Sunday, April 1

How to Butcher a Cow or Beef Butchering

Warning:  If you are scrolling through my archives, this post is bloody and descriptive of the process of the humane buthering of a cow.  You may want to pass, or you may eagerly read on....

Edited to add:  I've received a lot of silly hate mail over this post, which entertains my husband and I to no end.  Those comments get put into our reserved amusement file and will not be published. 

A friend of ours had a holstein who calved, pinched a nerve in its back, and was unable to get up.  They checked her labs and found she was healthy (a vitamin deficiency is sometimes to cause of a cow not being able to rise after calving) and our farmer friend called us and offered us this nice grass-fed, medication free cow.  This is the third cow we've eaten from his farm and the second one we've butchered ourselves.
Sean and good friends headed over, and the kids and I followed.  The kids played in the barn and on the other side of the farmyard while the cow was quickly killed. Sean's friend, who is also a hunter, used a 9mm with a steel jacketed bullet so that there would be no lead fragments in the meat. 
I forced myself not to pinch my eyes closed. One shot to the brain rendered the cow brain-dead.  Sean quickly went to cut the cows carotid artery so it would bleed out.
 There is a LOT of blood in an animal this large and it took about a half hour for the cow to bleed out.  You want the cow brain-dead but their heart still pumping for this purpose.  Or else you will have a heart that is not pumping and a HUGE bloody MESS when trying to butcher the cow.
 The cow did not thrash around, moo, or suffer. She lifted her head a few times but that was all. A precise shot is so important in sparing an animal's suffering.

Once bled out, the head was cut around first with a knife down to the neck bone and then removed using a sawzall.  We didn't use the tongue or head for anything because the cow was grown.


Another good friend of Sean's cut around the cow's anus and tied it off on the inside.  This is known as bunging. If this wasn't done it would be necessary to cut the intestines introducing fecal matter inside the body cavity and thus contaminating the meat.


The four of us rolled the cow on its back and Sean began cutting from the sternum down.  At this point the skin is still on the animal, which protects the meat inside.

After cutting down the center of the animal only through the stomach muscle it is time to remove the guts.  It is vital to make only a shallow cut through the muscle and not into the guts. The guts of this holstein weighed around 500 pounds.  100_5544edit
In a huge holstein, the innards are massive and suddenly you've got the dreaded feeling that you're seeing half the cow's weight being tossed aside. Between guts and bones, that is where most of the weight on a holstein is.  They are bred to be thin and boney and make milk.  However, there is still plenty of meat to be had. In the photo below you'll see Sean using a massive hay hook. This is the first time we've had one to use and it is a very helpful tool to have on hand.

100_5547edit 100_5548edit 100_5545edit
The removal of the innards is hard work. You want to loosen where they are attached inside the aninal without cutting into any of them. Accidentally cutting into the guts can ruin your meat and is a worse smell that the worst smell you've ever smelled. 100_5555edit Now the cow's guts were almost all out, as far as the guys could pull them. Sean cut slits in the animal's tendons on the upper part of it's back legs. These slits are strong enough to hold the entire weight of the animal while it is lifted. The force of gravity from the cow being lifted up will slide the rest of the intestines out of the animal. 100_5557edit
Carcass now partially lifted, it is time to begin skinning.  Have many sharp knives on hand as well as a sharpening stone because your knives will dull quickly. My husband only buys quality butchering knives from Victornox/Forschner and he still needed to sharpen them every so often as everyone worked.
On the side underbelly of the animal, you;ll want to skin a bit more carefully. There is a thin piece of meat in this spot on either side that is the flank steak and you don't want to scrap it with the skin. 100_5559edit
Completely skinned carcass, front hooves removed. Time to cut it into pieces to make transport to our house via our sububan possible. We laid tarps on the back of the suburban. You'll have noticed how little blood there was in this whole gutting/skinning process - this is why letting an animal bleed out is so important.
The meat was hung in the woodshed to let the meat relax and age for a few days. If your outdoor temperatures are not condusive to hanging meat, you may want to look into renting cold storage for this purpose. This allows the muscles (meat)to relax which improves the flavor and texture. It was the middle of a freeze the last time we butchered a cow and it hung in our garage for weeks, almost frozen solid and was the best meat I've ever tasted. You can read more on this here. 100_5564
This time the weather stayed cold enough for two days for us to hang the meat and it still tasted great, though not as fabulous as when we were able to hang the meat and age it longer. After cutting it into pieces, we also let the meat age in the fridge for a few more days before freezing it.  In the woodshed, Sean strung the meat up high enough so our dogs and any coyotes would not be able to reach it.   Because of the cold, there were not any bugs/flies hatched yet and so we didn't need to be concerned about that.  Each quarter was wrapped loosely with a cotton wrap.100_5562 Next I'll add some photos and refer you to some resources for cutting up beef, which was a night and day long process for our whole family plus a few friends.


Maya said...

Good for you guys! I'm super impressed(and a little jealous)

Dannie said...

interesting. Don't think I could do the shooting part though. THX for the over view.

Unknown said...

This was the most interesting post I've ever seen. The process is fascinating. (I'm a vegetarian but due to my Iron issues I eat Beef.)

Unknown said...

This was a fascinating post!, Was super impressed with the process of cultivating meat from a cow.

I was a little squeamish and my inner PETA nature almost came out.(Vegetarian but due to my iron issues I eat beef.)

Anonymous said...

That was really fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

Pam Anderson said...

This was very educational. Thank you for posting it. I have a Holstein and thought about raising any bull calf she had as meat to put in the freezer. I didn't realize that Holsteins had so little meat on them. Young beef bull calves sell cheap around here and I might invest in a couple.

oldandgrumpy said...

Good job. As an old processing butcher I'm impressed. These opportunities usually don't give much notice, so it's good to have some equipment clean and ready to work. It isn't easy work and mistakes are messy and expensive, Don't hurry it at this stage.

Valerie Jones said...

This city girl has gone through these pics about 10 times and I am still facinated! Thank you so much for sharing!

Me said...

Thanks, Maya. I'm impressed with my husban's willingness to learn and tackle anything!

Dannie, I don't think I could do the shooting part very easily either. I would be afraid of missing the right spot and having the animal suffer - so I happily leave it to the more experienced. :)

Brian, I spent many years as a vegetarian so I can sympathize! However, I was a vegetartian due to the cruel treatment of factory farmed animals and all the junk they add into now I'm pleased to have humanely slaughtered meat.

You're welcome, Anonymous - thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. :)

Pam, I've heard that meat calves and even grown meat steers are selling cheaply now because of the drought out west of us. I would definitely got that route. My husband has butchered a Holstein bull calf for veal, so that is an option if market price for Holstein bulls is low and you like veal.

OldandGrumpy, my husband will love your compliment when I show him in the morning - thanks so much - we are careful to go slow and not rush the process - though on this day our fingers were nearly numb by the time we were finished, it was so cold outside.

You're welcome, Valerie! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment - I appreciate it!

Unknown said...

What a great post! Thank you for the graphic photos. I would rather know what im doing then worry about the vegans in the world :-)
-Portland, OR

Bryan said...

very intersting, being a city guy myself, im jealous that i havn't experienced this type of thing yet. thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this post. i live in the country for a small while after being raised in the city. when i was 13 a bull hit me in the face with his horns, knocking me 6 ft across the barn, breaking my cheekbones, my nose, my jaw, and making my front row of teeth loose. to make me feel better, my mother rewarded me with my first ear piercing.
Now with that trauma i became afraid of the animals. they are beautiful though, and as long as there is a fence between us, i adore them!!
Thank you for sharing! <3 Sophia

Somer said...

So glad I found this. We are getting ready to have our first steer butchered. I told my hubby I want to learn to do it myself and he was grossed out by the thought. I am going to have to show him this :) Thanks for posting it.

bazuemague said...

This is good to see. I have no problem with eating meat, but I do have a problem with the unnecessary suffering that is part of our modern factory farm process. This is they way it used to be done - with compassion. Thank you.

1BmF said...

very interesting indeed. comparing to how "we" in south africa (I'm from the Xhosa Tribe Of the eastern cape in S.A do it). barring the so called "bruttality" with which us africans do this, i'm sure you might be interested to see...

Anonymous said...

This is soo much better than the slaughter houses. The fact is -- if we eat meat, animals must die. Give them a good life, then kill them humanely. I sincerely hope, with all my heart, that sooner rather than later I will be out of this megamonstertropolis I currently live in and that I'll be able to establish my life along the lines of others who've left the city and the "system".

Dadforfive said...

Thank you for such an interesting and informative post. I needed the information you provided, but it left me with a few questions if you please. As to the kill shot, would you please tell about the exact spot that will disable the pain receptors and kill the brain but allow the heart to keep pumping? Thank you in advance for the information, and for posting on a subject most folks SHOULD know, but are too scared to ask lol.

Me said...

Hi Dad for Five,
Thanks for stopping by. If you click on the second photo it will enlarge and you'll see right where the shot was made.
Yes, bunging is the same as done on a deer, albeit, on a larger animal.
Good luck,

Uncle T said...

It wasn't addressed in the post so my question is do you utilize any of the offal? The heart, liver, and kidneys provide excellent eating and the caul fat adds outstanding flavor to items made with chopped/ground meat. Having processed many animals of all sizes, including beef steers, I know how much effort it is to do an animal that size at home. Well done.

Me said...

Hi Tony,
Thanks for posting your question.
We don't use the liver, though we know the health benefits, but all the parts we don't use we pass on to a Cambodian family that enjoys them. We do keep all the fat and render it to tallow which I use in soap making. Some of the fat also gets ground up when I make ground beef.

Fam. A. Slats said...

Thanks heaps, this weekend it's my turn. You guys provided some valuable information.

Unknown said...

I am sixteen years old and have butchered cows since 5, my dad grew up doing it as well and we also do poultry and pork at home. You butcher much the same way as we do except it's too bad you didn't show the packaging process, that is often the hardest part. also the photos are great and very familiar, I am glad to see a job well done! And after it's all done and frozen you feel the satisfaction of being done. We always gut the cow hanging up, going from the hindquarters to the head, it works well. Thank you for informing people about real meat. So few people understand where meat comes from and how it is processed.

Joanie Walker said...

Thank you for this post - I raise cattle and might need to know how to do this someday. I pinned it to my grass fed beef board and IMMEDIATELY someone complained that it didn't belong on my board. SHeesh. So I changed the picture and put your warning in the description with the caveat: if you eat grass fed beef they had to die for you to do that. Don't complain to me about this post, you read it at your own discretion. Sheesh. Anyway, thanks again - it was VERY informative.

Kara said...

Thank you for all the effort it took to put this up. We've always used a butcher but are considering trying to do it ourselves this time. Great job.

Anonymous said...

Found this post via Pinterest. Due to cleanliness issues we had at the butchers this year our steers came back home with us. I've been kicking around the idea of doing it ourselves for a few years but have yet to pull the trigger so to say. Thanks for the pictures and detail. If you could post a link to the post about cutting it up that would be appreciated. As that is the most time consuming that is what we are most worried about.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to put this together and filtering out the haters. We have been paying $400-$600 for cut and wrap of a beef cow (about .50/lb) and for that much money, I want to try to figure out how to do this ourselves. We have done our own sheep and goats, but would need to rib up some kind of way to (pulley system?) to raise the cow up. Thank you also for letting us know what knives you use. I'm all for investing in some good equipment if I see ourselves doing this for many years (which I do). The thing that intimidates me the most is trying to figure out how to do the different cuts. I too would love to see another blog about how you did that. I'm also thinking I would ask if I could shadow a local butcher doing up a cow. We LOVE our butcher and I think he'd be up for that.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the post and effort put into placing it. In this day of corn fed supermarket sterility with packaged meat and little to no insight by the majority into where it comes from or how it gets there, this is a welcome post to see. Impressive feat to home slaughter a animal of this weight. It appears to be no small task. Although I have plenty of experience with venison I can only imagine working on a 2000# animal. Also appreciate you going over aging on the bone and how important it is to quality of the meat. For years I had no idea about this until a friend educated me. Truly makes a world of difference.

Anonymous said...

Well that part isn't much different then doing a moose up. I'm more interested in the process of cutting the cow up into steaks