Breaking Down a Pig

I want to start writing more about being a butcher, so I'll start with one of the things I do an awful lot of in the run of a week - breaking down a pig. The place I work goes through about 150 to 200 pigs a week to supply our own customers, our sausage making operation, as well as a lot of local restaurants and even other smaller butcher shops. And this gets accomplished by me and the 3 or 4 other butchers on staff. Sorry that I am unable to provide my own video of exactly how we do it (maybe some day), but here is the first hit I found on Youtube which shows the same basic steps being done by a restaurant in San Francisco. We do things a bit differently in some spots but it is essentially the same process except that we have a band saw and do it a lot faster. On a typical Monday we'll do 50 to 70 pigs. Then 30 to 50 on each of Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday and Friday we rarely do any but sometimes there maybe 4 or 5 in there.


When our pigs arrive by truck, the truck is equipped with ceiling rails with hooks that are mounted on a sort of pulley wheel, kind of like a zipline. There is a 1 inch thick stainless steel bar that hooks onto the pulley and goes through the achilles tendon of each of the back legs. So the pig hangs upside down from the ceiling of the truck, with the two achilles tendons supporting the entire weight. The weight is anywhere from about 200 lbs, to 350 lbs for a huge sow (a female that was used as a breeder - we typically only deal with females in general but the vast majority of them have never been bred). The upper end of that range is rare - most typical would be 220 to about 260 lbs. We connect the truck's rails directly to our rails, and start bringing in the pigs. They go through a weigh station that is connected to our rails just inside the loading dock, where we stop each pig to weigh it and record the weight. Then it goes on into our refrigerated warehouse which can hold perhaps 100 pigs at a time. Back when the company started some 20 years ago, I am told there were no rails and all the pigs were carried in manually. Ouch! I'm glad I was not around back then!

Cutting off Shoulders

When it comes time to break them down, we are told how many we need for the day, and depending on how many it is, we'll do them either in one or two batches. One of the butchers goes into the warehouse with an 18 inch long razor sharp knife that I call a machete, and he makes a cut around the pig just below the armpits. The cut goes an inch or more deep, all the way around the body. He makes the cut for each of the pigs we are doing in this batch. Then someone follows him with a hack saw and starts to saw through the cut, to begin to cut off the head and shoulders. We cut all but the last bit so that the head and shoulders are hanging, attached by a few inches of fat and muscle. Then the pig gets pushed on the rails out into the butchering room, where it swings around a corner to the other side of one of the butcher blocks. This block is about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. It is a stainless steel table with about a 2 inch white plastic top that is made out of the same material as a white plastic cutting board you might use at home. We bring as many pigs at a time as we can out to the block, then someone else with another hack saw makes the last cut and drops the head and shoulders to the floor. Often we'll have to do half of the batch of 30 or 40, then roll the pigs (minus head and shoulders) back out into the warehouse, then roll in the other half to cut off their head and shoulders.

Using a small hand held meat hook, one of the butchers lifts the head and shoulders (50 to 70 lbs) up onto the block, and holds it while another butcher cuts out the head. Usually this is done in such a way as to leave the jowls attached to the shoulder, unless there is a special order for a whole in tact head - we get maybe 2 to 5 such orders a week. Once the head it cut out, it is tossed into a bucket for further processing (more on that in a bit), and the jowls are then cut off the shoulder and tossed into another bucket since they get used for various products in our sausage room downstairs. Some of them also get sold directly to customers, and others get smoked in our smokehouse and sold that way (delicious alternative to bacon). The shoulders then go to the band saw where the feet are cut off and saved in another big bucket for any orders for pigs feet. The shoulders are then put into huge stainless steel tubs-on-wheels, for further process which I'll get to shortly.

We'll end up with 2 or 3 stainless tubs-on-wheels full of shoulders, at which point we'll roll the tubs back out into the warehouse to get them out of the way for the rest of the operation. Then we get more empty tubs for the back legs (hams), and using the rails we roll the rest of the pig carcasses from the warehouse back out to the other side of the block. To recap, we have the carcass hanging by the achilles tendons, minus the head and shoulders. Now we do 8 at a time where one butcher lifts up the carcass while the other takes out the metal bar attaching it to the rails. The first butcher is now holding the entire 150 to maybe 190 lb carcass and tosses it onto the block. This is done in much the same way a Scottish athlete does a Caber Toss, if you've ever seen that. If we are dealing with a huge sow with a total weight of 350 lbs or so, the rest of the carcass minus head and shoulders is still way too heavy to do this with, so we treat those differently and we cut them all apart right from the hook. But we do these very infrequently.

Cutting off the Legs

Now we have 8 carcasses laying crossways on the block, head and shoulders missing. It is time to get out the machete and cut them just around the waist (just below the ribs). You go most of the way through with the machete, and then get out the hack saw to finish it off. The back legs go to the band saw where the feet get cut off about at the knees. The bottom parts are put into a tub for anyone who wants to buy pigs feet. The hocks are left attached to the hams, and of course the two hams are still attached together at this point. That part goes into the huge stainless steel tubs, where if you stack them correctly you can get 10 or 15 per tub.

Cutting up the Torso

Now you have a torso left which is basically the full ribcage. This goes to the bandsaw and split in two down the spine. Then each side is split in half again lengthwise - the part containing the spine is called the "loin", and it contains the pork chops, back ribs, and a few other tidbits like the tenderloin. It goes over to one butcher block for further process. First the sawed surfaces get scraped with a special 3 blade scraper called a "bone duster" to remove the sawdust. Then the skin gets carefully removed so as to leave the fat on the skin so that it can be sold that way. Then the remaining loin sections get stacked for later processing. Other butcher shops will order entire loins from us which they break down futher themselves into pork chops, tenderloins, etc. We do some of it ourselves too. If we don't have enough orders to use them all up, the remainder goes into the huge walk-in freezer.

The Bacon

The bottom part of each half is called the belly, and it contains the spare ribs and the bacon. That comes from the band saw over to me, since this is my station at the moment. You plop it down onto the block with the skin facing down, and you have to separate out the "leaf lard" which lines the inside of the abdomen. The top part of the belly contains the spare ribs, and the leaf lard lines the whole bottom (bacon) part right up to the ribs. You make a cut in the lard right across the belly below the ribs, and then use your hand to pull the leaf lard out. The leaf lard is what gets used to make the lard you buy in the supermarket, and we collect it all in tubs and sell it to someone who does just that with it. If the pigs have not been dead very long (a day or two), the leaf lard comes out very easily all in one big pull. If the pig has been dead a few days longer than that, or if it was an especially fat one, the leaf lard can be extremely difficult and frustrating to remove, as it only comes out in bits and pieces. Once I take the leaf lard out, I stack the bellies on the block beside me where they will be later processed to separate the spare ribs from the bacon.

Primal Cuts Done - Now the Fine Work

Now we are done breaking down the pigs into their primal cuts - which means we've got a bunch of big pieces and we have to decide what to do with them. I already covered the loin, bacon and spare ribs above. We pretty much always do the same thing with them, and anything we don't have orders for goes into the freezer for later use. While two of the butchers finish up the loins, bacon and ribs, two or three of us go over to another block to finish up the heads, shoulders and legs.

Finishing the Heads

Over at my block we have several big bins of heads minus the jowls. Two or three of us begin cutting off the ears and saving them. You cut them off so that they two ears stay connected with a piece of the forehead skin. These get saved and sold primarily to Chinese restaurants. Demand for them is usually greater than supply. Then we have to cut out the meat from the inner and outer cheeks, and save it for ground pork. This meat is really low in fat, and looks to me like it would be awfully yummy to just fry up and eat. Sometimes we get orders for just pork cheeks, but usually it goes into the ground. In the month or so I've been there now, we've only had one single order for pig snouts, which I found extremely difficult to cut off the head.

Some of the heads minus ears and cheeks go downstairs to our sausage room for making head cheese, but most of them do not. Some get sold but not all, so most of them end up getting tossed out. But I have to say that there is very little from the pig that does get tossed out, as you'll see.

Finishing the Legs

With the heads done, we roll the big stainless tubs of legs out from the warehouse back out to the block. We put as many as possible up onto the block for processing. One of those things weighs 40 to 60 lbs depending on the size of the animal, so it is a lot of work to heft those up, even with a little hand held meat hook. Two or three of us stand at the block working on the legs.

The first thing you have to do is split the two legs apart, which can be done with a knife even though you are cutting through the pelvis. The video linked above shows them doing it with a hack saw, but that is superfluous. You stand the legs up on the block so the legs are sticking straight up in the air, and the tail facing away from you. You run the knife right down the middle and you'll hit the pelvis. If you get the right spot on the pelvis it will easily split with a knife. If you find you can't get through, you are in the wrong spot and need to try a little to the left, or to the right.

Now you still have the tail connecting the two hams, so you have to cut it out with two quick cuts that try to leave as much meat as possible on the hams, and as little as possible on the tail. The tails get saved and sold primarily to Chinese restaurants. The odd few that are damaged get tossed out.

When the pigs get debunged (their arsehole and intestines removed) at the slaughterhouse, sometimes the urethra gets left behind so you have to know how to recognize it and cut it out. Then along one side just under the skin by the waist there are some glands that have to be removed because they are extremely bitter. Now you have to look over the ham to see what happens next. If it has a bad bruise, skin blemish or whatever, then it has to be skinned and deboned for use in-house since it cannot be sold as a whole leg. Or if the layer of fat under the skin is extremely thick, we also skin and debone it for in house use. Otherwise the whole leg with hock still attached gets tossed back into the huge tubs-on-wheels, and when we're done of all those, the tubs go over to the meat packers where the legs are boxed (with a plastic liner) 2 at a time. Some of those boxes get shipped right out to customers, while others get stacked for later processing when specific orders come in from customers.

Finishing the Shoulders

Once the legs are done, we roll the big tubs of shoulders out from the warehouse to the block, and heave as many as possible up onto the block at a time. There is a lot more variability in processing the shoulders, than the legs. You always start by skinning it at least partially, and then removing the neck bone which splits it into 2 shoulders. If there are any orders for "New York Style Shoulders", you have to remove only the skin across the back, and leave the skin on the shoulder itself. Otherwise the neck bone gets removed and the whole thing skinned.

Depending on what orders we have, we may bone out the entire shoulder as-is, which involves removing the shoulder blade which is still attached to the top leg bone (which we call a "round bone"). Sometimes, however, the shoulder gets taken over to the band saw where it gets cut into the butt (which contains the shoulder blade) and the picnic, and then each of those will get boned out individually. The butt is particularly difficult to bone out for a beginner, because of the shape of the shoulder blade. I cannot seem to find a good picture of one on google images so I'll take one home from work this week and take a picture to add to this story. Come back and check in a few days and it should be here.

Waste Not, Want Not

That's it, we're done! Just a few more words on what parts of the pig that we do not use, get sold off to someone else who can use it. The only bone that does not get sold is the shoulder blade - all the round bones from the front and back legs get saved up and sold - not sure what gets done with them. Neck bones get sold probably for broth because there is a lot of meat still on them between the bones. Skin gets sold. Leaf lard, as already mentioned. When the back ribs get cut out of the spine, the rest of the spine bones and the ribs that do not go with the back ribs get saved up and sold. Feet (trotters) get sold. The only major part I can think of that does not always get sold is as mentioned the heads. So there is typically very little waste from a pig - I know I'm impressed.


Breaking down a pig

I may get my first taste of this next week. My neighbor is going wild pig hunting. My meat saw is a virgin, my knives are honed and ready. I made a gambel and got a free 3 X 4 butcher block I refinished. I have field dressed deer and helped slaughter and butcher sheep and goats in the '70s but never a pig. I have read material, watched videos and even bought a DVD about butchering hogs.
Now to see if I can keep from making the word butcher have a whole new meaning.