Several weeks ago I made the decision to cull one of the little steers, after seeing symptoms of conjunctivitis return to his eyes yet again. He’s had multiple antibiotics treatments since the outbreak began in September, and had appeared to recover each time but was apparently still hosting the bacterium and was, thus, a carrier.
Back in early December the other steer in his age cohort and one of the heifers had started squinting and holding an eye shut with drainage down the face, so I got antibiotics into them fast and they cleared up fine. But I knew one of the animals in that little herd was hosting the bug and reintroducing it to the others. I think it was this little weakling steer.
This little guy started out underweight, and has always been a picky eater, apt to lose interest on even the best grass hay while all the other youngsters dug in with gusto. Picky eaters can have a hard time getting enough to eat in a herd situation, so my conclusion was his nutritional support wasn’t steady and high, leaving his immune system slightly compromised and unable to build a strong resistance to the bacterium.
All these calves had a rough start anyway, having not been fed well during their crucial development months and practically starving when I got them. If I could have isolated him and fed him separately from the others, he may have shook it finally and not re-infected anyone else. But I don’t have the facilities for that, nor do I want to raise “special needs” livestock. They either do well as a group on forage, or they go somewhere else.
So, this little steer went into the freezer.
I didn’t have any beef in there anyway, and I missed deer season, so I asked my good friend Ben if he would be interested in teaming up to slaughter and butcher a 300 – 400 lb steer, and he was. I could have taken it to the processor but we were both interested in learning the skill of turning a living, breathing meat animal into food for the table, so we agreed to share the work and each take half.
By the time I’d recovered from my Christmas cold, we had one more week of near-freezing temps before the guessers were predicting this current warming trend. Just enough time to get him dressed out and hung for a few days, then cut up before the mercury went above 50. So we got our heads together, got the ball rolling and did it.
He’s the first Bear and Thistle beeve; a little young, so his flavor wasn’t as developed as the 24-to-36-month sale beeves will be, and he hadn’t had a finishing period on “ice cream” grass to pack on the pounds at the end for marbeling and tenderness, but delicious all the same, and a bonus to have a freezer full of beef.
There aren’t a lot of people doing this anymore, killing and cutting up their own livestock for their family’s table. It used to be common, especially here in the country. Now, Ben and I could honestly say we were probably the only people in Taylor and Russell Counties that were killing and cutting up a steer that week. Of course, it was a lot of work! And messy. And I’ll admit to deferring on the kill shot and the throat slice, though next time I’ll bring my own rifle and bowie knife and do them myself. It helps to see it done first. Thank you, Ben, for getting that part done and showing me how.
We hooked the steer up to a single-tree and lifted it with a truck winch to the rafters of a horse stall in their barn. First lesson learned was, a steer stretched out is much longer than the deer they had hung in that same spot, so we ran out of vertical room and Ben had to readjust the hoist arrangement. Anything larger would need a sturdier, taller place to hang.
This was the first time for both of us to skin and eviscerate a bovine. We had a couple of books to guide us, and our past experiences field-dressing deer, but mostly we learned as we went, working together to remove the hide and carefully releasing the body cavity contents. I can say this much: it is easier to field dress a deer, or even an elk. Cows have so many stomachs! I had withheld fresh hay since the day prior, but his system was still very full and very heavy.
Getting ready to gut
We pulled out the liver, heart, and pancreas, and removed the rest in one big heap. Then we finished pulling off the hide, dissected the tongue from the head, and it was time for me to get back home to do evening chores. Ben and his folks cleaned up, disposed of the guts, blocked in the carcass with hay bales, and we made a date for the following Tuesday to do the butchering.
Removing the liver
That gave it 4 days to hang, or dry-age. Normally you want to dry-age your grass-fed beef for two weeks. The older animals have more collagen in their tissues, which needs the enzymatic activity of aging to break down and tenderize. I was hoping this young steer – I can only estimate, but I think he was just under a year old – wouldn’t need as long an aging period. Anyway, 4 days was all we had of sub-40-degree daytime temps, so that’s what we got.
Hanging and chilling
Butcher day started early. I’d already loaded my maple butcher-block-top work bench into the back of my big truck to take over, along with two boxes of tools and miscellany, and a couple of coolers of ice. I arrived at 9 am, and we hustled on over to the barn to split the carcass so we could transport the halves over to Ben’s basement where we would do the cutting and wrapping.
Again, this was the first time for both of us to cut up an animal of this size. Books and illustrations make the cuts look simple and easy. They are not. We’ll need to do more butchering to hone our skills, and I’ve ordered an instructional DVD to help with identifying the anatomy sections and where the major cuts are made. It was confusing at times, but we persevered, telling ourselves that even gooned-up cuts can be made into ground beef. We cut a lot of great-looking roasts and steaks out of it, though, despite our lack of skill and experience.
Lean grassfed bottom and top round roasts
The hand saw I bought did not work as well as it should have – it seemed bent, and the blade wanted to drift sideways in the cut, which bound it up and made sawing very difficult. We used an 18-volt battery powered sawzall with ultra-sharp 9″ blade to split the spine, and it worked well for a lot of the other bone cuts, too. I was disappointed in the hand saw performance. And of the three knives I knew I needed – a boning knife, a long cutting knife, and a meat cleaver – I only had a boning knife. I used a vegetable chopping knife as a cleaver which worked, but the blade was not intended for whacking through bone so it sustained damage.
Cutting rib steaks
I will add to my arsenal of knives soon. Good cutting tools are essential to this craft.
From start to finish, it took us a little over four hours to cut 220 lbs of beef carcass into steaks, roasts, ribs, and burger meat. I finished cutting up my round roasts the next day, as well as boning out and grinding about 25 lbs of meat, most of which I made into hamburger patties. Of great value to both of us were the many large bones left over, as well as trimmings, to simmer into stock. My final tally of edibles that went into the freezer looked like this:
15 steaks - 13 lbs
9 roasts - 28.5 lbs
Ribs - 9.5 lbs
Brisket - 5 lbs
Ground beef – 12 lbs
Hamburgers – 38 (5-oz patties)
1 lb stew meat
9 large packages soup b…ones
3 large packages meat trimmings for stock
5 lb liver
1.5 lb heart
1 lb tongue
12 oz sweetbread
I must admit, I don’t yet know what I’ll do with the heart, tongue, brisket, or pancreas (sweetbread). But I’ll figure it out. They are all good-looking pieces of meat. The hamburgers are some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Delicate flavor, just the right amount of fat. Absolutely gourmet. Steaks, the same. Not as marbeled or flavorful as an older beeve would provide, and smaller too; but so, so good.
I already have a couple of good sausage recipes I’ll grind up more of the round roasts to make. It is a great feeling, a joy, in fact, to have filled my freezer (and that of my friend) with a bounty of grass-fed beef from a steer that needed to be culled, having done all the work ourselves and knowing exactly what we are eating. Not a project to undertake lightly, but not excruciatingly difficult, either. In fact, I thought it was a whole lot of fun, and I’m looking foward to doing it again – when I have room for more meat in my freezer!