Thursday, 29 August 2013

Our first cow in the freezer... step by step

Finally as promised. Now I do feel the need to warn you that this entry contains photos and information upon slaughtering and butchering of an animal. We do not want to offend anyone, but this is a blog about smallholding/ hobby farming and we do document all aspects of our experience.

It has actually been a couple of weeks since the decision was made (well opportunity came up) to finally put one of our cows in the freezer.

If we’re honest this process doesn’t get any easier- no matter how big the beast. But that’s as we care for, and build a relationship with these animals. But we do this as a means of being responsible meat eaters. So when we were offered an opportunity to have an experienced hand, walk us through the process… we would have been crazy to turn it down!

We had been making preparations for one of our girls to fulfil her purpose, and relatively soon. As we wanted to do this as the dry season is coming into full swing (and our paddock begins to look depleted). But we had even purchased and began rearing their replacement. However this date kept being put off…and ‘sometime’ continued to move further and further away. To be honest, even though we have culled and butchered our own poultry and pigs, so far and read the books, but a cow just seemed a little daunting still. Guess it’s a large animal and investment (and a life) if it got too hard and a mobile butcher could be costly. Though still probably cheaper than buying beef, guess most people do not usually buy all their beef cuts at once.

So boys had hatched a plan of action; organising a truck, with a sufficient jib to help hoist, use of a cold room large enough to hang a cow… and all for the good Aussie currency of a good feed, provision of beer and few choice cuts.

When we (well I) was asked if I wanted to keep the hide? I instinctively asked if I could (if it wasn’t too much trouble). Though I had no idea what I was going to do with it! This meant extra care would be required whilst skinning, and some work afterwards. But as we hate wasting anything when killing an animal, I felt it was a further opportunity to do our girl justice.
As you may have realised we try and do all our kills and processing on site. This minimises stress to the animal prior to the act itself. Not only do we not only want to stress our animals, as I would have mentioned, despite our plans for them, we still care. But in a production sense, stress in any animal causes the release of adrenaline which affects the quality and taste of the meat. A happy animal provides quality meat, even at the very end.  
Generally in preparation you would pen off the animal. Separately them for dispatch and avoids the others being stressed or encountering materials you would rather them not eat etc. (like meat). Although some may find this separation itself distressing, it is still not as distressing as transport. Where transport is necessary, many will often have practice runs, loading and unloading to desensitise them and reduce the stress, for this reason.

Once penned, you then restrict their food, providing only water for the day or so prior, as this helps when gutting. However in this circumstance she was just separated in the paddock, by the lure of food and taken down with a clean shot and immediately screened (from our other cow) by the truck.

The shot was quick and effective. I have used a diagram from a book we have regularly referenced (Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game, John J. Mettler Jr.) to demonstrate the most effective point.

Following the kill the animal needs to be bled by cutting the throat and pumping the front leg (this will speed up this process). This is to be done immediately, as blood within the carcass may encourage bacteria growth, contaminating the meat, making the kill itself pointless.

It is at this point the voice box was removed and the oesophagus was tied off using twine. This avoids any contamination during gutting, especially as our cow had not been deprived of food.

So once down the cow was positioned on her back and a breeze block (pictured) was used to prevent rolling.

Once bled the front hooves/legs were removed. The removal point is just below the joint, as there is a lot of connective tissue in the joints themselves.

From this point the skin was split up the centre of the beast and udders removed.

Remove a strip of skin from the inner side of the front legs (approx. 1-2 inches/ 25-50mm) from brisket to elbow joint. Then work from head/front legs to back

Extra care is required near the hips and spine side of the ribs, if intending to keep the hide.


Once the chest is exposed it is possible to ‘split the brisket’ ready for ‘eviscerating’ (gutting)

Skinning begins here, as the skin is separated, we began to winch the carcass. This was achieved by inserting a gambrel rail/ spreader bar, at this point you realise how important the connective tissue below the knee/elbow joints are. This lift can be done progressively, as required to assist with the removal of the hide.

 Remove the tail and cut around the anus, pull out and tie off with twine (creating a bung).

Once the carcass is upright and skin removed the next stage is to gut.

Using the technique pictured is essential when gutting, ensuring the blade is pointing outwards avoid nicking anything you shouldn’t.

So starting from the area where the udders were removed make a small incision and work the knife (handle to beast, blade outward), down the middle to the brisket. You will need to support the organs, to ensure there is no contact with the blade. Once there gravity will complete the next stage, especially if the animal was not fasted like ours. Pull gut to floor, remove any remaining organs. Separate any you wish to save, and bag rest that is to be disposed of.

It was at this point we removed the head, although am sure this could have been dealt with earlier.

The carcass was split into half and quarters for hanging. The diagram uses a hand saw, we used a NEW chainsaw. This chain saw was oiled with vegetable oil and this is to be its sole purpose.

Once split down the middle the halves were split again, creating ‘quarters’. To do this we used a knife to separate from the ‘11th rib’ (counting from the front) and used a handsaw to cut the spine.

These were then transferred to a coldroom for hanging. It is vital that the quarters do not touch, as again this can harvest bacterial growth and spoil the meat. Hanging takes place for a week onwards. Ready yo be divided into cuts, sausages and mince.
As for the hide, this is currently drying in our shed (surrounde by rodent traps, for good measure). This involved smothiering the inside with salt, about 75kg in total- probably a little over the top, but didn't want to under do it. As for what we intned to do with it, I guess we'll see. And finding a tannery is proving difficult, so we maybe attempting this one ourselves too. 




Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Plastic free July- review

Well it’s nearly the end of August, in fact there are only 12 days til spring and I haven’t managed to blog my experience for Plastic Free July. You may wonder whether this was because I was unsuccessful, as I agree it was harder than I expected… and I had mixed results.

Anyway for those who do not know what Plastic Free July was, or that I had pleaded to do it.

Plastic Free July was an initiative of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council (WMRC) in Perth, Western Australia, developed by Earth Carers staff in 2011. This simple idea aims to raise awareness of the amount of plastic in our lives.

Now I would say I’m not one to preach, but then anyone reading this blog knows that would not be true! Part of our lifestyle choice here is to live sustainably, not just in the produce respect. And those who know me, understand this is something I have been passionate about since a young child and even impacted on my educational direction.

Though I am the first to admit in our modern lifestyles we quite often make compromises, intentional or otherwise. And part of this lifestyle choice is challenging those choices or habits.

So Plastic free July, sounds simple- Attempt not to consume single use plastics for 31 days… Well I figures a commitment to all plastic sounded daunting, so committed to the ‘TOP 4 challenge’ not to consume straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles and coffee cup lids.  

So how did we go?

So straws and coffee cup lids were not such a big deal. In general I use a travel mug for coffee and it as just a matter of being vigilant when socialising to ensure we were not provide a straw with drinks. Plastic bags and plastic bottles was a little more problematic!

Firstly I admit I was prepared when it came to toiletries; toothpaste, shampoo, hand/body wash etc. I had previously bought in bulk or have refillable dispensers. So whilst we didn’t purchase new bottles, we were still consuming those we had prior. This really is cheating but in buying in bulk we would reduce the amount of waste. There those who use alternatives to these, utilising baking soda, essential oils and other kitchen basics.  

I did attempt to go ‘poo-free’, that is give up shampoo and use these alternatives to reduce my reliance, but I admit I caved! But furthermore, in using these alternatives I found it difficult to buy them without purchasing plastic! Even the glass bottles of the essential oils and cider vinegar we use have plastic lids.

Another bottle issue was milk… I know in some countries and places you can still purchase milk, well even have it delivered from your local dairy in reused glass bottles. Here this was not an option. I did investigate UHT milk in tetra pack cartons, but most of these still had plastic caps. And those that didn’t I felt compromised about our preference to buy local and support regional farmers. So milk bottles are still an occurrence in our house hold, though we have always bought bigger (so less waste) and reuse the bottles for other purposes, such as chicken waterers or watering cans for the garden.  So over the course of July we accumulated and repurposed 4 x 3l bottles.

We also reused a few plastic pop (fizzy drink/ soda) bottles that we had in storage (for homemade ginger beer) to feed our calves. So 2 of these made it to the recycling throughout  July, as the calves absolutely destroyed them! Which os funny as we generally don't buy drinks in plastic containers, as most of our squash/cordial can be bought in glass bottles and pop/fizzy/soda in cans... though this in itself could be considered over packaging. But the use of the bottles for the calves was better than buying an entire plastic product for the job.

Our main ‘failure’ was plastic bags. Now when we were shopping we used reusable bags or elected not to take a plastic bag for smaller quantities. With the one exception of an impromptu grocery shop. So the lesson was learned, carry a small number of foldable bags in my hand bag at all times! Another grocery shopping dilemma was meat. Now we rear a lot of our own meat, but as we are still expanding our operations we still purchase some items such as bacon. So we have a choice purchase form the deli or butcher from unknown sources (or with limited information) that refuse to wrap the items in only paper due to “health & safety” requirements. Or purchase pre-packaged meat identified as “free ranged”… Though even when we produce our own meat, we generally use plastic bags to wrap up the individual cuts for storage, so in this instance our own produce and practices are no better.

Our main bag failure however was animal feed. Though all the products we buy are recyclable or made from recycled materials it is still a consumption we are yet to eliminate. We have approached the suppliers about being able to purchase larger quantities, therefore drastically reducing the packaging. But this is one product we are struggling to eradicate.

So we ‘failed’. We I would tend to agree however I’m not sure that was the purpose of this challenge. It was always going to be a ‘challenge’, so what were the successes?

Well we successfully reduced the quantity of plastic in our general rubbish, as well as that in our recycling.  This challenge forced us to consider our options, and whether this was the only option, generally there are alternatives, or at least one that isn’t as bad. I now regularly carry reusable shopping bags… yes I am turning into my grandparents; I remember they always brought their own ‘strong’ shopping bags in their trolley, when they went to town to do their shopping. But I guess that’s the lesson with this and pretty much our smallholding too. We are trying to do what my grandparent’s generation did as a matter of course.

So what next? Well Plastic free Jul (now a worldwide challenge) will run again next year, But I won’t be waiting til then. And whilst there are those who have successfully made their lives plastic free. I admit we probably won’t be ‘plastic free’ but we can do better. And we will, the success of this campaign has been raising our awareness of those choices we make because it’s easy…
So what about you? What throw-away items in your life could you live without?


Monday, 19 August 2013

Busy weekend... and chicken day

What a busy weekend!

We spent most of Saturday running around, as we managed to acquire some materials that we intend to use in coming weeks for a small cattle shelter. So whilst we had to hire a car trailer to accommodate the lengths, as they would have over hung on ours be a few meters. But that was the only cost as it was free- recycled from an old roof. The main body of the lengths were in fair condition, so we have some work ahead. And we picked up a frame from a friend, that had begun life as his poultry run (mark 1) and that only cost us a few young turkey poults!

Sunday was chicken day. Our Ffion loves chicken day… she’s probably the most enthusiastic! Other than Madog. But as much as we do not relish the process, it is necessary for what we do. So I will not apologise for detailing the processing of our birds, as we blog everything. But for those who are sensitive this post is not for you.

Our roosters have had a reprieve for the past few weeks, as other projects or commitments had not allowed us to get on with the job. However as the Silver Sussex and Plymouth rocks are fully feathered and far too big for the brooder box. And our chick and poult count continues to increase, with the turkeys hatching the odd one here and there, they are also running out of room. So there was nothing for it we needed the run, so that had to go.

We decided to also cull our smaller (picked on and therefore not working) Indian Game rooster. We have always hatched and raised our birds in the knowledge that those roosters who were surplus to requirements, would eventually reach the pot. So in total we killed and processed 6 roosters, the others a cross between our Old English Game cross hen and our previous Indian Game rooster. So not only were these a new cross we were trailing but we actually trying something new this time- plucking (courtesy of some knowledge gained from watching River Cottage Australia).

Now many would assume that plucking is necessary when killing and processing poultry. However as we have found it to be very time consuming in the past we have stuck to skinning (this I have blogged about in the past).  Now it was whilst watching River Cottage Australia a few weeks back that we saw them scald the birds first. We had attempted this in the past, though we think we had the temperature wrong. We had scalded at 64 degrees (same as a pig), but they did theirs at 74… so here is how it went.

So before we begin we set up everything we may (or may not) need.  Our table is washed down and we set up with a bin in close proximity. We each have a sharp knife and poultry scissors, and keep the knife sharpener close to hand. For the scalding we filled our keg with water and set up a gas bottle and fame to heat- bringing to temperature, checking with a thermometer.

We set up a tub filled with water and ice to bring the birds temperature back down before gutting. And finally we set up the stand and ‘killing cones’. These I would have mentioned in previous blogs, but the cones contain the birds whilst the nerves react, reducing stress and mess.

The kill itself is quick, cutting the jugular and allowing the bird to bleed out, before removing the head.  On this occasion I collected the blood for the garden. As I have stated before when we take a life we try and utilise as much as possible. If we hadn’t I am sure the dogs would have made the most of it… though they can get a little messy. And they were too preoccupied with the heads.

If you do want to do this you will have to dilute it with water, not only for the plant but also to stop it drying out in the bucket.

Next was the scald.
Once the water was hot enough we dipped the bird in whilst holding the feet. The bird will try and float, so move it around but be careful not to scald yourself. We held ours under for a count of 45 (15 to ensure it was fully submerged and then count of 30) then remove and transfer to your work area to pluck. You don’t want to leave the bird submerged too long as it could begin to cook. Also be aware once you remove it will drip, which is also hot and the feathers will be a little hot to touch, but shouldn’t burn you.

We were amazed by how affective this method was! And how few feathers we had floating around… this is something that had always bothered us whether we skinned or plucked in the past. Our garden would be covered in feathers. But with this method the wet means they stick to you or the bin!

Following the plucking we submerged each bird in the icy water. Allowing us to begin the process again. We always prefer to gut all our birds at the same time, so have them all prepared for this stage together. This just helps prevent contamination, we wash down our table and tools between each bird and each stage.

So once all our birds were cooling off, having washed down our table again we began (with what we thought were) the first few. To gut we make a small incision below the chest. Just enough to price open with your fingers, before running along the sides with the tip of the blade to create an opening to the cavity. This is to prevent nicking any of the intestines etc. Once you have the opening, you place your hand along the top, and as far back as you can. Then scoop back towards yourself. You are not likely to pull it all out in one go, but gentle and patience are key. Once you released the majority back through the cavity you created leave the intestines etc. attached. As now is the time to follow around the anus and it will all come out together, avoiding any breakages and contaminations. We then remove the heart, kidneys and liver, from the removed organs before disposal.

Back to the bird, you may still need to remove a few other organs, the lungs are generally the most tricky. I run my fingers along the inside of the ribs and find they generally come away. Another is the wind pipe, this I push back through from the neck into the bird, then remove (that’s just my way).
Once all this is taken care of we remove the neck and feet; mostly for presentation, they do make good stock… or in our house dog treats. We used to get requests from a friend who made yum cha for our birds feet. This isn’t a speciality I’m crazy over, but they do get used.
To remove the legs (from the 'hock)- run the knife alond the knuckle (above the scaled leg) then flex forward and back with some force. This will release the knuckle, so you just need to cut the tendons.
And finally the parsons nose (I will have to look up the reason its called that one day). To do this turn your bird breast down. Place the knife at the base of the parsons nose (closest to the body) and slice back towards yourself, it should just come away.  Now rinse the bird, as any blood etc. could encourage the growth of bacteria and therefore spoil all your work (and the bird).Then place in a cool place- ours a ‘butcher container’ in the freezer, till all are done. This allows the flesh to cool completely, much like hanging of larger animals in a cold room.

Once cooled (a couple of hours) we weigh, cling film (wrap) and label each bird; breed, weight and date (for future reference). In hind sight our Old English Game/ Indian Game crosses were not exceptionally successful, as a meat bird anyway; as they were all 1.2- 1.6kg (dressed out), whereas the Indian Game rooster dressed out at 2.54kg. Not that size is everything, but if you’re going to breed, raise and kill to eat, then you get more output per bird and therefore require fewer for the same amount of meat. So not a cross we will continue with. This is something we consider when we are asked ‘is it worth it?’ Not that we want to raise broilers instead but our Indians and Sussex have been far more productive. Not that we regret it, as these birds were the result of our incubating eggs (and roosters are a bi-product) that we have to make a decision about.

Indian Games are easier to raise, as roosters can happily co-exist and prefer to free range, so cost less to raise. Where the Old English crosses were aggressive to all other roosters, but not each other, so required segregation (eventually the cause of their demise).

Otherwise we cooked our Indian game on the bbq Sunday night- the ‘beer can’ method and it was delicious. The beer can method involves placing a can half filled with beer (in a stand) into the cavity, so it ‘stands’ up right and cooks inside and out.

To incubate or not to incubate?

That is the question?

We have mostly incubated any eggs we have hatched, with a few exceptions. And there are pro’s and con’s to both.
Obviously to allow your birds to hatch their own eggs, to begin with you are relying on one or more of your birds being ‘clucky’. As it is we have only ever had one clucky chook and at the time we didn’t even have a rooster. Though we have had, and allowed ducks, turkeys and (at the moment) geese to sit.
We quite often get requests, or see adverts for ‘fertile eggs’ as a person has a clucky hen. I often wonder how they know they are fertile. Or whether it is just that the hens are running with a rooster? Well that’s a different issue.
There are some breed that are renowned for being clucky, others for being good ‘incubators’ and others good mums… but like people, not all birds fit all bills. Whilst to incubate there are outlays and ongoing costs involved; the equipment itself (and there are cheap and expensive versions available) and these require consistent power etc. All of which has to be monitored and calibrated. Something a bird would do naturally.
In our case, we have a basic 60 egg (based on size chicken eggs) counter top model that we turn and monitor the humidity and temperature on. And that’s another issue, the temperature and humidity have to be right and consistent, or it can cause all sorts of problems.  If you incubate you also have to provide housing for them once they hatch, so a brooder box; which is warm, dry and protected… again more power along with food and water.
But an incubator does provide you with control of what is incubated and when. As you can select eggs from combinations and birds of your choice. It also allows you to collect eggs and set them on a given date. But also allowing for your birds to continue laying. For example our ducks will continue to lay in a nest until they have a sufficient clutch upon which they will sit. By removing eggs, you can prolong them laying, especially as they are only seasonal.
In general we prefer to incubate over allowing the birds to sit, as some birds health seems to struggle whilst they are sitting; as they do not leave the nest to eat, or drink. Others will so this isn’t always a problem. And watching the hatch continues to be a highlight in our household, no matter how many times we do it!
Also depending on where they decide to set up can affect our decision, as some can become very protective and often distressed, if not aggressive when other birds or humans approach the nest.
We have a mixed pen (another consideration). And our goose, which has begun to sit is very protective against anything entering one third of the pen (including me!). Though she did allow me to place a shelter over her nest, as she was clearly hot and dehydrated sat in the midday sun.
On other occasions the (duck) nest has been in an area that gets water flowing through when it rains, or in the garden where they are ‘sitting ducks’ for predators (even our own dogs would see it as an open invitation!).
Also once they begin to hatch, and the eggs are not necessarily all at the same stage; the bird will often remain with the nest (and concentrate on the majority) leaving the early hatchlings wander and do not do too well alone in the outside world. So then you have to make the decision whether or not to intervene.
We recently found a chick and poult (in two separate instances) that had perished whilst the turkey hens sat on their remaining clutch. And found another; just outside the nest (by centermeters), just in time as it was cold and covered in dust- that did survive.
So we took the decision to ‘save’ the remaining young- 2 more poults and 6 chicks (and that is another issue, these all have Sussex dad, but no idea what eggs/ hen they came from).
And then had to listen to the sorrowful call as one of the turkey hens returned to find her empty nest (well her remaining eggs left).  We had hoped she would continue to show the attentive behaviour she had done so earlier in the week. It had been quite amusing watching her mother 3 fuzzy yellow chicken chick. But as our set up is not ideally located for wandering chicks, we felt it was for the best. Especially since we lost a whole clutch of week old ducklings this way last year. 

So mostly as much as we would love to allow nature to take its course. With our limited space and mixture of flocks, we find incubating allows us the most control of when and what we hatch. Though we have allowed the odd exception.