video (available for purchase) on Raising Meat Chickens.
Making Meat Last
Now that we've covered the ethics and challenges of raising animals on the homestead, let's focus on what comes after the slaughter. You can process poultry or rabbits with nothing more than a knife. You can eat them the same day, store them in the fridge, or make things like turkey jerky, duck prosciutto, chicken strips, or rabbit rillette with a short curing period.
To slaughter and eat a full-grown pig, though, you either need to share with a lot of families or find methods of preserving your meat. Since it takes eight months or longer to raise a pastured pig, we tend to expect the meat supply to last at least that long.
Freezing Meat. Freezing is the easiest form of meat preservation. Cut your portions into single meal servings, bag it, label it, and freeze it. Depending on who you ask, frozen meat lasts for 6 months to a year. Once you add spices, cut that estimate to 3 to 6 months.
Deep freezer temperatures fluctuate less than stand-up freezers. They also tend to be more energy-efficient. For longevity, keep your freezer full to better regulate temperature. You can add bags of frozen water to fill empty space. Vaccuum sealing also seems to extend the freezer life of meat.
Fresh Sausage. Fresh, uncured sausage, is essentially meat that has been ground, seasoned, and sometimes stuffed in casing tubes. There aren't a lot of rules for making fresh sausage.You can use whatever spices you like and add breadcrumbs, wine, or whatever your prefer. Ratios of 15-25% fat to 75-85% lean meat tend to work best when making cased sausage links.
Casing diameter determines thickness of sausage and impacts the length of your cooking and curing time. For simplicity, I use 32-35 mm casings for everything. This means my breakfast sausage is grill size and my fermented sausage are more like sausage sticks, but it works.
The one “biggie” is that anytime you pack meat in casings, make lots of holes in the casing surface with a safety pin or sausage pricker to release trapped air that might otherwise provide a perfect environment for botulism bacteria. Also, if you plan to cold smoke your cased sausage, then add Instacure No. 1. For those worried about nitrates, I like to quote Meredith Leigh, Ethical Meat Handbook author, who says “I use cure, I wear mascara, I drink whiskey...I'm just that kind of girl.” Cures may not be entirely wholesome, but botulism is lethal.
My personal favorite fresh sausage is Boudin Blanc. There are lots of ways to make it. I throw all the ingredients in a mega-bowl, mix it with my hands, run the mix through the meat grinder using the medium plate, and then again with the fine plate. After that I stuff it in pig intestines using a manual cast iron stuffer, twist it into links (alternate your turns clockwise/counterclockwise to keep them from untwisting), and hang dry for a couple hours before freezing (or eating).
reLuxe Ranch Modified Boudin Blanc
• 17 pounds cubed lean pork cuts
• 3 pounds cubed pork fat
• 3 quarts heavy cream
• 8 medium onions
• 4 cups sourdough breadcrumbs
• 8 tbsp fresh thyme leaves - minced
• 16 tbsp salt
• 8 tbsp unsalted butter
My Boudin Blanc isn't the most elegant and it only has ingredients we use routinely or make on our homestead, but it's always a crowd pleaser. Meat and fat quality varies from pig to pig, by breed, and time of of slaughter. Cook up some sausage mix and adjust spices and fat to meat ratios if necessary before stuffing.
Fermented Sausage. For cured or fresh sausage, the initial processes are the nearly the same – mix ingredients, grind, stuff, hang, store, etc. But, since you won't be putting fermented sausage in the freezer, and the curing period is longer, you will want to use Instacure No. 2 in your mix. This breaks down slower than Instacure No. 1 and offers better long-term protection against bad bacteria.
For fermented sausage, the right ratio of fat, to meat, to liquid, to sugar is really important. Following tried and true recipes is a good place to start until you get a feel for the “chemistry” involved.
Using a starter culture is also helpful. If you've noticed that white, papery rind on the outside of Brie cheese, that's the result of a form of penicillun that creates a living wrapper around the cheese to protect it from bad stuff. The white molds you buy for fermented sausages, like T-SPX, perform a similar function and make your sausages look like fancy charcuterie instead of summer sausage. I get the most uniform mold coating when I soak the casings in the starter culture before stuffing. If you forget, though, you can always roll your finished sausages in the culture before you hang them.
Fermenting sausage is similar to fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut – only with more requirements. You need to control the temperatures, humidity, and air circulation in your curing environment for several weeks or longer. Most people use fermentation chambers for this.
To make one, plug a working refrigerator into a temperature override and control device, add in a humidifier and humidity sensor/control device, and a mini-fan for air circulation. Then set your temperatures and humidity according to the instructions in your recipe. This site, Meat Curing at Home - The Setup, gives more details and brand recommendations.
Not all instructions include using a circulating air in your chamber. But, if you are fermenting in hot, humid weather, you are likely to need one. I find that running a fan whenever your fridge starts to smell like ammonia can head-off some fermentation problems.
You'll want a scale to take starting “green” weights of your sausage before you hang them and then use your drying weights to help determine when to adjust your humidity during the aging process. For best results, use you can also use that scale for preparing recipes that rely on ratios or weights rather than cup measurements.
Here is a link to one of my favorite recipes How to Make Dry Cured Spanish Chorizo Castellano. You can also modify this recipe to make your own custom sausages. For example, instead of 2.5% Pimenton de la Vera you can substitute in Hungarian smoked paprika, Indian curry, or Merguez spices. Also, note, dextrose is a form of sugar extracted from corn. If you are concerned about GMOs, buy non-GMO dextrose. Or, if the idea of using something extracted from corn freaks you out, then increasing sugar quantity works too.
Whole Muscle Cures. Don't let this term scare you. Whole muscle is just another way of saying chunks of lean meat. This is the easiest way to preserve meat other than freezing. Country Ham or Procuitto are classic examples.
To make a country ham, mix up your cure, massage it all over your meat, and wrap your meat in parchment (not wax-coated paper), stuff it in an old cotton pillow case, and hang it in a barn/shed for 2-3 months. Unwrap, cold-smoke (if desired), and hang dry for another 12-18 months. Waiting to eat it until it is fabulously funky is the hardest part.
Country Ham Cure (For 50 pounds of ham)
• 4 pounds sea salt
• 1 pound brown or white sugar
• 10 tsp Instacure # 2
• Pepper, Crushed Red Pepper, Paprika (if desired)
Full instructions: How to Make a Country Ham - University of Kentucky
Even with plenty of cure, mold happens. We just leave it on and cut it off when we slice into our meat 14+ months later. Since you will lose at least 40% of your weight while drying, and some to mold, it's good to start with a large hunk of meat. This is why hog hind legs are a favorite. And start curing in cool weather to cut down risks for maggot infestations.
You can also bury your ham in salt for several months, then dig it out, and air dry it. It takes a lot of salt to cover a ham and it is slower to dry. But the result is delicious.
Plan to use Everything but the Squeal, and maybe even that.
Everything but the squeal is a common expression related to processing pigs. The reality, however, is that usually about 40% of the animal goes to waste unless you plan for the parts. Here are a few ideas to get you started thinking about ways to make the best use of an animal's life and death.
Homestead Workers. Use pigs to break up compacted earth before planting. Goats can be used to clear the undergrowth of a forest to make access easier. Chickens are awesome at compost pile turning or digging in soil amendments. Ducks can be used for regular fertility in established planting areas as they are less harmful to a landscape than other livestock. Pekin ducks and turkeys will sound the the alarm when visitors or predators arrive. Finding ways to capture manure or allowing your animals to direct-fertilize your landscape is a great way to build soil.
Homestead Products. Put down a thick layer of straw below your kill zone to catch the blood and add it to your compost pile. Add boiled, pulverized feathers to your feed mix. Feed your pig intestines to your chickens and your poultry intestines to your pigs. Use whatever you can't figure out how to use for trench composting.
The bones and skin of any animal make great stock. Boil the heck out of that stuff to extract all the goodness and make a condensed stock that stands up on its own. It can be pressure canned in small jars for long-term storage. Since it is so dense, you'll actually need to dilute it to use it.
All bones, after being used in stock making, can be dried and ground up to make bone meal for the garden.
Skin can be used to make pork rinds. You have to scrape the fat from the skin, cut the skin into squares, and dry them on really low heat in the oven. This takes some time and work, but once done, when you throw those hocky-puck looking squares into a pan of super hot lard, they'll fluff up into clouds of crunchy deliciousness.
Eat the organs – liver especially! Make pate or liverwurst.
From pigs, make jowl bacon just like belly bacon. Use the rest of the head to make head cheese by boiling it, skin and all, in savory herbs and spices. When tender, but not falling off, pick the meat from the bones, including the tongue and brains (if you are up for it). Set aside the meat to cool and reduce the unstrained stock by half to boil it into an adhesive gelatin. Strain, cool, and beat a few tablespoons of stock with the meat, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon or two of red wine or balsamic vinegar. Then ladle all this into a foil-lined baking pan, refrigerate until firm, and slice and eat with mustard, pickles, and toast. Head cheese stock makes great beans.
Mindful Meat Consumption
Conscientiously caring for an animal and then taking its life is never easy. But until we have comprehensive solutions for what happens to all of our domesticated breeds if we don't eat them, abruptly ending thousands of years of agricultural interdependence with livestock just doesn't seem like a reasonable answer to me. For me, right-sizing meat consumption, respectfully raising and slaughtering animals, and eating with deep appreciation is a good starting point for solving some of our industrial agricultural problems at home.
For information on meat alternatives to help scale back your meat consumption to a sustainable level, stay tuned for my next post The ABCs of Homesteading: M is for Mushrooms.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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