This article discusses the slaughtering and butchering of livestock.
The images below may not be appropriate for all audiences.
On principle I firmly believe that as a homesteader and farmer I need to know how to manage my livestock from beginning to end. When my chickens reach the end of their egg-laying life it only makes sense to me that those birds become dinner for my family. They’re not pets and they’re worth a lot more to me in the freezer then the few bucks I might make from the sale of an old ratty chicken. In all truth, those tough old hens have made some fine meals that have sustained my household through some tight financial times. I’ve come to rely on them for a source of meat.
When my partner Paul came to Runamuk he brought with him a small group of meat rabbits: a buck and 3 does. Rabbits are new to me and we’re still working to perfect our systems for them. The concept is to house them in rabbit-tractors on pasture so provide the rabbits with a quality lifestyle, and in return we get their super-charged bunny-poop to fertilize and improve the soil, as well as the potential for meat to sustain our household. We haven’t successfully raised a litter yet for the freezer, but I want to know how to butcher them so that when the time comes I’ll be prepared.
As the summer winds down and we move into fall, many farmers are thinking about culling and thinning their flocks and herds. I have about a dozen older birds at Runamuk to process and get into the freezer before the move. At Hide & Go Peep Sonia had extra male bunnies that she did not need and did not want to continue feeding all winter; I had previously asked about the possibility of a tutorial so she seized the opportunity for this skill-sharing workshop and I made sure to clear my schedule.
So I took myself off to Hide & Go Peep with the knives and whetstones I have designated for processing critters, wearing grubby farm clothes that I did not care about getting blood and gore on. I met another of my market peeps at Sonia’s, along with one of our regular patrons of the Madison Farmers’ Market who had brought her son and a couple others who were interested in learning skills for a more sustainable living.
Setting Up a Work-Space
We started off by helping Sonia to prep the staging area, cleaning out a shed so that we could skin and gut the rabbits out of the sun. We sanitized all tables, equipment and knives to be used in the processing, sharpened knives and organized the space.
When everything was ready Sonia asked the group to suspend all conversation to avoid spooking and frightening the rabbit designated to be the “demo-dude”. Like most small organic farmers, Sonia strives to give her livestock the best possible life she can, she forms relationships with her critters, grows attached to them, and though we accept the fact that this is a necessary part of life and farming, it’s never an easy part and she wants their ending of life to be quick and humane.
Killing the Rabbit
Here’s where it gets tough.
Sonia cuddles the rabbit for a few moments, connecting with and calming the creature one last time. When she’s ready she crouches over the rabbit, using her knees and thighs to hold him in place since rabbits have strong hind legs and will kick and scratch. Then the rabbit is knocked unconscious using a hammer or other such blunt object. You could use a .22 gun if you had one. Immediately the rabbit’s throat is slit so that it bleeds out. Sonia recommends holding the rabbit in place until the final spasms and twitches are finished and the rabbit goes limp; this helps to keep the pelt clean and prevents bruising the meat or yourself.
Skin the Carcass
There are different ways to process rabbits. Sonia ties a slip knot at the ankles of the rabbit’s hind legs and suspends it for skinning.
To skin the rabbit we first cut through the skin all the way around the 4 ankles. Then cut a “V” along the inside of the rabbits’ hind legs with the center of the V meeting in the space between the anus and the tail. You have to work the hide away from the body using your hands. There’s a strong inclination for those new to skinning (like me) to want to use the knife to cut the skin away, but rabbits actually skin very easily just by using your fingers and hands to separate the hide from the carcass.
I was instructed to loosen the skin around the legs and tail then to cut that strip of hide between the anus and the tail. After that it’s very easy to pull the skin down over the body of the rabbit. It took quite a bit of muscle however to pull the skin off over the paws at the other end.
Remove the Innards
Once the skin was off we used sharp pruning shears to cut off the 4 feet and gutted the rabbit, which was easier than gutting a chicken (in my opinion) and reminded me very much of gutting a fish. You simply slice through the skin from sternum to crotch and scoop the insides out. Removing the anus was a little tricky and involved loosening the membranes around the bowels inside the pelvic bone.
Apparently mammals differ from poultry in that there’s a distinct separation of the respiratory system from the digestive system by the diaphragm, so you have to pierce through that muscle lining to remove the lungs and heart.
Get it on Ice
Once the rabbit was skinned and gutted it was rinsed clean, bagged and put into the cooler to chill. Sonia stressed to our group that while we took our time with these rabbits, normally when she’s processing for customers she’s careful to keep all things clean, sanitize all surfaces, knives and equipment after each critter is processed, and she works quickly to get each carcass into the cooler as quickly as possible. These kinds of practices prevent contamination and ensures that bacteria does not have a chance to take hold in the meat so that no one gets sick.
It’s a Process
I admit I didn’t actually do the killing of any rabbits on this day. It’s not easy to take a life, even for most farmers and homesteaders. I had hoped I would be prepared to do the deed, but in the end I opted to watch, which was still difficult. I did however skin and gut a rabbit, so I’ve seen and experienced the entire process. I know now how it’s done and I’m confident that when the time comes I’ll be able to do it on my own.
These kinds of skillshare opportunities are a fantastic way for those who want to learn to connect with those who have the knowledge and experience to share. Sonia was gracious enough to invite a group of wannabes over to share with us what she has learned since she began keeping rabbis 5 years ago, and even sent us all home with a rabbit for dinner because she just did not need the meat.
Getting to know your local farmers is a great way to make friends and open the door to new and exciting opportunities. If you are a new or wannabe-homesteader or farmer, one of the best things you can do to increase your knowledge base is to get to know other homesteaders and farmers, ask questions and participate in the opportunities presented. Before you know it you’ll be up to your eyeballs in tomatoes to can, chickens to process for the freezer, and you’ll be throwing around terms like GMO and CSA like a pro!
There are more stories to come, so stay tuned folks!