Well, that's a slight exaggeration in the title - I helped slaughter a cow - and by "helped" I mean that I held a leg here, a stomach there, pulled some ribs apart here when needed. There are a lot of pictures and videos in this post, and some of them might be considered gory - but it's nothing more than blood and guts. If pictures of a dead skinless cow offend you, you probably don't want to read on.
When my neighbor, Mike, called me and said that he was going to help another neighbor, Paul, slaughter one of his cows this week, I thought it would be a good opportunity. My friends think I'm a "farmer" because I have some craptasticly poor producing apple trees, some acreage, a garden and a riding mower. This guy is a real farmer - he has 35 head of Highland cattle, and it's a full time job looking after that kind of operation. On the one year anniversary of my move from NYC to the NH woods, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for some new exposure I'm an animal lover, but also a meat lover, and I think that if you can't stand to see how the cow gets to your table, you're being a hypocrite. Thus, I jumped at the opportunity.
Mike picked me up at 7:30 and we drove around the corner to Paul's place. Paul is a dead ringer for Hal Holbrook's character in the movie Wall Street - Lou Mannheim, by which I mean that Paul looks just like Hal Holbrook did 25 years ago.
We drove up to one of Paul's fields where the target cow was hanging out, and Paul had his .308 rifle. He put down a bucket of grain, which the cow went to eat, stepped back 4 yards, and fired one shot into the cow's forehead. I had remarked to Mike that the rifle didn't look large - I'm not a gun expert - but man, it sounded large. The cow collapsed immediately and without gore or fanfare - no shaking, convulsing, screaming or evidence of pain. It just dropped. Paul gave it another shot in the back of the head just to be sure, and the deed was done. The other cows came around to investigate, but weren't scared or agitated - just curious.
Paul slit the dead cow's throat to allow the blood to drain onto the grass, and we got to work tying a chain around the back leg to lift the cow up with the tractor, to let more blood drain out. Paul drove the cow down toward the spot where we'd be skinning it, while Mike held the horns to keep it from slamming into the tractor, and I took pictures like a tourist:
The next several hours were spent on the slaughtering - they told me this was called slaughtering even though the cow was dead already, as opposed to butchering, where the meat is cut up into portions. I guess you could also call this the early stages of butchering: the point was to remove the hide and the organs, and cut the cow into quarters.
Paul's son joined us, and they started above the hooves, slicing off the skin and removing the hide. It was cool and rainy, but I managed to snap a lot of pictures.
Starting at the ankle:
then working up the leg:
Eventually, you all meet on a line down the middle:
They weren't going to sell this hide - if they are, they need to be even more careful with the cuts. I was surprised that the hides only go for $30 or so. This isn't a garden variety dairy cow - these hairy guys have really nice hides. It seemed a shame not to take this thing home and cure it to hang on the wall of my barn, but I didn't think my wife would appreciate this as an anniversary gift. "Hey honey, pick up 35 boxes of kosher salt - I'm bringing home a cow hide to cure!" So the hide and guts go to the coyotes - although they saved the heart, tongue, tail and liver for human use.
Eventually, you get the hide off:
and you're left with a little bit around the anus which is the tricky part. Yes - cow poop chute was the scientific part of the day. Obviously, you don't want to puncture the intestinal tract, so they trim all around it, then tie it off with a rope, which they will then pull through from the other side to pull out the tract intact. Pretty cool, actually, plus it gave me an excuse to get a closeup picture of a cow's asshole:
Here's the string tied around the intestinal tract:
That picture looks a little gory, but it's nothing more than fat. There's no blood, poop, or bile.
Here's a cool video I shot of the partially skinned cow, which had been dead for 90 minutes at least, and was still twitching:
Next, they cut the cow's head off, and we're at this stage:
They lower the cow to the ground and hook it up by its arms, to begin cutting through the sternum, right down the middle. They try to cut down without spilling out the stomach:
then cut through the sternum (using a hand saw) so that the ribs split, and let the stomach and guts fall out after that.
We had a tough time getting this one to split open - apparently the one they'd done previously was easier. Once she's opened up, the gut sack is removed. I guess this would be considered the gross part - but interestingly, all the stuff is pretty much "contained" - as long as you don't puncture the neat little membrane every part comes in! There is a smell, like "cow" when you open up the cavity, but it dissipates pretty quickly. Another video:
After the gut sack comes out, you reach in and grab that handy poop chute rope, and pull the end of the intestinal tract cleanly through. Voila. You're left with this:
From there it's a matter of a SawZall:
Which gets you to here:
Then Paul drove the two sides of beef down to his meat locker, which is in a small shelter. I captured a surreal picture of one of the other cows watching the final step in the process, where each side is cut in half - quartered - by slicing between the 4th and 5th ribs:
The quarters are then rolled into the meat locker to age for a few days before butchering. Strangely, I didn't have any Rocky impulses at this time, and managed to refrain from punching the quarters of beef in the meat locker. There was a quartered bull in the locker already, from several days ago - they let him age for a week and a half, but this old cow was destined for hamburger and thus would only age for 3-4 days. The aging allows the meat to tighten up and make it easier to cut - they said that butchering this one as is right now would be like trying to cut jello.
This is the slightly aged meat:
And that concluded my lesson in slaughtering a cow. I hope to return this weekend for the butchering of the aged bull quarters.
All in all, this was a great experience - invaluable exposure and knowledge of the process of getting the meat from the pasture to your table. Obviously, larger scale operations will do this in a totally different, mass produced manner, and I'm fairly certain that if I were in a commercial slaughterhouse I would have walked away with a vastly different (worse!) view of the whole process.
I'll tell you one thing, though - as I sit here and type this post, inserting all these photos, I can smell the cow clearly, even though I'm sitting here in my dining room.
Readers who want to see a picture of the stomach and guts can scroll down below...
last chance to bail out...
ok - here are the guts - note the string tied around the poop tract in the lower left, and the lungs in the upper left: