Back in August of last year I wrote about my first experience of butchering the back half of a pig, which had been kindly given to us by a friend in the village.
This year things got a lot more serious on the farm and it was time for us to complete the full cycle of life from birth to death for some of our animals. I had known that this day would come eventually, but it is a hard one to prepare for having no previous experience.
Back in March it became very apparent that we had too many sheep (27 in total). This was after a successful lambing season, on top of the fact that we didn't sell or slaughter any of the previous year's lambs. They were eating us out of house and home (or at least all of our grass down to its roots).
Something had to be done.
The idea had always been to start eating our own meat. We thought it would be our steer (Stew) who would be first in the freezer, but he has a reprieve for another year.
Not knowing the first thing about slaughtering, dressing or butchering livestock I called upon a local farmer (Farmer G) to ask some advice. He offered to come round and assist, an offer I took up straight away. I had completed our sheep yards earlier in the year so Niki and I were able to muster the sheep and separate out one of last year's wethers and return the rest of them to the paddock. I am not embarrassed to say that I thanked the animal for its life. We had been responsible for it from birth through to death.
Warning: Graphic description of slaughter follows
Farmer G and his wife came round on a Friday afternoon and I was all set to go. I had my .22 ready, sharp knives on the bench and plenty of nerves. Farmer G told me what to do and I got on with it. A clean shot to the back of the head at point blank range was enough to down the wether. Next was bleeding it out as soon as possible. This involved cutting the throat, ensuring the jugular was severed. During this there was quite a lot of reflexive movement and it was necessary to hold tight (by the way, there was absolutely no doubt the sheep was already dead).
We then moved the carcass to the shed and began the dressing (skinning and gutting) process. Once we were at this stage, it was much easier to see the animal as future meat, not the same as the sheep that had been walking around only 10 minutes ago. We started cutting the skin at the knees (careful not to cut the tendons which are needed whole for hanging) and worked away (front and back legs). Hoisting the carcass to hang in the shed was an effort even with two of us and I promised myself I would purchase a pulley for next time. Once the carcass was hung it became much easier to separate the skin using a closed fist to punch down between the skin and the brisket. Apparently in abattoirs there used to be the job title of 'left handed brisket puncher' just for this task. Once the skin was removed all the way to the neck, the head was cut off and the head and skin/fleece were removed. I would, in future like to use as much of the animal as possible, but this time I didn't plan to save the skin.
Next was removal of the offal, a task to be carried out carefully to avoid any contamination. All of the stomach, intestines, etc. went into a blue plastic bin for later disposal (great for worms). Then there were the heart, lungs and liver. I kept the very healthy looking liver. Niki and I had liver and onions for lunch the next day, it doesn't get any fresher than that. Once the dressing was complete the carcass was wrapped to keep the flies away and left to hang for a few days (being late summer a couple of days was enough, in winter it could easily hang for a week or more). Meanwhile Farmer G's wife was in the kitchen with an emotional Niki. I was exhausted!
Of course, dressing the carcass is only half the job. Unless you are doing a spit roast it's a bit hard to fit a whole sheep into your oven! Luckily one of our near neighbours is a retired butcher and he had already offered to give me a hand turning my sheep into useful cuts of meat. A few days after hanging the carcass he came over to show me what to do. We spent a Sunday afternoon in the shed with a trestle table covered in plastic, a large piece of untreated eucalypt as a chopping board and lots of sharp knives, an axe and a machete. We turned the carcass into 26kg of recognisable cuts of meat - chops, roasts and shanks. I think I'll need a few more goes at it to get better and know what I'm doing, but I now have a grasp of the basics.
I bagged up all the meat, weighed it and, except for a shoulder put it all in the freezer. Niki slow-roasted the shoulder the following week and it was truly delicious. What an amazing experience to have a plate of food in front of you where everything on the plate (4 vegetables and meat) came from our farm - that's why we're here.
Since then I have slaughtered, dressed and butchered a lamb and taken 9 other lambs to the sale yards and sold them for a good price, we sold 2 others to neighbours. We are now back down to 10 ewes, almost manageable for the little grass we have left.
Postscript: After packing and weighing the meat I calculated how much it would have cost to buy the same cuts at the supermarket using a well known supermarket website. The 26kg of meat would have cost me $467 at the supermarket. I could have probably sold the live animal for about $70-80. That tells you something straight away - somebody is getting well paid for meat - and it's not the farmer!
Posted by Farmer Wan
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.