Archive for April, 2015

Pen to Pan

April 21, 2015 Leave a comment

About 2 weeks ago we decided we’d had ENOUGH.

Enough problems with our remaining yearling sow.  She was eating all the feed, pushing the smaller pigs out of the way, and had been breaking out of and JUMPING over the fence.  Yes, jumping.  Over a 4 foot fence.  Trying to eat ME.  She was very confused; people eat pigs, not the other way around.

It all started when we started moving piglets out of the main piggie palace into the tiller tractors.  We moved the mama sow up into the top pen, then closed up the gates to the top pen, and the “no mans land” pen in the middle.  We then proceeded to move piglets out. As I was handing one of the little pigs over the fence, Taya and the twins were standing there waving their arms and shouting something.  I couldn’t hear a thing over the squeals, but they were pointing behind me with panicked looks on their faces.  I slung the piglet over the fence into the movable corral and looked behind me.  Mama sow was trying to get over the lower fence to me, I guess to “save” her piglet.  I got out of there. Fast.

Once things were calmed down a bit, they told me what all the shouting and waving was about.  Apparently the ear-splitting squeals of the piglet got the 300 pound sow’s attention, and she cleared the fence “like a deer” according to the twins.  They were trying to get me to hurry up before the sow got into the pen with me.  I have NEVER seen, nor heard of a pig that could jump like that.  This had me a little worried.  She was a good mama, very protective, hadn’t laid on top of any of her piglets.  We had hoped to keep her and raise another litter out of her,  but a jumping pig was a problem.  We decided to double the height of the fence, and see if she calmed down a bit.  We added a second layer, reinforced with some additional wire and fencing and hoped for the best.  But every time I came near her pen, she tried to go after me.  We couldn’t keep her.

So, we waited for a somewhat cool day, and got ready.  Since this would be for our family’s consumption, we would forgo a trip to the butcher, and do it ourselves.  We have had plenty of practice, so we hoped we could have the slaughtering and quartering done by early afternoon before it got too warm.  We started out nice and early; about 5:30.  First step is always to sharpen the knives.  I use 4 knives (and 1 cleaver) to do every part from start to finish.  Sticking knife, skinning knife, butcher knife and boning knife.  I use a little $5 sharpener from Lowes to keep a razor edge on all of the blades.  A dull knife is a dangerous knife.As soon as the sun was up enough to see, we did the deed.  I use a .22 LR to “stun” the pig, making sure to aim just off center of the “X” drawn from ear to eye.  This book describes the “X”, and is an excellent guide for slaughter and butcher of just about any animal.  I got it several years ago, and used it the very first time I ever butchered a pig; open on the hood of my truck as I went along – highly recommended.

After stunning, you have to “stick” the pig.  Basically you need to open a large blood vessel, causing major blood loss.  This; not the shot, is what actually kills the pig.  The old timers used to stick them thru the side, into the heart.  I’ve heard of people getting kicked or stabbed when attempting to stick them in the heart.  I prefer the neck, it’s just as effective, and less risky.

After the shooting and sticking, we cut 2 small slits in the rear “hocks” of the pig, where the big tendon is, and looped a piece of rope thru each one.  Tie a good tight, non-slipping knot in it, and loop them over whatever you’re going to hoist it up with.  We borrowed our neighbor’s tractor that has a lift on it, as my tractor won’t start right now (never ending to-do list…).  It was quite simple to lift the carcass up and over the fence, and haul it over to the slaughtering area.  Now it was time for the first washdown.

Cleanliness is THE top priority when you’re processing meat.  Any sort of contamination can spoil the flavor, and even worse – introduce bacteria and make everyone sick.  Wash your hands often.  I wear an apron once I get started cutting, and will usually wear nitrile gloves – I was out, so I made sure I kept my hands super clean.

After the first washdown, the next step is skinning.  If you’ve ever processed a deer, or a goat, or a cow; this part will be pretty familiar to you, although pigs have a pretty good layer of fat just under the skin.  You want to try and preserve as much of this as possible, to render down into lard.  Skinning usually takes at least an hour; you start at the rear legs, cut all the way around, then make a V-shaped cut towards the center, then draw a line down the belly, all the way to the head.  You only cut thru the skin, don’t cut into the meat.  This is where the skinning knife comes in handy, it’s curved so you can work your way under the skin without cutting the meat.

As you skin, you work your way from side to side, pulling the hide down over the carcass.  You want to keep your knife absolutely razor sharp, as well as clean.  If you get bristles (hair) into the meat you want to wash it off with clean water right away.  It’s fairly easy to do a good job if you go slow.  I learned long ago, if you hurry, you end up with bristles in the meat, and a big gash on your finger.  Band-aids aren’t a bad idea to keep on hand if you’ve never done this before.

Once you’ve got the carcass skinned up to the spot where you “stuck” the pig, I remove the head.  Take your big butcher knife, and cut thru the flesh all the way around, all the way to the spine.  You can then either use a saw on the spine, or just twist it off.  Both methods are equally as easy and effective.  At this point I handed the skinning knife off to Ian, and had him skin the head.  We always save the cheek meat for bacon, and the ears for the dog.  You can use the entire head if you like, but we were on a tight schedule, so we only skinned enough of the head to cleanly remove the cheek meat.

The next part was to gut the carcass.  It’s very much like gutting most other 4-legged animals.  If it’s a male, you have to cut around, and remove any of the genitals, and then cut around the anus or “bung”.  You want to be careful you don’t puncture any of the intestines, as this will contaminate the meat.  Carefully open the belly, then when you have enough space to stick your fingers inside, put the back of your hand up against the innards, push them inward, and slide the knife between your palm, and the inside of the skin on the belly.  You can then kind of “zip” your knife down, carefully and slowly without any risk of puncturing the entrails.  Go all the way to the breastbone.  Here is where I use the cleaver – to cut open the breastbone.  You can gently chip it, or use something to “baton” the blade thru the bone.  At this point, take a clean piece of string or baling twine, and tie it tightly around the anus, on the inside of the body.  Have a barrel, or tarp or something ready to catch the entrails.  You can then cut the rest of the way around the anus freeing it from the carcass.  This will allow you to pull the entrails free; but be careful – there’s some good parts in there you don’t want to throw out.  Liver, kidneys, pancreas are all edible.  In fact I think they’re delicious.  Be careful with the liver – don’t split the little green bile sac.  Cut carefully around it and get rid of it.  It’s extremely bitter.  Put all the organ meats in a big bowl with some cool water, and set it aside for a bit.  Once you have all the entrails removed, you can then cut thru the diaphram and expose the lungs and heart.  Some folks like the lungs or “lights”; I’m not really a fan, so they go into the bucket.  The heart is another really good organ meat.  Add it to the bowl of cold water, and take it inside for processing.  You can make scrapple, or whatever you like from these delicacies.

Cut out the windpipe, and any of the remaining large blood vessels, and now you’re ready to split the carcass into 2 pieces.  I’ve tried several different methods for this, the way I’ve decided works the best for me is to use a reciprocating saw (like a sawzall).  In the past I’ve used a manual meat saw; until I almost removed the tip of my thumb with the saw.  I’ve also attempted to use a cleaver to split the carcass.  That was an exercise in futility.  What I have worked out is this.  You use your butcher knife to cut thru the fat, and the meat, directly along the spine.  Cut right down to the bone, both on the back, and inside the carcass.  You don’t want to use a saw on meat – it tears it up and makes a mess.  Plus, by starting a line with the knife, you have a guideline to follow with the sawzall.  If you get too far off to the side, you mess up the tenderloin.  Put a large toothed blade in your saw, and start cutting.  Do your best to stay on the line you made with your knife.  When you’re done you should have 2 halves, each swinging from their own piece of rope.

It’s time for another good washdown.  You’re going to have a lot of bits of bone from the cutting that you want to make sure and get rid of.  I take my time and do a good job, I really hate enjoying a nice pork chop and getting a tiny bit of bone in there.  Use your fingers to rub the bone bits loose, or use a clean brush if you have one.  Flush it out with plenty of water.

The next part is going to take some muscle power, so have a couple of strong backs around.  Make sure you have a clean shirt/apron, whatever.  Grab a hold of the half that’s hanging, and have someone else cut the rope that is holding it up.  DON’T DROP IT.  You’re going to have 100 pounds or more come down very quickly, so be ready.

The next step in the process is quartering.  This is an important step to learn if you’re going to make pretty cuts of pork.  Until I watched the farmstead meatsmith video called On The Anatomy of Thrift, I was horrible at quartering a pig.  I had some really awful looking cuts of meat.  They tasted fine, they just looked, well… butchered.  I usually watch the video each and every time I butcher – I pick up something new each time, plus I just enjoy watching it.  We have a nice stainless steel table that we use to cut the pig into quarters.  You can use any flat surface, just so long as it’s sturdy and clean.  After quartering the first half, and getting the quarters into coolers with ice, do the second half.  There – now the race against the clock is not so urgent.  You can move inside at this point, you don’t have to worry so much about the heat.

While all of the slaughtering is going on outside, the ladies are inside preparing for us to bring in the quarters.  The kitchen is set up into different stations – boning, grinding, mixing, packaging.  Recipes are written up on the chalkboard.  Everyone settles into their job, and the work goes very quickly.  We make a lot of ground pork and sausage from each pig.  Normally we’ll grind 1 ham and 1 shoulder, along with the trim from the cuts. 

While the process gets started inside, there’s still some cleanup to do outside.  The hide and the entrails need to be taken care of.  We normally bury them deep in the compost pile.  They’ll break down fairly quickly, and won’t smell, as long as they’re buried deep enough.  The table and tractor needs a good washing.  The knives need cleaning and another sharpening.  Then it’s time to move inside and help with the butchery.

Bone bucket

I’m no expert butcher, but I can make fairly recognizable cuts of meat now.  Some of my first attempts were packages labeled “Roast??” and “I think these are chops”, and the nice generic “Meat”.  You can tell my chops are chops, tenderloins, ribs, and the best part……. BACON.   More on that later.  We use every scrap of meat, save the bones for stock, and try not to waste anything.  Lard gets bagged up and frozen, to be rendered later.  We’ve gotten very efficient at breaking down a pig, and this time set a record – everything in the freezer in about 4 hours.

Lovely lard

One of the last steps in putting up a pig, is to make the bacon.  Taya mixes up the cure, once I let her know how much belly and cheek meat there is.  Then I slather the cure on the pieces of meat, and tuck it away in cold storage for the next week.  Once the cure has had 7 days to work it’s magic, it’s time to soak the bacon.  This equalizes the salt levels, and washes off the excess cure.  It gets a soak in clean water for 24 hours.  Then another 24 hours drying time to allow a pellicle to form, so that the smoke will take.  Then the fire is lit, and the smoking process  begins.

Depending on how smokey you like your bacon, you can smoke it from 30 minutes to overnight.  We like it somewhere in between there.  Usually 2 hours is about perfect.  You want a very low, smokey fire, otherwise you’ll cook your bacon.  It’s still edible, but it’s kinda tough.

After smoking, there’s the all-important sampling step.  Before you package it up to put into the freezer, of course you have to try it.  Since there’s always some ugly pieces that need to be trimmed before packing, it’s your duty to cut them up and deposit them in a hot cast iron skillet.  Then of course they should promptly go straight into your mouth.  Painful, but delicious.  Now it’s safe to pack the bacon up into bags and freeze it.

There you have it.  From the pen, to the pan.  One pig.  Yes, she was a good pig; a great mama.  We’re a little sad that we couldn’t keep her for another year to allow her to have another littler of piglets, but she was just too aggressive, and aggressive animals aren’t gonna be allowed to stay around here.  We’re hopeful that one of her gilts will be as good a mother as she was, but not be so aggressive.  I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this little journey with us, and you’ve learned something from it.

Until next time…..

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Reviving an old camper – part 1

April 8, 2015 11 comments


A while back I mentioned that we had bought an old camper and were in the process of “refurbishing” it.  We had taken the proceeds from selling our old conversion van that was too small for our family, and was able to buy this 24 foot camper.  Great deal – only $700!  Well, 4 months and many hours later, we’re still refurbishing.  Or maybe more like rebuilding.  We realized that it needed a little work when we bought it – the floor had a soft spot near the back, and there was a place in the ceiling that looked like it had gotten wet.  Not a big deal – a few patches, some new plywood here and there, a little silicone caulk to stop the leaks.  Little did we know……

When we got it home we parked it for a day or two.  Taya and the twins went out one day and looked it over a little closer.   She texted me this picture while I was at work.  <groan> I realized that the floor in the bathroom was completely rotted thru to the tin underneath.

Again – probably not too big a deal, just rip up and replace the rotten plywood, and patch together the joists if need be.  Maybe a little more work than we originally thought, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and it shouldn’t be super expensive to repair.

She sent me another text – “We want to start ripping out the ceiling where it looks like it was leaking – that OK?“.  I sent her back “Go for it“.  Little did we know what was to be found……

About 30 minutes later I got this picture with another text “Doesn’t look good lot of rot“.  I realized at this point that this was a bigger project than I thought at first.  But hey; we’re a big family, when we pitch in together we can accomplish a LOT.  Another text came thru “Floor under kitchen area really bad“.  I was starting to get a little depressed.  Did we get taken?  Did we waste our money?  Was this something we even wanted to fool with?  Should I just haul this thing off for scrap metal and try and recoup some of the loss?  <sigh>

Another text….. More bad news? “Is it ok if we tear the kitchen out – pretty bad under there“.  I texted back “Hold off until lunch so I can look“.  I really didn’t want to see the damage, but it would at least give me an hour or 2 to think about what to do.  At lunch time we talked.  Taya said she was worried that I would think this was too big a project for us, and want to haul it off for scrap.  But our family has done lots of crazy projects together – this would be another chance to work together and accomplish something else “impossible”.  Guess it’s true that after you’ve been married long enough you can start reading each others minds <grin>.  And she’s a huge encouragement when faced with these projects that seem to take on a life of their own.

We figured we needed to gut the whole interior, as we weren’t even sure what worked, and what didn’t.  This would allow us to revamp everything inside to fit our needs, not try and cram us all into a floor plan meant for half the people.  Yikes… I’ve never gutted a camper before.  Houses, yes…. Barns, yep….  Campers, not even sure how they’re put together.  “I guess that’s the best way to go…..”

For the next couple days, I would get the occasional text with pictures attached as she and the twins wreaked destruction within the walls of the camper:

“Wow this been wet a long time”

“Ian really likes demolition”

After tearing out the ceilings, walls, kitchen, bathroom, bunks – basically everything down the the studs and metal skin; it looked like a tin can with rotten wood holding it up on the inside.  So this is how a camper is put together….wow.  Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of this step, but you can try and imagine it.  Kinda depressing.  The next part to tackle was the floor.  As part of the cleanup of the demolition, Taya mentioned “I swept up some sawdust that used to be the floor”.  Yep – the floor in the bathroom was so rotten it could be removed with a broom.  I started poking around, and found the floor joists were rotten, as well as the plywood.  We needed to start at the base and work our way up.

Lots of prying, removing old flooring and rotten plywood, down to the joists.  The older boys and I pulled up the old fiberglass and bagged it up.  Next we pulled up the joists.  Since we needed a place to stand while we worked, we only tore up a section at a time, then replaced and moved to the next.  We laid new pressure-treated 2×4’s for floor joists; careful to place them on the metal supports of the frame and screwed them together.  In between the joists we stuffed Rock Wool insulation; since it doesn’t absorb moisture.  On top of that we screwed down 3/4″ tongue and groove OSB.  We didn’t bother gluing it down, as this is going to be a stationary trailer; after it’s initial voyage to our future farm.  I did manage to squeeze in 1 blurry picture of the first section of flooring we got laid down.

You can see the metal skin of the camper behind the old fiberglass there.  The foil on the left and right sides is the insulation that is over the wheel wells of the camper.  The one on the right side flopped around a lot, we found that the framework of the wall was so rotten that there was almost nothing holding the wheel well in.  You see the light shining thru at the top of the picture, just right of center?  That’s where the metal skin was pulling away from the wood, because it was so rotten there was nothing for the screws to grab anymore.  We had a lot of repair work ahead of us.

After a few weekends, we got all the flooring replaced.  Altogether it took 5 sheets of OSB, 24 8 foot treated 2×4’s, 2-3 packs of Rock Wool insulation and a couple boxes of screws.  I no longer had to worry about ending up in the grass when I walked. I could jump up and down on the floor and it didn’t move a bit, not even a squeak – I weigh just shy of 240#, so it’s plenty sturdy.

Now that we had a stable floor to work on, we could begin work on the framework for the walls.  This was the part that had me a little worried.  If I took out too much, or the wrong piece of framework I was afraid that the whole thing would come crashing down on us.  So I studied a few more online sites, and watched a couple more YouTube videos.  It didn’t look as hard as I was making it out to be, so I grabbed the sawzall and started cutting.  Turns out the large majority of the wood was so rotten that it just crumbled to dust in my hand.  Wow…  Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of this work; but basically it went like this – cut a rotten piece out, find something solid to attach a new piece to, and repeat.  I used an air-nailer to tack the pieces in place, then ran screws in for more structural support.  Some areas were much worse than others, but I checked each and every piece of wood for soundness with my pocket knife.  If the point sunk in more than the tiniest bit, it got replaced.  Instead of buying 2×2’s I saved about $1 per board by buying 2×4’s and ripping them down on the table saw.  I lost track of how many boards we actually replaced, but after about 4 weekends, we got all of the walls done.

After doing the walls, we moved on to the roof rafters.  Since most of the water damage appeared to be from a leaky roof, about 1/3 of the rafters needed to be replaced.  Because of the bow of the roof, I couldn’t just stick a 2×4 up in there, each rafter had to be cut and contoured with a jig saw.  I had 1 rafter that I was able to pull out in mostly one piece, so I used it as a guide to make a template out of new wood.  We replaced about 7 or 8 rafters this way.  They slipped into place, then I would tack them with the air-nailer and then put a couple screws in for support.  We got all the rafters done in 1 day.

The whole time we were working on the floor, walls and ceiling we kept the camper covered with a giant tarp.  I knew there were some pretty good leaks in the roof, so this was the next problem to tackle.  The majority of the time we’d been working on the camper, the weather had been pretty cold.  Now it was beginning to warm up, so we should be able to seal the roof.  We were blessed with a nice 70 degree day, and no rain for 2-3 days.  I picked up a 5 gallon bucket of the silver tinted (heat reflective) tar, and Taya climbed the ladder and started rolling it on the roof.  She covered almost the whole thing, then I put a second coat on.  That stuff sticks to everything it gets near – hands, clothes, hair, the ground…  and it eats thru rubber gloves too.  Taya found that out by personal experience – gloves are not gonna be much good if you’re trying to keep your hands clean.  It does wash off with paint thinner and elbow grease though.

After a few days of drying, it was time for the big test.  The weather forecast was calling for rain.  Would it leak?  Would all of our hard work get all wet?  It didn’t leak.  Not a drop.  Just for good measure, it rained for 3 days, but inside was as dry as can be.  Ok – time to start putting up some walls….

Taya and I went on a date to the hardware store (I’m so romantic) and started looking at different materials for the walls and ceiling.  We narrowed it down to 3 choices – paneling, shower wallboard, and drywall.  We talked about plywood, but for the walls it would be super expensive – 1 sheet of luan plywood was around $30.  The paneling was around $10 a sheet, but it was dark, and very 1970’s looking – plus it’s flammable.  The shower wallboard was a better option – it had a bright white shiny finish, and was about $13 a sheet.  But it too was flammable.  That brought us to – drywall; fire resistant, we can paint it easily – but kind of a weird choice for a camper, as it’s pretty heavy.  But again, this camper was only going to make 1 voyage, and then be parked.  So drywall it was.

We picked up fiberglass, drywall and 10 pounds of screws, and got to work.  The twins traded off helping me hang the walls, I only got a picture of Ian helping – Austin really did help.  The side walls went up fairly quickly, with some cuts for windows and the wheel wells.  The end walls were a little more difficult because of the weird angles, but we were able to piece them together.


The older boys have spent several days spackling and sanding while I’m at work, and then we would hang some new drywall.  We have about 1/3 of the ceiling hung at this point (sorry no photos yet), and should have it finished in a couple days. After finishing the ceiling we’ll finally have a space we can figure out how to lay out the bunks, the composting toilet and the kitchen.  We saved the old sink from the demolition, and my Mom gave us the propane stove from their old camper.

I’ll post another update when we have more work completed, and let y’all know how things turn out.  Thanks for hanging in there thru this kind of long post.  I’ll have a wrap-up of materials we used, and a final cost in a future post.

Until next time……

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Happy 1st anniversary of Elijah’s birth

April 6, 2015 Leave a comment

We celebrated 1 year of life with Elijah this past Friday, after our Passover Seder.

Ian made him a delicious unleavened duck cake, that he thoroughly enjoyed (as did all of us).

Until next time…..

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As slippery as a greased pig…..

April 6, 2015 2 comments

A traditional entertainment at British country festivals and festivals was to release a greased pig (normally a fairly small piglet) for everyone to try and catch. The winner got to keep the pig, which was of course a seriously valuable prize for a farm labourer. Excited pigs move much faster than you might think, and a greased one is very hard indeed to catch.  Ok, why on earth would we be greasing pigs?  We have enough to do around here, besides trying to catch slippery porkers.

Well, as it turns out there is a very good reason for greasing a pig: Hog Lice.  We bought a new piglet this past weekend so that we can have fresh breeding stock.  (We chose to butcher our boar last fall, as we didn’t want a 400 pound whole male around, plus he would be another mouth to feed).  We found a nice Duroc/Berkshire-cross male for $70 on craigslist, and Austin and I picked him up.  He and his siblings looked nice and healthy, as did his Mama, and his Dad was a HUGE boar.  All in all everything looked great.

We didn’t notice the infestation when we loaded him into the truck, but once we got him home and moved him into temporary quarters for a short isolation period, Taya said – “Are those ticks?”.  All over his belly, near his hindquarters were bugs that looked sorta like ticks, but they moved around too much.  A Startpage image search told us it was hog lice, and a couple more quick searches led us to an old-timer’s remedy – oil.  If you grease the pig, the oil is supposed to smother the lice.  Apparently some folks used old motor oil, but that doesn’t seem like something we want to put on our food.  So we wrangled up some Olive pomace oil that Taya uses for her Castille soap, and I got the job of smearing it all over him.  He did NOT care one bit for it, his main complaint being flipped upside down to reach his belly.  All the squealing got the other pigs in the pig tractor worked up, so Austin had to keep them busy until I was finished.  He was one slippery little critter when I got done.  After the first application, we put him in isolation for 24 hours to make sure nothing else cropped up.

The next day, all the lice were GONE!  Once again, those old-time remedies work like a charm.  We of course reapplied the oil for good measure (more ear-piercing squeals), and will apply again in about 14 days, just in case any “nits” survived the dousing and hatch out.

So, this was a learning experience all around – inspect your piglets for lice; use oil if you find them, and now we all know where the saying “As slippery as a greased pig” gets it’s origins!

Until next time…..

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