Deer Hunting Accoutrements

Most men (women seem to be better about this) seem to obsess over firearms and ammunition when it comes to deer hunting, including myself. The truth is that there are many effective firearm-ammunition combinations for deer in the Eastern US. Basic guidelines are that it be .243 or larger diameter hunting bullet (not FMJ or full metal jacket military-type bullet) and it have at least 500 foot-pounds of energy at impact, preferably closer to 1000 foot-pounds. This means that cartridges like full-powered 357 Magnum fired out of a ordinary revolver with a 4″ barrel will have adequate power at shorter ranges. Out of a rifle, it goes even faster, and so has even better effective range (out to 100 yards or so). 357 Magnum rifles enjoy a small following where I live. Almost all true rifle cartridges are more than adequate, and many are over-kill, and so are shotgun slugs. But shot placement, now that’s important. And frankly, so are things like piece of tape and a ballpoint pen.


The contents of my hunting bag plus my hats and butt-pad. 

Let’s go through the essentials. It begins with being adequately dressed and shod. This depends greatly upon the weather, but generally, it seems like it is about 20 degrees colder than it is when you are stationary, and about 20 degrees warmer when you are dragging a deer, so I like the concept of layering.

I’ve never purchased any specialized hunting apparel. I wear my ordinary 6″ leather work books with cushion-sole wool socks unless it is very cold, and then I wear my US military surplus intermediate-cold weather boots with wool socks over cotton socks. I usually wear cotton long-johns unless it is very warm. The pants and shirt I wear are Korean war era olive-drab green wool. I also have a very warm super heavy Austrian military surplus wool sweater. I only wear the sweater if it will be cold, and I always wear a long-sleeved turtle-neck cotton t-shit beneath it, or it would literally be a form of torture. All of my hunting apparel cost me less than it typically costs to buy one special-made hunting coat, and I can adjust layers with changing temperatures.

I have never felt camouflage has any purpose when you are forced to wear Hunter Orange (during firearms and muzzleloader seasons in Indiana, and for good reason!). Our woods here are mostly green through the winter, and so are meadows and hayfields, so I think that olive-drab may have some merit, but I mostly prefer that color since it is easy to match because most old military apparel is olive drab. Also, random members of the public know what you are doing walking around with a rifle wearing green. If you were wearing street clothes, they may become alarmed.

After clothes and footwear are addressed, it comes to the particular things needed for deer hunting. At a minimum to me this includes the following:

  1. A bag that you can preferably sling over your shoulder or wear like a backpack that is comfortable and sized adequately for your needs. I use a Finnish military surplus “gas-mask bag”. I greatly prefer a bag that has just simple flap with quiet snaps or buttons and without velcro (velcro is noisy) or zippers (often need two hands to operate).
  2. A small, foldable pruning saw that is sharp. The possibility of needing to saw bone or small branches exists. There is no other way to do it. I often make makeshift “ground blinds” using low-growing weedy shrubs with this saw if my hunting strategy shifts to still-hunting from my preferred method of stalk-hunting.
  3. A good hunting knife. I sincerely believe the classic Buck 110 is the perfect deer hunting knife. These can be readily had at Wal-Mart or Rural King for under $30 which is a bargain considering their quality.
  4. A multi-tool or Swiss army type knife. I favor the wire-cutters and pliers that come with a multi-tool, but I like the tweezers that are on Swiss type knives.
  5. A decent small LED flashlight. I use a Coast HP-1. Sometimes I remember to bring a spare AA with me. This is essential because deer hunting often involves very dark conditions and following blood trails.
  6. Some lens wipes. This is only if you have a scope. Mud and rain can render a scope useless without these.
  7. A plastic zipper bag with cotton t-shirt fabric or paper towels saturated with rubbing alcohol. This is for cleaning your hands and wiping knives that may become soiled.
  8. A plastic zipper bag with toiler paper or paper towel because it is better than wet leaves. You’re worth it. I also put four latex or nitrile surgical gloves in this bag for field-dressing.
  9. I bring a small t-handle with a torx head bit on it so that I can remove my scope and use sights should the scope become unusable. A little torx-head Allen key (often supplied with scope rings) would be better, but I keep losing them.
  10. About 20 feet of 3/8ths rope, preferably hunter orange or some florescent color. Thick enough that it wont tear your hand up. Use this to help you drag the deer and/or tie it to your vehicle.
  11. I wear a hunter-orange baseball cap most of the time. Get one with a black underside to the bill, otherwise the orange reflects off the scope. I also bring a knit orange hat with me in case it gets cold to protect my ears. I rely on my hat to fulfill my hunter-orange requirement. In some states (Ohio for one) this may not be adequate, and you may have to wear a vest instead.
  12. A ball-point pen or permanent marker and a piece or tape you can write on. This is what you use to “tag” the deer. It works much better than a piece of string and paper. Of course, you must bring some state ID (I keep mine in my wallet) and your hunting license, too. I usually put these in one of the compartments of the bag inside a small plastic bag to keep them safe from water.
  13. A “butt-pad.” While I don’t keep this in my bag, and usually tie it to the back of the belt I am wearing with a piece of para-cord, I consider a closed-cell foam seat of a neural or olive-drab color essential for keeping you butt from freezing if you sit on the ground while still-hunting in the cold. It is not needed if it is warm or your intend only to hunt on your feet, but sometimes strategies change mid-hunt, so keep that in mind. Mine cost $2 at Menards a few years ago when they were clearancing them off in January. I should have bought them for all my friends.

The contents of the bag do not clank or make crinkle noises, and the bag is small and light and hardly any burden. Unlike a back-pack, it allows you to sling the rifle across your back when you are dragging the deer and doesn’t hang on your shooting shoulder. I cross sling the bag on my right shoulder (I shot off my left). Also, if you keep the bag at your side then it is much more accessible than a back-pack.

Oh, and I almost forgot the ammunition! I keep mine in a shirt pocket on my breast. Lever-action rifles like mine don’t have detachable magazines and load round-by-round. A breast pocket is about the best place to keep these spare rounds. I usually only bring 10 with me total, loading five in the rifle and keeping five in my pocket. They don’t clank in that wool Korean war-ear shirt, either.

Posted in Guns, Hunting, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Muzzleloaders for Deer Hunting

Most states have a special season for hunting deer with muzzleloaders, usually following the modern firearm season, whereas archery season usually precedes the modern firearm season. Since muzzleloader hunting is more challenging due to range limitations and usually only getting one shot, and because the season is AFTER the firearms season, you are often alone, and rarely see another hunter, even on public land. I usually hunt on private land for the firearm season, whereas I hunt on public land for the muzzleloader season for this reason. If one were to purchase just one firearm to hunt deer with, perhaps a muzzleloader would be the right choice since they are usually inexpensive and because they can usually be used during the modern firearms season as well as the muzzleloader season.

Muzzleloaders are a primitive type of firearm that loads from the muzzle, or the end of the barrel, rather than from the breech. All modern firearms are breechloaders which fire metallic cartridges or shotshells. Cartridges and shotshells contain the projectile(s), propellant, and the primer for ignition in one single package, which is very convenient for loading. Muzzleloaders, being more primitive, separate all these, and require the user to execute each process every time it is loaded.


Lyman Deerstalker left-hand flint-lock. Not a fan of the blued barrel, the Beech stock, the fiber optic sights, or the modern looking recoil pad, but those things can be changed or made better. The important thing, that it has the lock on the left side and away from my eye, is right. I also like how it is relatively lighter than most muzzleloaders.

All muzzleloaders involve the same process to make ready. You have to charge it, which means pouring a metered quantity of propellant down the muzzle (usually black powder), then you insert the projectile(s), again down the muzzle, and finally you have to either apply a percussion cap to the nipple on a cap-lock, or you have to prime the flash pan on a flintlock to provide a means of ignition. I have both a cap-lock muzzleloader and a flint-lock. Flint-locks are more primitive, and use a small chip of stone (usually flint, but sometimes agate or quartz) that scrapes against the frizzen, which is a piece of metal, and produces sparks which fall into the flash pan, ignite the small charge of powder there, and that fire transmits through a small hole, called a touch hole, into the primary charge of metered propellant in the barrel. Once the primary charge ignites, it converts from a solid to a gas which pushes the projectile(s) out of the barrel at high velocity (relatively). Cap-locks use a small copper cup anointed with a percussion ignitable priming compound to generate the initial fire that ignites the primary charge. Percussion caps you must purchase at the store, and cost something, and are sometimes hard to find.


Flint-locks are quite investing to me. So primitive and elegant. So much going on that isn’t obvious to the uninitiated. The hammer is actually a little vise that holds the flint with a bit of leather wrapped around it, and the frizzen it strikes when folded down protects the little flashpan from rain and snow and closes the touch hole preventing powder from spilling out of the barrel. This rifle isn’t primed or loaded, but the hammer is in the half-cock or safe position. If it were to fall, it wouldn’t strike the frizzen to make sparks. The hammer must be fully retracted in order to strike the frizzen.

IMG_2659 (1)

The powder meter. This volumetric measuring cylinder should only be used for Blackpowder. Smokeless powder is weighed.


IMG_2668 (1)

The flash pan primer. You must press the tip into the pan so it squirts out a tiny bit of very fine FFFF black powder.

I like muzzleloaders for a few other reasons. One is that because they load slowly and laboriously, you are far more inclined to be patient and really strive for good aiming and trigger control, which produces good accuracy. Also, muzzleloaders, despite their rather unimpressive ballistics, are surprisingly effective on deer at short ranges, making clean kills compared to arrows. They ruin very little meat, usually making a half-inch hole through the animal, which promotes rapid bleeding and quick death. I use a 50 caliber muzzleloader shooting a .490″ patched lead round ball. This “patching” is uniquely American, and it is very good idea.

IMG_2662 (1)

I prefer FFF for the primary charge and FFFF for priming the flash pan. One can of FFFF will last a lifetime, and frankly, because you shoot muzzleloaders so slowly, it takes a while to get through a can of FFF.

IMG_2679 (1)

Lubricated patch placed over the barrel, round lead ball pressed onto the patch, and then gently pounded in flush to the muzzle with the short start. The broad backside to my cylindrical short stop is much more comfortable than the usual spherical kind.

Basically, you wrap the lead round ball with fabric as you insert it down the barrel. This fabric does a few very important things: it seals the bullet in the barrel, it prevents lead from scraping off onto the barrel, it cleans fowling out of the barrel with every shot, and it reduces the amount of force needed to push the round ball down the barrel. To be honest, the plastic sabots and conical expanding bullets used today in “modern muzzleloading” do not do these jobs as well as the old patched round ball and cost far more. The fabric I use is pillow-ticking, which you can get a lifetime’s worth at Wal-Mart for about $5. They may offer better range and more killing power, and they will work in the sort of old-fashioned, side-lock, and open-ignition muzzleloader that I use, but the old  patched round ball works just fine.

IMG_2680 (1)

The stick end of the short start is used to push the patched ball in about 4-5 inches so the ramrod will having something to “start with” when you drive the ball down onto the metered charge of powder.  That strap of leather if for use with the ram rod. Us softie moderns don’t have palms of leather like our ancestors did.

Usually these patches are lubricated, traditionally with salvia, which works quite well. Some folks used Bear grease and other animal greases (which were inferior), which also work well, and prevent rust when they coat the inside of the barrel. I use a modern plant-based grease made specially for this purpose called Bore Butter which is made by Thompson/Center. Better living through chemistry, right?

IMG_2669 (1)

Though it isn’t traditional at all, I like to pre-cut my patches with scissors and pre-lubricate them with bore butter and put them in an Altoids tin which I keep in my pocket. This makes the whole process much faster and doesn’t require the use of a patch knife, which makes it safer.

One of the keys to enjoying muzzleloaders is having effective, good quality accouterments. There are many of these with muzzleloaders and they make the difference between it being a pleasant experience and a miserable one. Unfortunately, though manufacturers are quite good a making moderately priced, good quality muzzloaders, they are not so good at equipping them with decent accouterments. In fact, I’ve never been able to find a good short-start or hunting purse, which were both hand made for me by relatives. The rifles never come with a decent ram-rod.

The essentials for me are a purse to contain the stuff in, which is easily opened with just a flap or other cover. I like some pre-cut, pre-lubed patches in a tin, and pre-metered single charges of powder. This makes loading the muzzleloader safe (you never want a whole can of powder hovering over a hot muzzleloader) and reduces spillage. It is also necessary to carry a ram-rod with you everywhere when you hunt with a muzzleloader if you plan on taking more than one shot. I’ve made or had made decent ram-rods from the same 3/8 Hickory dowel, using 357 Magnum cases epoxied on the ends and sanded flush with the rod. Plastic rods are way too flexible and wobble all over the place. A good Hickory (or other tough wood) is light, yet flexible enough to give a little, and wont scratch the crown of the barrel. They do need to be cleaned. I’ve found a little bore butter does them good and they develop a nice patina with time.

IMG_2672 (1)

I fill my hunting purse with these little vials which I pre-fill with exactly metered charges of black powder. This is faster, safer, lighter than carrying around a powder horn or can of power with you.

IMG_2673 (1)

5 mL vials are great for a 80 grain charge of Blackpowder.

IMG_2656 (1)

My home-made short start. A small piece of 3/8th hickory dowel, two 357 Magnum cases, and a but of turned Maple.

Posted in Guns, Hunting, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Ruminant “Magic”

Most people simply don’t realize this fundamental fact of agriculture. The edible herbivorous animals–ruminants (cattle, sheep, and goats)–employ a legion of symbiotic bacteria that live in their rumen, the first chamber in their four-chambered stomach, which can break down cellulose and other biomolecules that are inaccessible to other animals. A chicken, or a pig, or a human would perish on a diet of grass and white clover, no matter how much of it we ate. The ruminants grow, and quite quickly, on such a diet. Yes, I am aware of horses and sloths and Gorillas and other mono-gastric herbivores that also grow on such a diet. They have their own set of microbes that live in their hind-gut instead of their stomach which do largely the same thing, only not as well. This is the reason why horses don’t grow as fast as cattle, and why they require dietary supplementation with grain (traditionally oats) when they are working. Oxen (cattle used for draft purposes) need no such supplementation. This ruminant “magic” is the cornerstone of traditional livestock farming.

Agriculture, and ecology as well, is all about concentrating nutrients. Certain organisms are able to make use of low nutrient-density feedstock, and concentrate nutrients within their bodies, and then other predatory (or parasitic) animals eat them, and further concentrate those nutrients. This is the key to understanding the “food chain,” which I prefer to call a “food web” because it is a lot more like a web than a chain. Humans are omnivorous, much like pigs, and we require relatively nutrient dense food to thrive, but not as nutrient dense as a spider, Cheetah, or an eagle. We eat much plant material, but only the most nutrient-dense of plant material: fruits, nuts, seeds (grain), and the best herbaceous food available: vegetables. During our growing and reproductive phases, we nearly require some animal foods: eggs, milk, and/or meat. No vegan society has ever been. Gorillas and Orangoutangs, the closest analogs to a vegan humans, live on the edge of extinction (unlike omnivore Chimpanzees), and they cheat. It is known they dine on termites and other insects from time to time.

We humans have unique abilities we have exploited since the earliest of times, when we stopped being nomads and decided to stay put, and that is favoring the animals and plants that are most beneficial to us. We have long memories and we were intelligent enough to realize that certain annual grasses produced remarkably more seeds than the perennial grasses (like your lawn grass). These seeds, packed with extra nutrition by the plant to help get these seeds off to a competitive start against other plants which do not indulge their young with such nutritional largess, were nutritive enough for our needs. We could gather up these seeds from these plants and eat them, saving some for the following year to plant. Bam…this cavewoman (probably, men were probably too busy hunting) became the first farmer. She selected the best plants from year to year to propagate and soon we had grain plants. Now, all grain plants are annuals. That is, they die every year, and regrow only from seed. This means they put everything they’ve got into those seeds, which also need to make it through the entire non-growth season on their own. This is why I think no matter how much the good folks at the Land Institute work on their perennial grain plants, they will never match annuals. They are fighting biology, but I sure hope they do succeed.

But there is a way to break out of this agricultural paradigm using perennials, we just need to put Ruminants in the middle, where they can work their magic for our benefit. The common pasture plants are all perennials; some, like White Clover, are practically immortal. No planting every year. No need to fertilize constantly–the manure does most of the job. And the foods produced from ruminants are of very high nutrient density, much more dense than any grain. In fact, they are too dense for our needs post-infancy, and we will always need to grow a little grain for our bread. But we certainly don’t need as much, and we certainly don’t need to feed massive amounts of grain to animals like chickens and pigs, which is what we are doing these days. Interestingly, using ruminant magic isn’t really new. The idea corresponds to the traditional animal husbandry patterns of many peoples all over the world. I am only suggesting that we apply the latest technologies to improve productivity: electric fence, modern hay making equipment, genetic improvement to the animals and pasture plants. And none of these technologies are fossil-fuel based. While they do use some, they use far less than the heavy machinery needed to efficiently grow and harvest tremendous quantities of grain.

Another side benefit to this model is that it will greatly reduce the amount of tillage, and therefore erosion, which is the chief ecological villain of our time (the second being ruination of freshwater sources, and third being “climate change”). It also dovetails with tree production, which provides building material, fuel, and food in the forms of nuts and fruit. It’s quite easy to grow some trees in a pasture compared to a field that is tilled.

Posted in Dairy Cattle, Food, Grass, Pasture Farming, Pigs | Leave a comment

Improvements to a “deer rifle”

Since purchasing a Mossberg 464 last year, I’ve done a few things to it which I consider essential to making it a good, reliable deer rifle.

IMG_2644 (1)

To begin with, any rifle you hunt with you need to trust. To trust a rifle, you must shoot it, and you must shoot it with a variety ammunition. This “research and development” phase is very important because it not only enables load development and accuracy testing, sighting in the sights and scope, but also provides opportunities for the rifle to screw up, to jam, to demonstrate unexpected changes in point of impact under barrel heating and other conditions. This is the phase where you learn about the rifle, the loads, and a little bit about yourself.

Even though this rifle demonstrated very good accuracy last year in testing using Hornady factory loaded 150 grain round nosed bullets, it did have fail-to-fire one time, and it experienced one jam that I wasn’t sure was caused by the rifle or poor lever-stroking technique. It worked well enough. This summer when I pursued some serious load development and hand-loading (in a effort to find the “perfect load”), I gradually came to the conclusion that the rifle had excessive headspace. I think it was within spec for whatever Mossberg quality control considered acceptable, but it was nearly the max of the limit. Excessive headspace (too deep of counter-bore of the bolt in this case) reduces case life, it usually decreases accuracy, and increases felt recoil. In fact, sometimes the recoil would be so severe with 170 grain bullets that it would “bump” the action open. This would not do, and rather than attempt to build up the bolt face with shim stock, I decided it would be better just to send the rifle back to Mossberg where they would swap the original bolt out for different one with a slightly less deep counterbore (a few thousandths).

Mossberg customer service is by far the best firearm customer service I’ve ever dealt with. I normally dread this because not only does it involve dropping $25 to ship a rifle, it usually takes a long time and you get back your rifle all messed up. Mossberg was great. Mailed it and not even three weeks later I received it back in perfect working condition, the scope bases and swivel studs weren’t removed, and it looked as good as new. It is like another rifle now. Less recoil. Brass barely stretches, and it is even more accurate. I just put the scope back on without moving the rings and it returned very nearly to zero. I am not a believer in quick detachable rings. Just carry a little T15 Torx head Allen wrench with you (that fits the screws on most scope rings). This way, should you need to remove the scope and use the sights, you’ll be able to easily remove the scope.

With that issues addressed, I decided to improve it in some other ways. I added studs so I could attach swivel-type rifle rifle slings. I highly recommend Grovetec brand studs and swivels. They are very well made, all steel, and smooth. And I put on my new favorite sling made by Montana gun slings. What I particularly like about this sling is the ingenious friction knot in the sling that allows you to quickly and easily adjust the length of the loop in the sling so you can go from a comfortable carry length to a shorter, braced shooting length. It also means that the rifle is adjustable to size for whoever is using it, without need to mess around with detaching hardware.


Posted in Grass, Hunting | Leave a comment

Keep your bills up!

I am beginning to find more and more reasons to prefer ducks to chickens as a egg-producing animal on a small holding, especially if gardening is underway.

I’ve already detailed how much simpler and cheaper duck housing is compared to chicken housing, mainly because ducks don’t roost. I’ve also mentioned that have far more endearing personalities, they can be herded about like sheep, and they don’t scratch the ground, making them far more benign in a place with gardening.


Slug massacre underway.

But they have some more advantages. One is that they are active foragers in the rain and other adverse weather. Ducks love the rain. It’s almost as if when it is no raining they are slightly depressed and have to keep encouraging each other for the day when the rain comes again. When it rains they can really devastate slug populations. Worms and slugs come towards the surface when it rains and ducks rove through the herbage with genocidal glee. The worms always come back, because some stay below the surface, but slugs are set back for a long time once ducks have cleared the area. Ducks will also pick off cabbage caterpillars from any fall brassicas you have, especially if the brassicas aren’t green (like Red Cabbage and some kinds of Kale).

Another advantage to ducks is that they are quite habitual and have a flocking instinct, unlike chickens. Sometimes I think chickens have such poor memories that they scatter and wander to and fro because they forget what they are doing. Ducks on the other hand remember quite well, and like dairy cattle, get used to daily patterns which make them easier to manage. We no longer fence in our ducks, we simply put a fence around their duck house to protect it from predators. They go out as they please in the day foraging and then always return at nightfall and daybreak for their feeding of scratch grain (we no longer feed them total rations, and they seem to be doing just as well). Unlike chickens they do not end up on your door step, or in the neighbor’s barnyard. They don’t cross the road. They always stay within eyeshot of the pond, their refuge and protector. Because of this their fencing costs are much lower than chickens.


Ducks are always smiling by the way.

Ducks, like dairy cattle, possess a certain dignity that chickens seem to lack that I find amusing. They develop a sort of fondness for whoever feeds them (my oldest daughter) and will follow him or her around. They are quite willing to let you pick them up, or at least don’t put up much of a fight when you do, but when you put them down and let them return to their kind they set about to fastidiously clean themselves of any human stink; they are quite indignant about the whole affair. They also get into amusing fights. When chickens fight, it is not amusing at all. Chickens can kill each other and do. Ducks can’t really hurt each other with those round bills and paddle feet, so they make up for it in quack intensity. Like a grouchy old married couple who would never hurt each other but bicker loudly. They seldom randomly quack, and in fact, at night it is almost assurance there is something amiss. Chickens just make noise for any reason or no reason at all, yet are completely silent when skunks are them eating alive.

Posted in Ducks, Gardening, Weather | Leave a comment

Clay soil carrots

Carrots in most temperate climates are better sewn in late summer and harvested in fall or even winter rather than the typical springtime planting of most garden vegetables. This is because cold weather sweetens carrots while hot weather toughens them. Carrots and their relatives (Parsley and Parsnips) tolerate cold weather quite well; their leaves take frosts, and they seem to grow at even low temperatures. We’ve not yet experienced nightly frost this year, but we are beginning to harvest them anyway, and we will go on harvesting through December probably.


Danvers Half-Long on left, Push Rudhira on the right.

One of challenges of this veggie family is they have tiny seeds that don’t germinate so well. It takes irrigation to get them going on our place as September and October are the driest months of the year. But once they get going, the deep taproot seems to find moisture quite well. They grow better in fall than most other veggies, but are not in the same league as some Brassicas: Kale, Turnips, Swedes, and Radishes all grow quite well in fall.

Another challenge, which is not so easily addressed, is that carrots prefer sandy soil. In fact, I have read that commercial carrots are basically grown in sand bathed in nitrogen and other plant nutrients. This is why they look so perfect and are so long and narrow. When you grow carrots in clay-rich or even clay-dominant soil, like ours, you never get those long, thin carrots, but you can still grow good carrots, even if they do not achieve the grocery-store standard of visual perfection. The answer lies in good soil management and selecting varieties of carrots which can cope.

The Danvers Half-long is a “classic” variety for clay soils and works quite well for us. They have a very ordinary, traditional carrot flavor. Seeds are cheap, and they are productive.

The other variety we tried this year are the Push Rudhira carrots, which are from India. These supposedly have more nutrients in them than ordinary carrots, but they are certainly strange looking things. They have a tendency to fork for us, supposedly an indicator of overly fertilized soil. They are quite sweet. I wouldn’t use these carrots in a dish where the ordinary carrot flavor is called for, and I think they wouldn’t make a normal-tasting Mirepoix, but I like them for fresh eating, and our kids prefer them. They are coarser and crunchier than usual, and have surprising flavors not normally found in carrots (almost tomato-like). They are about as productive as the Danvers Half-long. We’ve found them no hardier or easier to grow compared to more ordinary varieties.

Posted in Food, Gardening, Weather | Leave a comment

Makin’ Bacon

One of the more worthwhile foods to produce at home is bacon. It is also somewhat fun. However, to make bacon, you’re going to need a pig.


Homemade bacon is better left as a solid chunk and sliced as desired.

We don’t raise pigs, at least not yet. Being an animal that one more or less feeds foods to that one can otherwise eat they are a “luxury” food. This is one of the practical reasons why I think it was forbidden in the lean Old Testament times. But we are not so lean anymore. We are producing an excess of workable pig food.

Pigs are magnificent animals at disposing of excess food, or food that is of too low a grade for human consumption. Have some whey left over from cheesemaking, or buttermilk left over from butter making? Feed it to pigs. Just have excess milk from an over-productive cow? Feed it to the pig. Have a bunch of large kitchen scraps that chickens can’t handle? Feed it to a pig with those marvelous molars. Wormy apples, nuts with bugs in them…to the pig. You’ll get it back in the form of an animal that is ideal for butchery and nearly every part delicious, especially bacon, which imparts flavor to so many other foods.

I highly recommend Butchering by Adam Danforth. It is just an outstanding book and covers poultry, lamb, and pork. Frankly, lamb is an awful lot like deer. It’s a better deer butchery guide than any book I’ve come across. The greatest challenge to processing a pig is scraping–the laborious, tedious, and time inefficient process of removing hair from the skin. Scraping involves heating up copious amount of water and requires a big metal vat, too. There is another way, however, one that I never thought of, but which I’ve used on ducks…JUST SKIN IT.

Poultry and pig skin is edible, so traditionally folks have gone through the trouble of preparing it for consumption. Waste not, right? Chickens are easy to pluck, and I’ve read Turkeys are too. Ducks are not. They have a million small, oily feathers that you can’t get a grip on, and it takes forever to get every last one. After plucking about 3 ducks you just want to give up and skin them, so we did. It’s a small tragedy to lose all that wonderful duck fat, but the meat is just as good skinned. In fact, it’s better in oriental-style duck soups to work with skinless duck because there is less fat. We occidentals like to roast things, which renders the fat out.

I never considered skinning a pig for some reason, but now I believe it may be the way to go for the homesteader, despite the waste of the skin. We just sort of happened into this conclusion. A neighbor offered us a half-pig that a buyer backed out on. It was already dead, gutted, skinned, and chilled. The slaughterhouse did all the hard work for just $30, leaving us the butchering, which is more costly  than those other tasks if you have it done professionally. In fact, the hourly rate for butchery is so high it often exceeds the value of the pig. We paid $85 for the pig, which is less than a dollar per pound, but the quote for the butchery was over $100, and we could tell the slaughterhouse wasn’t interested in doing a one-off pig. Most slaughterhouses want to do one kind of animal per day. This particular place does cattle on Wednesday and pigs on Monday, so being Thursday, they were hot to get rid of it. So we took it, and they were happy, and we were happy, and we had to figure out how to butcher a pig.

After breaking the pig into primal cuts (a sturdy table, a few good knives and a good meat saw are essential here), it is easy to work each primal into the wrapped butcher products you desire. Hams, picnics, butts, chops, loins, and of course, ground pork, which can be turned into sausages of all kinds (and a good manual meat grinder is essential for this). Last of all comes the bacon, which comes from the belly of a pig. This is a fatty part of the animal, but there is much meat running through it. It would be very wasteful to render it for lard, or even to grind it with meatier pieces. By curing it you convert what is essentially a low-grade part of the animal into one of the most delectable. Basically you heavily salt it (with some sugar and spices) and place it in a refrigerator for about 5 days. This draws out moisture and imparts flavor. Then you smoke the the meat that has had the moisture reduced by the salt curing. We do it on a Weber grill, a very versatile device that can double as smoker, a pizza/steak oven, and many other tasks that Weber would never tell you about. Six charcoal briquettes and some green apple twigs did the job of providing very little heat and an abundance of smoke, which is desirable. After three hours, it was done. It wasn’t long before a bit was sliced off and fried in a skillet. The best bacon I’ve ever had.


Manual grinders are less expensive, easier to clean, smaller, safer, produce a better grind, and are slower. Their slowness is an advantage. The temptation of excessive grinding is too great with an electric grinder.

Now, since we didn’t add any nitrates or other preservatives, the bacon turns grayish (like a pork chop) when fried. It also will probably not last as long, and should be frozen and not refrigerated if longevity is desired. Most importantly, don’t waste the bacon fat. Much like roast duck, the fat from bacon renders out into the skillet. This can be poured off when hot into mug or glass jar and used to fry other things for which the bacon flavor is desired. Since the pig was skinned, and most of the visceral fat gets ground into sausage, this is about the only cooking fat that you will get from a pig treated this way. Lard to my palate is an inferior cooking fat, so I don’t miss it much.

Posted in Ducks, Food, Home Economics, Pigs | 1 Comment