Butchering, Part 2: Killing & Dressing Cattle

Figure 1.  Tools for farm slaughtering:  Ax, saw, steel, sticking knife, skinning knife, hog gambrel, hog hook, corn knife, pritch.

Tools Needed

Where much meat is prepared for use on the farm it will be best to provide such tools as are necessary for the rapid prosecution of the work. A 7-inch curved skinning knife at, an 8-inch straight sticking knife, a 14-inch steel, a 28-inch meat saw, a candlestick scraper, and an ax are all of the tools really essential to rapid dressing (fig. 1). Some means of raising the carcasses of beef from the ground or floor and a place to hang the lighter animals should also be provided. What these arrangements shall be depends largely on the amount of work to be done and the circumstances. A block and tackle with 6-inch pulleys (fig. 10) will answer the purpose very well where they may be had and a suitable place is at hand for suspending them. In its absence various appliances may be used, some of which are suggested by accompanying illustrations.

Killing the Animal

Figure 2. Method of securing to stun. Red lines mark the place for striking.

The first step in killing and dressing a beef is to secure the animal so that it can not get away under any emergency. For this purpose a rope three-fourths of an inch in diameter should be used. Put a slip noose in one end with a knot just far enough from the noose to prevent choking when drawn tight. It should at the same time allow the noose to draw tight enough so that there will be no danger of escape if the rope becomes slack. If the beast has horns pass the noose over the head back of the ear and horn on the right side but in front of the horn on the left side of the head. This leaves the face bare and does not draw tightly on the throat. Where a dehorned or polled beast is to be secured the noose must be adjusted around the neck. Attach an ordinary hayfork pulley to a post, close to the ground, or to the barn floor or sill. Pass the rope through it and draw the animal’s head down as close as possible. Stun completely by a heavy blow in the center of the forehead at the point where lines drawn from the eye on either side to the base of the horn on the opposite side would intersect (fig. 2).

Shooting has the same effect as stunning, and where deemed best may be resorted to.  Some danger attends the use of a rifle about farm buildings, however, and the use of an ax is advisable where the animal can be caught.


Figure 3. Place to stick and manner of sticking.
Figure 4. Skinning the face, illustrating th emanner of starting to skin.

Bleed by sticking the animal just in front of the sternum, or breastbone. To do this properly requires practice and close observation (fig. 3). Stand in front of the neck of the animal with the back toward the body. Place one foot against the jaw and with the other hold back the front legs. Reaching down between the feet, lay open the skin from breastbone toward the chin for a distance of 10 or 12 inches, using the ordinary skinning knife. Insert the knife with the back against the breastbone and the tip pointed directly toward the spinal column at the top of the shoulders, cutting just under the windpipe, and about 5 to 6 inches in depth. The vein and artery cross just at this point, and if they are severed the blood will flow out very rapidly. When the vein has been cut below the wind-pipe, run the knife in on top of it and sever the blood vessels on that side also. If stuck too deep the pleura will be punctured and blood will flow into the chest cavity, causing a bloody carcass. This should be avoided.

Figure 5. Removing the head.

While an animal will bleed out if only one side is cut, it will bleed more quickly and the blood will be more nearly siphoned out if both sides are opened. A little practice is needed to become expert in “sticking” a beef, but, once learned, the art is never forgotten. Not so much skill is required simply to cut the animal’s throat back of the jaws, but it is at the expense of quick bleeding.

Skinning and Gutting

Figure 6. Showing the manner of unjointing the fore leg and skinning the shank.

Begin skinning as the carcass lies on its side by splitting the skin through the face from poll to nose back over the eyes both sides and down over the cheeks. Cut around the base of the horns leaving the ears on the hide. Split the skin from the chin down the throat to meet the incision made in bleeding. Start the skin in slightly on the sides of the neck and down to the jaws.

Figure 7. Unjointing the hind leg.

Remove the head by cutting from just back of the jaws toward the depression back of the poll (fig. 5). The atlas joint will be found at this point, and may easily be unjointed with the knife. The carcass should then be rolled on its back and held by a small stick 3 feet long, with a sharp spike in each end, one end being inserted in the brisket and the other in the floor. Split the skin over the back of the fore legs from between the dew claws to a point 3 or 4 inches above the knee. Skin around the knee and shin, unjointing the knee at the lowest articulation and skin clear down to the hoof. The brisket and forearms should not be skinned until the carcass is hung up. Cut across the cord over the hind shin to relax the foot. Split the skin from the dew claws to the hock and up over the rear part of the thigh to a point 4 to 6 inches back of the cod or udder. Skin the hock and shin, removing the leg at the lowest joint of the hock (fig. 7). In splitting the skin over the thigh the knife should be turned down flat with the edge pointed out- ward to avoid gash- While the hind leg is stretched ahead it is well to skin down over the rear of the lower thigh, but no attempt should be made to skin the outside of the thigh until the hind quarters are raised. After the legs are all skinned split the skin over the mid line from breast to rectum.

Figure 8. “Siding down”., knife held flat against the tightly stretched skin.

Begin at the flanks and skin along the mid line until the side is nicely started. Then, with a sharp knife held nearly flat against the surface and the hide stretched tightly, remove the skin down over the sides with steady downward strokes of the knife (fig. 8). It is important that the skin be stretched tight, with no wrinkles in it. Care should be taken to leave the covering of muscle over the abdomen on the carcass. Its presence on the hide is not entirely objectionable, but a carcass looks much better and keeps better with it on. In “siding” a beef it is customary to go down nearly to the backbone, leaving the skin attached at the thighs and at the shoulders; skin over the buttock and as far down on the rump as possible. Care should be taken at all times to avoid cutting into the flesh or tearing the membrane covering it. If the meat is to be kept fresh for any length of time mold will form in such places and will be hard to clean off. A coarse cloth and a pail of hot water should be at hand while skinning, and all blood spots should be wiped from the surface. The cloth should be wrung nearly dry for this purpose, and the less water used the better.

Figure 9. Beef, ready to raise: breast, forearms, and neck left covered to protect the meat until the carcass is raised.

Open the carcass at the belly with a knife and pull the small intestines out to one side. Open the brisket and pelvis with a saw or sharp ax.  After raising the windpipe and gullet and cutting loose the pleura and diaphragm along the lower part of the cavity, the carcass is ready to raise (figs. 9 and 10).

When raised to a convenient height remove the hide over the thighs, rump, and hips. While in this position loosen the rectum and small intestines and allow them to drop down over the paunch. The “bed fat” lining the pelvis and the kidney fat should not be disturbed nor mutilated.


Figure 10. Raising the carcass. Block and tackle suspended from a tree. Two horse evener used as a gambrel.

The intestines are attached to the liver, from which they may be separated with a knife. The paunch is attached to the back at the left side and may be pressed down upon with sufficient force to tear it loose (fig. 11). Let it roll onto the ground, and cut off or draw out the gullet. Raise the carcass a little higher and take out the liver, first removing the gall bladder. Remove the diaphragm, lungs, and heart, and finish skinning over the shoulders, arms, and neck (fig. 12).

Figure 11. Removing the paunch and intestines.

Sponge all blood and dirt off with the cloth. Split the carcass into halves with a saw, if one can be had; if not, use a cleaver or a sharp ax. Wash out the inside of the chest cavity and wipe it dry. Trim off all bloody veins and scraggy pieces of the neck and leave the beef to cool before cutting into quarters (fig. 13).

Dressing Veal

Veal for home use should be dressed in a manner similar to beef, except that more of the work should be done with the body hung up. The calf should be skinned while warm and the entrails removed, the pelvis and sternum being split as for beef. The calf should be over 6 weeks old, and will make better veal if allowed to run with the mother. The fat in the carcass should be abundant, white, and brittle.


Treatment of Hides

Figure 12. Skinning shoulders and forearms.
Figure 13. Beef raised out of the way of animals to cool.
Figure 13. Beef raised out of the way of animals to cool.

The skins of cattle represent considerable value if properly saved. To save them is an easy matter during the cold season in the North, as they may be rolled up and kept frozen until disposed of. In the South and in warm seasons, however, they should be spread out flat, hair side down, the legs, flanks, etc., stretched and all parts rubbed thoroughly with common salt. Particular pains should be taken to reach all surfaces of the skin. If more than one skin is to be salted they should be spread one on top of the other, and salted as spread, with the hair side down. Where only one hide is to be handled the legs and head should be folded in and the hide rolled up as soon as salted. Enough salt should be used to cure the hide thoroughly if it is to be kept for any length of time. Ten to 12 pounds of salt will be sufficient for an ordinary hide.

Source:  U.S.D.A., 1903

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