Saturday, August 06, 2022

Harvesting A Steer

 (Author's note:  The following is a description of processing a steer. While not graphic or particular nausea intending, I do know there are readers that find this disturbing.  I might recommend walking through the Longwood Gardens here and here.).  

During my July visit to The Ranch and my regular touch base with The Cowboy and The Young Cowboy, they mentioned that a Tuesday morning was going to be loud, early.  They were having a steer brought down and processed. There would be one loud noise of course, then some other ancillary noises.

Myself being the curious sort, of course I show up the next morning to watch.

Even though it is still Summer, the Ranch still cools off enough in the night and morning that one can almost feel coldish, at least in the morning.  By the time I tromp down from the house to the barn and corral, everyone else was there:  The Cowboy, The Young Cowboy, and the gentleman who would be working on the steer.  The conversation was the sort that I suspect men having being having for time immemorial in various forms and fashions prior to the start of a task:  the weather, the price of gas (or coal, or wood), others in the business; the chit chat of social niceties that make personal relationships in small societies work.  After a few minutes of continued conversation, the work commences.

The Processor looked the part:  a little over my height, he had not an ounce of fat on his body that I could see:  all muscle and bone.  He moved to get ready with an economy that betrayed a long understanding of the art of motion.

The shot almost surprises me.  There was a "Cover your ears; it will be loud" from The Young Cowboy, followed by a single shot in the morning area.  The steer drops.

As The Young Cowboy went to pull the loader into corral, I peek around the corner.  The steer was on the ground, body twitching - especially the back legs.  It seems like an eternity, but was maybe five minutes.  It still looked a bit dangerous - per The Cowboy, it could be.  Finally, when the legs had largely stopped moving, the back legs are chained and pulled out while the Processor went in and (judging from later) presumably cut open the throat.  The loader drags the carcass out to of the corral to the Processor's truck, an almost one of a kind (to my experience) custom build with a winch, a small crane, and a meat locker unit on the back.

The Processor gets to work.

He and The Young Cowboy roll the steer onto its back,   The Processor begins by cutting into each leg just above the hock; a quick crack at the end and the leg and hoof break off, to be put into a 55 gallon offal barrel.  After removing them all, he pulled out a knife I had never seen before - a skinning knife, I suppose - and slices down the breast bone and slowly starts peeling away the skin from the body.

It is a marvel to behold: His technique is perfect as the hide literally peels away, revealing a pallid white body with hints of red underneath.  After completing about a third, he places a bar into the haunches and the crane lifts the body up, letting fluids exist from the throat - not a torrent, just a flow.

When the hide is mostly pulled away, he moves to the upper body. He and The Young Cowboy discuss what else they want:  out comes the tongue in a slab into a bag, to be followed by the sweetmeats.  The body is raised and a deeper cut happens:  out comes the heart and the liver, also to be bagged and placed into the ice chest.

Moving the offal barrel into the body, The Processor carefully slices all the way up, exposing the internal organs.  One cut, and a stomach is emptied of its last meal onto the ground (more than I could have imagined was in there).  Then, using the same technique he practiced on the hide, he slowly peels out the internal organs and guides them into the barrel.  Nothing hits the ground.  He continues to work the back of the hide as well until it, too, is completely removed.

Water is everywhere during this process. The carcass is sprayed, the tools are sprayed, hands are sprayed.  Another round of spraying happens.

He moves to an industrial style electric saw, then starts cutting down the spine.  The body slowly separates into two halves until only the head remains; which is cut off.

The Processor raises the crane to the level of the truck and using his knife, cuts the two halves into quarters.  Punching holes in all, he slides the quarters into the cooler portion of the truck and shuts the door.  Everything gets one more spray of water as The Young Cowboy brings the loader up to collect all of the pieces and parts for burial (apparently there is no longer a market for hides; it too is to be buried).  The quarters themselves will be taken to a local meat locker to be hung and cut.

This whole process has taken under an hour.

At one point during the process, I ask The Processor how he started doing this and if he liked the job.  He gives me a look, the look actual working people often give what seems like a frivolous question from a theoretician.  Apparently I appear sincere enough:  it was not a job he necessarily "liked", but it was a job - paid the bills (all cash) and allowed him to be independent.

The steer, I find out from The Cowboy, was one that had been born up at The Ranch and had lived its whole life here in the sun and rain and relative free range, pending only the last night of corralling.  The end came in an instant, unlike the end that often comes to us.

This process was clean and efficient.  There was not a lot of blood.  There was no sense of this being a frivolous event:  the meat will go to feed 2-3 families for the better part of a year.  The provenance of the meat is known.  Afterwards, everything was cleaned up - if one wanted to go so far, even the unused parts were "recycled" back into the earth.

It was a solemn experience, one a great many people no longer witness. Arguably, one cannot come closer to the overall food process than this:  everything up to the point of slaughter happening in one place, and the food ultimately returned to the same general location.  Is this not the true definition of a relatively closed loop.


  1. Anonymous4:53 AM

    Good day all,
    My entry into the I.T. trade involved support of computer interface to the electronic scales and scanners in beef, pork, and lamb processing plants. The “kill” floor always looked like a disgusting place to spend working an 8hr shift. Being technical support I only spent short time time segments there thank you very much. The process you describe is performed in (dis)assembly line fashion. Each “cut” you mentioned is performed by an individual doing that same cut on each animal one after another as the whole carcass, and then the sides after the splitter station, is conveyed down the line while suspended from hooks attached to a chain snaking its way through guides in the high ceiling of the kill room. There was a great amount of water sprayed on the animals and the tools during the slaughter process.

    I wanted to point out that the carcass is still quite warm by the time it reaches the final hot scale, as it is called. Catch the weight of both sides of an animal and transmit that with the “lot number” to the I.T. computer which would store that info for later analysis in a “shrink report”. The shrink was the measure of weight at the hot scale compared to the “cold scale” after a 24hr tempering of the beef. More water spraying the hanging sides occurs during tempering to avoid the drying of beef and thus avoiding loss of product weight. Packers are regulated to spray only enough to water on the sides that it each would maintain the weight as tagged on the side at the hot scale, no more weight than that. Keeps the packers from adding to much water to the beef before fabrication into the final boxed primal cuts.

    Sorry for being verbose here. I read your emphasis on the spraying and was reminded of the shrink calculation. Agree that anyone who loves red meat should see or perform the actual slaughter and breakdown of carcasses to truly appreciate their next steak or chop meal.

    1. FnB - Thank you for the insight into commercial processing. Some of The Ravishing Mrs. TB's relatives have worked in meat packing plants in the past and I believe she has at least "toured" one.

      We are fortunate here - there is no concern for "shrinkage" or weight, only for doing things correctly.

  2. Anonymous4:54 AM

    Last anonymous was me, Franknbean

  3. In high scruel, we weren't allowed to have senior trips. Seems one class in the 60's trashed a motel, so that was off the table. We did take two day trips. The first was to a meat packing plant in Plainview. We didn't see the kill floor, but we watched as the guy in the raincoat and waders unzipped a 1500 lb carcass and had offal pour all over him.... over and over and over again.... It was quite an interesting trip.

    My first hands on experience with butchering was right after I got married. Father in law had a goat to process. It was a family job. I was the newest member, so I got "invited" to come out and help. At one point he handed me the twig and berries. As I was holding it, he went back to work. I asked him if he really wanted me to hang onto it, or keep helping. He grinned and said he didn't want it. I flipped it into the weeds and got back to work. I passed the test. He taught me how to get the meat ruining parts off a male goat successfully. None of their goats were castrated. And they didn't waste anything.

    It's an important part of life. I didn't spare my kids the chance to help when we had an opportunity. Being paid with a leg quarter for helping out was always welcome. Now, it's a necessary skill. I figure our markets will collapse inward with the transportation issues, and locally produced food will stay local. Sort of a de-industrialization of or a balkanization of food production. Having the skills to process food will be more than nice to know. Wish I could have gotten that hide.... I haven't tanned leather in a while.

    1. STxAR, that sounds like a great "father in law" introduction to the family - in my case, it was gardening, but I have continued to use the skills the Master Sergeant taught me almost 30 years later. These are useful things to know.

      We are amazingly dependent on transportation networks; for years I have questioned how in a Big Box store, lamb from New Zealand can be cheaper than lamb from the US. All transportation costs. I agree with you, things will collapse inward (they always do, in an economic or societal collapse).

      The hide - yes, it made me wish I did that kind of thing as well.

  4. Lots of home processing experience here. Growing up a farm girl never left me. This past Jan a rancher friend had a cow with a broken leg. She was not sound enough to take to auction or processor so me and 2 guy friends field dressed an 800# cow. With nothing more than a gun, assortment of knives. Sawzall, tarps.... And utility trailer with several coolers of ice. In the field took about 4 hours, then another 4 butchering the quarters and offal to fit in bags and freezer place available. Neither of the guys had much experience aside from cleaning fish and chickens. it can be done. She is tough. Very flavorful but estimated about 8-9 years old. Excellent ground beef!

    1. Thank you for sharing Annie. I cannot tell you how fascinating I found watching this process firsthand. I have some experience with fish, so understand the raw basics. It is comforting to know that it can be done by less experienced as well.

      Speaking with The Cowboy and The Young Cowboy, they have made ground beef out of older bulls as well, with the same comment about flavorfulness.

  5. Anonymous8:45 AM

    Cleanliness is next to Godliness ! Especially when butchering . I bought a large steer from an old Rodeo bud of mine that raised them to help with his retirement plan . He was 42 years old but rodeo had left him quite a broken man . I took the steer to an Amish friend . He butchered and wrapped it and we took it home to my big commercial freezer . After eating a few cuts there seemed to be something "off" about the meat . It almost turned our stomachs and left a terrible after taste . I went back to the butchers place to do an investigation . The butcher shop was down in the basement of his house . All electric machinery had been converted to run on a half dozen small gasoline engines . Another customer showed up and the Amishman went outside to get the beef unloaded and in a pen . I snooped around and found the problem . Opening the side inspection door of the huge old Biro meat saw the tray at the bottom that catches the meat and bone particles was overflowing and infested with mold , maggots , and various mushrooms from every deer , goats , hog , cow chicken , and only Gawd knows what else . Probably only cleaned once a year from the looks of it . I sold the meat on Craigslist for dog meat and did make my money back but I also learned a valuable lesson . Cheap butchers are not cheap !

    1. Wow. What a story. Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness for any kind of food preparation - thank you very much for sharing!

      (For this steer, the butcher that is being used is a long established one that has been used in the past by The Cowboy).

  6. That was very interesting reading, TB. And I have an even greater appreciation for the idea that farmers never make pets of their food animals. Thanks for writing such a descriptive essay. It wasn't comfortable reading, but it was definitely worthwhile.

    1. You are welcome Becki. It was a fascinating process to watch.

  7. Hubby's dad had a small dairy farm when he was growing up. He learned how to butcher cows, pigs, and chickens. And of course the occasional deer at hunting season. All similar.
    I expect there is a niche market for hides, as STxAR pointed out. But no way to keep the hide fresh until the person could be found.
    Thanks for this, TB. Very interesting.
    You all be safe and God bless.

    1. Linda, from what I have read they are similar. Having seen the process, the parts I could not visualize while reading make more sense.

      I do think there is a niche market for hides as well, but it would have to be pretty well orchestrated and would probably required a trade in kind, as I am sure the money is not there.


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