I was not always on board with processing my own animals.
Not that I ever felt that somewhere other than home or someone else other than us would be better for the job. Not that at all.
But I didn’t always have the heart.
You see, growing up, my most favorite pets on the planet were my chickens. My sister and I spent countless hours with them. They were tame as tame can be. Even to the point of allowing us to dress them up in doll clothes.
They all had names, they were all so deeply loved. And when one got inured or sick or taken by predators, we were there through it all. We learned of love and loss with those birds, as dramatic as that may sound. And I tell you what- there was nothing more dreaded than butcher day.
Back then, I thought my mom was just cruel. That every 2 years the old layers were processed to make room for new ones. And what’s worse- I had to help! I remember saving my favorites for last, and just crying and begging that my mom let me keep them. And cruelly- or so it seemed- she would flat-out refuse, and I would just cry. I didn’t understand that it just simply wasn’t cost effective to keep animals that weren’t laying, or laying well. I didn’t see the value in raising and eating our own meat. And I certainly didn’t seem to appreciate what it took for her to allow me to keep the heads of my favorite chickens in the freezer all winter just so I could bury them in the spring.
Yeah. I was that kid (cue creepy music right about now).
Fast-forward about 20 years. When it came time to butcher our own first chickens. I had vowed I would never do this. I had been determined to never pluck another chicken in my life.
And yet, here I was, cringing and just doing it.
It was hard.
But as hard as it was, it got easier.
In fact, processing is now one of my most favorite things to do.
If that sounds twisted or sadistic, I get it. But for me, harvesting an animal is so much more than killing.
Do I enjoy the actual killing? No. But I also understand that that animal gets one bad day in its life. The rest of its days were as good as I could give them. Even if it means poop everywhere, fencing anything and everything of value in so that it doesn’t get destroyed, electric netting around my greenhouse to keep it safe, and apologizing to the UPS guy every time for the gang of turkeys that loudly gobble in unison every time he starts his truck back up.
So while the killing is not my most favorite part, I would not want anyone else to do it for us.
And the processing gives me the chance to reflect on the WHY of what we do.
My personal WHY includes:
- the satisfaction of knowing every moment of that animal’s life, from beginning to end and everything in between.
- feeling confident that what I’m feeding my family is safe.
- knowing that the skills it takes to do this life are not lost on us.
- knowing that our kids will have the ability to sustain themselves.
- we are not supporting a corrupt meat industry wrought with cruelty.
If you don’t have a personal WHY, then you may never be able to get past your apprehension. I would say that few people really truly love killing and/or processing animals without a good reason for doing it. Unless you are a psycho, and if that’s the case then please leave my blog.
But if you have developed your WHY, and you are wondering where to start and what you should have on hand, then you are in the right place.
Over the years, I have collected a variety of favorite publications and resources, and have found what equipment and supplies are most beneficial and necessary. I have compiled these into a free printable PDF at the bottom of this post.
Please note that while some of the following suggestions contain affiliate links, some do not. And every single one of them I personally use myself and recommend. So click with confidence!
Books (click on any of the images to learn more):
If you get no other book, get this one. It is your one-stop-shop for processing your own animals at home. For real, this book is big and it is full of beautiful, clear, detailed (and stunning!) color photos that walk you through the harvest from start-to-finish. It covers everything from tools to butchering methods and techniques, to packaging & freezing your meat, and of course step-by-step butchering of chickens, rabbits, pigs, sheep, and goats. If there was a butchering bible, this is it. You will not regret this one at all.
I love Meredith Leigh, not only as an author but as a person. She is amazing and has mastered the craft of not only butchery but charcuterie- so if you’re into that, you must check her out. I had Meredith’s book before Adam Danforth’s book, and her book helped walk us through processing our very first pigs. While the photos are not in color, this book is very concise and more condensed for those who like something a little smaller and lighter while giving you everything you need. She covers beef, lamb, pork, and poultry with the added bonus of charcuterie and recipes throughout.
This is more of a niche book, for those of you interested in- obviously- curing & smoking your own meat. If you process your own animals at home, it is much easier to get the cuts you want/need for these projects And there’s no better go-to than this River Cottage handbook if you want to go about this the most natural way possible.
Again, for anyone interested in going beyond the basics, In the Charcuterie walks you through a variety of meats and parts and details how to go about creating not only charcuterie projects, but also great recipes for things like pancetta (or bacon) wrapped pork tenderloin (a favorite around here).
I grouped the three of these together because they are more cook books than how-to books, but of course they all contain their own genre-specific how-to’s. For those who are really interested in diving in to using all parts of the animal- and I think you should be- each one of these books offers something for you.
- Jane Grigson offers not only a fabulous, eloquent read but a true appreciation for every part of the animal- and I do mean every. She makes you want to eat like she does, trust me.
- Jennifer McLagan’s books are very specific, one being focused on fat and how we can- and should- get back to appropriately appreciating fat and all that is has to offer. But keep in mind that not all fat is made equal. Fat from your own homegrown beast that has been cared for in and on open air and ground as opposed to dark commercial confinement, as well as their diet will greatly alter the taste and quality of that fat. The beautiful fat of the pig is one of the reasons we choose to scald & scrape our pigs as opposed to skinning them. We strive to preserve as much as that glorious resource as possible.
- Odd Bits covers all of the parts that you don’t as often see in the grocery store: brains, eyeballs, feet, tail, tongue, all of the offal- to name a few. This one is for the adventurous at heart. While I cannot hardly get my husband to eat anything beyond the heart and caul fat, I am open to just about anything. Even my daughter ate the eyeball from our roast pig’s head. So this one can be fun for the whole family!
There are a variety of tools that we’ve accumulated that have become must-have items to complete the various butchering tasks that we undertake. Some of these may apply, some may not, depending on what you are processing, therefore I will put in parenthesis next to each tool what type of animal we use it for so that you have a better idea of what your needs may be.
Meat Grinder (wild game, pigs, lamb, beef)
I mentioned this one in my sausage making post, and I will stress it again: get a good grinder, folks. If you plan to do any amount of regular processing, especially if you are dealing with larger animals like deer or pigs or cows- and you do/would like to do ground meat or make sausage, you will need a good grinder. Yes, you can use a hand grinder or a cheap grinder if you don’t mind taking forever to get it done. But if you’re dealing with hundreds of pounds of meat, you cannot make a better investment than a good grinder. We use this one from Cabela’s, but if you don’t want to go through them, get a grinder with at least a 1 hp motor.
Gambrel (wild game, pigs, lamb, poultry, beef)
A gambrel is essentially what you use to hang your animal by its feet for skinning, gutting, etc. After trying a few others, we now exclusively use this cinch gambrel, which is great because not only is it adjustable (we used to mess around with a smaller gambrel for pigs, a larger one for deer, both of which involved cutting holes in the legs to fit the ends of the gambrel into) to fit whatever size animal you are hanging, but the cables cinch around the legs instead of having to cut holes in the legs which is great. We’ve even used this for skinning rabbits and hanging poultry.
Outdoor Hanging Scale (wild game, pigs, lamb, poultry)
We weigh pretty much everything we process, and this scale has met all of our needs. It has a 440 lb. capacity, so it would not work for cows, but pretty much everything else it will cover. This is great for creating accurate records for personal and commercial use.
Hoist and Winch (wild game, pigs, lamb, beef)
For those of you like me who don’t have a tractor or other machinery for lifting large animals, you will need some way of doing that. For us, we’ve used a winch attached to the door frame of our wood shed, and then this year we bought a hoist that can be attached to a tree, along with the winch. What we found to be great about using the hoist is it allows us to place it much higher, which makes dealing with large animals much easier. We found that the winch that came with the hoist, however, was not so great- but the arm itself is exactly what we needed. So just make sure you use a good winch and you will be good to go.
There are many ways to go about what kind of smoker you want to use. But if you plan to make your own bacon and hams, you will need a method of smoking them. While we have plans to build a smoke house in the future, we have been able to get all of our smoker needs met with this electric smoker.
Turkey Burner/Outdoor Gas Cooker (pigs, poultry)
An outdoor cooker is an essential tool for scalding & plucking poultry, as well as scalding & scraping pigs. We also use it for shrink bagging our poultry. Basically, this is a portable propane cooker that you can use to heat large (or small) vessels of water needed for scalding.
Large Stock Pot(s) (all)
To go with the cooker, it’s a good idea to have a large stock pot for scalding and for shrink bagging, as well as countless other uses around the homestead. I have a variety of stock pots in various sizes on hand.
55 gallon food grade barrel (pigs, turkeys)
We use a 55 gallon food grade barrel for scalding & scraping our pigs. We also like to use it for scalding and plucking our turkeys since they are larger animals and the bigger barrel really works great for them. I was able to find mine on eBay from a seller who shipped to Minnesota addresses, but there are many others on there with free local pickup and other options- so do a little bit of research. You may also be able to find them on Craigslist or through local restaurants.
Knives, Cleaver, Meat Saw, Kitchen Scale (all)
I grouped these together as they are all kitchen tools that are must haves for the home butcher.
- A boning knife and a skinning knife are two tools we could not live without. I love to secure old antique carbon steel knives because they hold an edge like no other, but whatever type you prefer- it needs to be sharp. My husband really loves using a Havalon knife for skinning because it has disposable blades, so he doesn’t have to stop in the middle of butchering to sharpen it. It’s also small which makes it easy to maneuver.
- We almost exclusively use our meat cleaver for processing pigs, and it is a must-have for that.
- A meat saw is what we use to saw the pig carcass in half, as well as remove the legs of deer and lamb. It is used for separating the loin quarter from the belly quarter on pigs, and many other cuts. Meat saws can be frustrating if they are not sharp, so keep an extra blade on hand and decide if you want the blade to cut on the push or on the pull, and switch the blade in the direction that meets that need. And be sure to get one with a longer blade (think 22 inch, not 16 inch).
- A kitchen scale that allows you to measure grams, pounds ounces, and milliliters is a vital tool if you plan to do home curing projects as measurements need to be precise. I use this cheap one and it works great.
Large Plastic Tub (pigs)
If you plan to do some curing projects, you will need a non-reactive vessel like a plastic tub. I use this to house bacon and hams when they are curing in the refrigerator.
Ground Meat Freezer Bags (wild game, pigs, beef)
If you grind your own meat, you will want some good freezer bags designed for this purpose. I purchase these ones on eBay because they offer the ability to buy in large or small quantities, whichever you prefer. Yes, they are technically “wild game” bags, but I use them for everything and just use a Sharpie marker to write “pork” or whatever else is on there. Then check whether it is burger or sausage, and record the date and weight. You can buy special tape to close these bags, but I usually just use freezer tape.
Shrink Bags (poultry)
You know when you buy a turkey or whole chicken in the store, how they are perfectly and tightly packaged in this plastic casing? Those are shrink bags, and I cannot recommend them enough. I will never go back to any other way of putting my poultry into the freezer. I have always purchased my bags through this website. They have written and video tutorials, and bags of all sizes available- even for when you part out your poultry instead of freezing them whole.
Freezer Paper, Freezer Tape, Plastic Wrap
When I finally learned how to properly wrap and package meat for the freezer, I almost eliminated freezer burn completely. I did a ton of research and trial and error on this- but believe it or not, you do not need a vacuum sealer to safely freeze your meat. Just remember: double wrap in plastic wrap, then do a proper wrap with freezer paper.
My favorites? Reynold’s Freezer Paper (I’m not even going to link to it- get it at your grocery store, much cheaper than online) & Freezer Tape, and Freeze-Tite Premium Plastic Freezer Wrap.
For tying up roasts, rolled roasts, pancetta, tying the legs of roast turkey & chicken, etc- a good quality butcher twine is great to have on hand. And a 1 pound roll will last you a long time.
I’ve used my meat hooks for many things- hanging bacon, guanciale, prosciutto, and cacciatorini from my ceiling, as well as lamb carcasses in my kitchen. In the off season, I even use them to hang herbs.
My most favorite resource of all time for all things butchery is the Farmstead Meatsmith. I cannot say enough good things here. Many of you have heard of him, but if you have not- please have a visit. Brandon has a monthly membership available as well which gives you access to an insane vault of information. His videos on butchering pigs was life-changing for me. No joke. Please check him out.
Free PDF Printable:
And because I am sure that all of this information is overwhelming, I have a free pintable checklist that condenses all of these resources for you. Please don’t feel that you have to go out and spend a ton of money all at once gathering these things up. These were collected over years for us. We have a rule that we make just one big purchase per year for our farm (ex./ meat grinder, smoker, hoist, etc.) and work the smaller things in where we can. There were years where we did things the hard way, without the necessary equipment, because that is all we could afford to do.
Additionally, as we were growing our homestead, we only added one new thing per year: ex./chickens and ducks, then rabbits, then pigs, then sheep. We did not go out on the first year of owning our home and buy up everything at once. One thing at a time. So maybe next year for you it will be pigs. Take a look at this list and decide what you will absolutely need for your first pig harvest. Do you have to scald and scrape? No. You can skin a pig. We don’t choose to do that for many reasons- but for your first year could you do that? Yes. That would eliminate the need for the barrel, burner, hoist, and winch. Maybe you could add those things the following year.
So take some time this winter to do some planning. If you’ve never processed your own animals before, start small. Get a few chickens or rabbits. Master that and build your confidence.
Until next time, happy harvesting to you all.
And homestead on.
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