If you have not grown up learning how to slaughter and butcher your own meat the prospect of it might be overwhelming. When we made the choice as a family to be as in command of our own food chain as we possibly could, meat production to its full extent seemed a far reaching goal. My husband and I both grew up in homes that practiced home butchering; however, you know how much children pay attention. The largest hurdle to processing your own meat is the mental hurdle. To process meat on a small scale you do not need expensive butchers equipment. You need a healthy animal, some knowledge of slaughtering and butchering practices, the means to kill the animal and hang it, sharp knives, a clean place to work, and the humility to know that you will screw it up and get better at it next time.
When we started farming and eating our own animals we struggled with finding meat processing companies that we felt sure were processing our meat in a way that we wanted. Sometimes the meat would come back with a funny taste, or it would be tough when the animal we sent was young. So we finally braved the process ourselves. Raising an animal from birth to slaughter will ensure you have command of your food quality. It is difficult to get the assurance of food quality from any other source. We are a very small production farm so our animals are cared for on an individual basis; they each have a name and are well fed. There is no greater respect for the food on your plate to be had when you have cared for that food well before it goes into your freezer. Removal from the life death cycle has corrupted our food chain in a physical and spiritual manner. The effects of this disruption are being felt by our generation and our children’s.
Because most of us have spent our adult lives acquiring meat in the grocery store, the basic knowledge of how to process our food puts us in an infant like state; dependent on other adults for our food. The knowledge is still out there; we just have to seek it ourselves. Of all the modern inventions in the last 50 years, the internet has to be one of the most valuable to small farmers. From more efficient and painless ways to slaughter chickens to how to butcher groundhogs; I have found detailed instruction and videos online. Researching self sufficient practices is time very well spent. There are also numerous books out there with excellent instruction; my personal favorite are the Foxfire books.
While you do not need fancy tools you do need some basic tools to get you started. If you are slaughtering any animal larger than a chicken you will likely need a firearm. While Kosher and Halal practices are also excellent forms of slaughtering, for the novice a rifle will make the process less traumatic. Be aware that you will need to be skilled with your firearm and take all the necessary safety and legal precautions to own and operate one. Firearm safety is a continual and important practice on any farm. I am not a firearm expert so can only give some suggestions to consider. Having the assistance of a more experienced farmer is always preferable when you are getting started. Experienced local farmers are often a forgotten resource. A small rifle with less recoil is going to be the best money spent. Larger and more high powered rifles should only be used for hunting. A larger gun can be potentially dangerous when slaughtering an animal close up and can damage your meat. If you are unfamiliar with firearms I would highly recommend getting instruction from an expert and doing a hearty amount of research before attempting to slaughter your animal.
Once your animal is slaughtered you will need a place that is cool in temperature and free from insects and pests to hang it. We typically do the bulk of our slaughtering in the late Fall so the heat and insects are not an issue. A warm day can ruin all of your hard work. If you are working up your meat right away there is nothing wrong with hanging the animal from a tree or barn tier. For most of humanity's existence there were no indoor butchering facilities; people worked up their meat with the seasons as they did everything else. Having a freshwater source and a table nearby to place tools and hunks of meat are essential to making your job easier. When I butcher chickens I do it next to our spring and use a fold up plastic table that I can sterilize easily.
The most important processing tools you will use are a couple of good sharp knives and sharpening tools and a small hand saw. As you process your meat your knives will dull quickly. To avoid damage to the meat and your own frustration be sure to take the time to sharpen your tools. We use a small saw that has replaceable blades and small teeth. You can get special bone saws; but, I would be cautious about getting expensive tools when you can likely find what you need in your local hardware store. If you are planning on grinding any of your meat and you are able to, a good old hand grinder will be more than adequate. We have used various electric meat grinders and have found that if you are purchasing anything less than an industrial grinder you will be making that purchase again. We went back to a very old heavy duty cast iron grinder and it works better than anything we have used. The old grinder has the added benefit of keeping children busy as well. Any time you can include children in meat processing and raising animals, that is some of the most valuable education you can provide for them. Meat slicers are handy; but, if you are only slicing a portion of your meat the clean up of a slicer is almost not worth the effort. When thin slicing meat it helps to partially freeze the meat before slicing.
Packaging Your Meat CutsWhen it comes to packaging your meat after you have cut and cleaned it that is really up to your preference. We have experimented with a variety of packaging methods all with similar success. If you are trying to avoid plastic, butcher paper works well. The disadvantage of butcher paper is storing the meat in the freezer for an extended period it may get freezer burn. If you want to use paper and have long term storage I would suggest doing a layer of plastic wrap outside of the butcher paper. Due to some of the recent exposure to the dangers of aluminum foil I would not recommend using foil directly in contact with the meat; although, it can be an extra insulator on the outside of another safer product. I have wrapped meat in wax paper and then aluminum foil before; but, it is difficult to get the wax paper off of the meat when it is frozen. Plastic wrap works well; however, there are some health concerns with using plastic which of course you must use your own educated judgment. If you do use common plastic wrap I would suggest wrapping it with two to three good layers to avoid freezer burn. Vacuum seal methods are an excellent way to store meat in a deep freeze long term and it is not very costly, if you are comfortable with the usage of plastic.
If you have a limited amount of freezer storage or are concerned with the energy consumption of an extra freezer canning meat is another excellent method of storage. I once canned a whole deer and we ate on it all winter. There are some health concerns with processing meat and I would recommend that you are extremely cautious in following the procedures for canning meat. A good place to source reliable information on how to can any type of food is your local extension office. Most extension offices hold classes on processing foods and have a wealth of resources.
Good clean practices, raising healthy animals, paying attention to temperatures of your meat during slaughter, and proper storage practices are the key to creating your own healthy meat. Processing your meat at home without commercial grade tools has clear advantages over purchasing your meat from commercial meat companies. Knowing how your animals are treated and knowing for sure that the handling of your meat was done safely can only be guaranteed if you are doing that process yourself. The benefits of being connected to your food in a personal way will create a much more healthy cycle of food for you and the environment. If you go to all the personal investment of growing and processing your own animal; none of that animal will go to waste; and you will ensure the health and happiness of that animal thereby valuing and appreciating the life of that animal so much more than even the very best commercial growers.