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Screengrab from a YouTube video produced by the University of Minnesota Extension Swine Team "How to Butcher a Pig for Home Use" University of Minnesota
Screen grab from a YouTube video produced by the University of Minnesota Extension Swine Team "How to Butcher a Pig for Home Use"

Process lessons learned during COVID-19

Interest in home butchering peaks as plants closed or slowed.

Some of life's toughest moments are lined with lessons learned. This COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

When states were suggesting/ordering stay-home measures, and schools and businesses were closing down, it was recommended that people use this time to learn something new. Maybe pick up a hobby or learn how to do something that you've always wanted to do, but never had the time.

Now with the varying degrees of lockdown, and if you were one of the unlucky ones to be out of work, you may have found yourself with lots of time on your hands. Of course, those of you in hog production have never known what it's like to have time on your hands, and you definitely weren't out of work as food production was determined and always will be deemed as essential.

But, even you producers, some who have been raising hogs for decades have been forced to learn something new — how to effectively slow down the growth of finishing hogs so as to avoid the unfathomable decision to have to euthanize healthy animals because there was nowhere for them to go to be slaughtered. Trying out new rations and fiddling with heating of barns hopefully bought you enough time to allow for the pork plants to reopen or ramp back up to full speed.

As word got around that large numbers of hogs would have to be euthanized due to slaughter plants closing or slowing, there was a call for local butcher shops to step up to fill the void. Though a noble suggestion, there is no way the small butcher shops would be able to handle the large numbers of hogs that were being backlogged on farms. The smaller processors did step up, but their workload also got booked for months out. Remember, hog slaughter plants were not the only ones impacted by COVID-19, as beef processors also closed or slowed down. Hog producers did get creative with working with their neighbors and some of these local shops to save a number of head from going to waste.

Countless stories have been shown and told of how numerous organizations have stepped up to help with the situation, including multiple university meat science departments getting involved in the pork processing craze.

What if you and a group of buddies or neighbors want to be more personally involved and start butchering your own hogs? Last week I was on a Zoom anniversary open house for an aunt and uncle, and of course chat turned to COVID-19 and how it's impacting all of our lives. I decided to share the plight of the U.S. pork producer with this side of the family whom I would call my "city cousins." After enlightening them how COVID has disrupted the pork supply chain, my cousin's daughter says, "send the pigs down here, we'll take care of them." This family is big into scouting, but I'm not sure if butchering a hog will earn you a merit badge.

Just as a lot of the population is generations removed from physical farming, we are also probably just as far removed from a large population who knows how to butcher and process their own hog, steer or chicken. I used to help a lot when we would butcher chickens on my grandparents' farm, but that was a long time ago and I wouldn't know where to start … other than with a sharpened corn knife and a tree stump.

We raised hogs, but we never butchered our own. When one did die, I would perform a necropsy to see if I could determine what ailed the hog. (Yea, I was a weird kid, but was always fascinated by veterinary work). But, a juvenile autopsy is far from butchering and processing a hog for human consumption.

Fortunately, there are people we can turn to for such knowledge. Today's technology, specifically the internet and YouTube, can show you how to do pretty much anything, and that includes hog butchering.

I searched for "hog butchering" on YouTube, and I got tired of scrolling, there were so many matches.

Not that I plan on ever try to butcher a hog on my own, but a gem of a YouTube video found its way into my Inbox from the University of Minnesota Extension Swine Team.

I was so fascinated that I watched this 51-minute video a couple times as Sarah Schieck Boelke, swine Extension educator; Ryan Cox, Extension meat specialist; Dallas Dornink, meat laboratory supervisor; and Lee Johnston, swine Extension specialist, obviously showed how to butcher a pig for home use, but they also discussed the importance of human safety, pig welfare and food safety. In fact, about the first third of the video is used to explain the proper tools needed and an overview of the safety measures necessary. Their conversation takes the viewer through every step of the process, with human and food safety info interspersed throughout.

One can never have enough information as they take on such a task as home butchering, so the UMN Swine Team offers additional resources to guide you through the process. First of all, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture can help you check if a Gopher State meat processor near you has availability. If there is no local availability, and you opt to pursue home butchering check out the MDA's Slaughtering Animals on Farms fact sheet.

Just how much meat will you get out of a hog, and how much freezer space will you need to store it? Well, there's help for that too with this handy infographic.

Not all parts of the hog will find its way into your freezer and ultimately onto your backyard grill or smoker, so you'll want to check Minnesota Board of Animal Health's carcass disposal guidelines to learn how to properly dispose of the carcass remains (hide, head, internal organs (offal).

As I said, my search on YouTube resulted in numerous how-to videos, so find one that works best for you. Also, be sure to check with the rules and regs in your state governing home butchering and disposal.

I have always known U.S. farmers to be resourceful and good at finding ways to fix a problem that confronts them. Though home butchering won't be able to replace a future processing backlog, should one occur, but it's a lost skill that may just come in handy.

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