How to Slaughter and Field Dress a Cow for Year-Round Meat

If you have considered slaughtering a cow for the first time, this article will give you information on what you need to do and consider before making that first step. It will walk you through the basics of slaughtering and field dressing.

Before any slaughtering begins, the following is recommended for 24 hours leading up to it:

  • Choose a healthy cow
  • Stop the feed 24 hours before slaughter
  • Do NOT stop access to water
  • Keep the cow calm, to prevent issues with bleeding

Pay attention to the upcoming temperatures, because nights below freezing will help the carcass to properly chill, with no need for refrigeration. If it’s above freezing, the meat and carcass will need refrigerating.

Slaughter Preparation 

Make sure the area you choose to do the slaughtering is dry, clean, and dust-free, such as a well-drained grassy area.

Everything should be clean before you start the slaughtering, chilling, and processing stages, including:

  • Equipment
  • Work Area
  • Storage Area
  • Clothing
  • Hands

Before you start, you should know that you can chill the carcass, without refrigeration as long as the carcass temperature doesn’t rise above 40°F. The carcass should also hang in a clean and dry building, free from contamination and odors, while it’s in the aging process.

Don’t Let the Carcass Spoil

Here are a few causes of the carcass or meat spoiling:

  • Improper Chilling – Internal temperature of carcass should be around 40°F, within 24 hours of slaughtering.
  • Improper Freezing – Packaged meat should be frozen at 0-6°F, for up to a year.
  • Poor Sanitation – The slaughtering, chilling, and processing areas need to be clean and dry.
  • Odor Absorption – Any strong odors within the processing area, will most likely be absorbed into the meat.

Basic Equipment

You will might want, at minimum, the following items for doing your own slaughter:

  • Stunning device (such as a 22 caliber rifle)
  • Block and tackle hoist, or hydraulic lift
  • Beef spreader (such as a tree with hooks, on both ends, and a center ring)
  • Skinning knife
  • 6” boning knife
  • 8” butcher knife
  • 24-26” meat saw
  • Clean and cold water

As mentioned, this is the minimum you will want to have on hand.

How to Stun and Kill the Cow

This process should be done as humane as possible. If you choose to use a rifle, follow guidelines for firearm safety. The targeted shot should be at the intersection of 2 imaginary lines from the right horn to the left eye, and from the left horn to the right eye.

How to Bleed the Cow (done IMMEDIATELY after cow drops)

Immediately after the cow is down, bleed it. Standing behind the cow, use a sharp skinning knife to slit the throat, from the jaw, through the carotid artery. The cow should now be brain dead and won’t suffer.

A cow holds a LOT of blood, so expect it to take at least a half hour for it to bleed out.

How to Skin the Cow

Use the following steps to skin the cow. With the cow on its back, take the following steps:

  • Remove forefeet and shanks (at the knee) by cutting through the flat joint. The hind legs should be skinned out at this step as well.
  • Holding the skinning knife on a flat angle, split its hide from the opening (the front of the brisket) to the midline of its belly, to the bung.
  • At the rear, split the hide by the hind of each leg (starting where the shank has been removed), going towards the udder (or scrotum) area. Wait until the carcass has been hoisted to skin the hind outside (and front of legs).
  • For the siding step, glide your knife under the cut skin over its belly, grasping the loosened outer skin to pull outward and up. Firmly place the knife against its hide, keeping the cutting edge slightly turned to the hide. Using long strokes, you can now remove the hide down the sides of the carcass.

Open the Carcass

If it’s a male, remove the penis before you start to open it. Once the skinning is complete, cut through the brisket center, then use a saw to cut through the breastbone.

There is a white, thick membrane covering each round muscle in the pelvis area. Use that as a guide to follow, which can help in avoiding a cut into the muscle. A knife could be forced between any soft cartilage joining the pelvic bone. If the cow is older, the pelvis may need to be sawed.

Now it’s time to hoist the carcass. Insert the hooks (of the beef spreader) into the hind legs’s tendons. Once the carcass has been hoisted, you can finish skinning.

The bung can be removed by cutting around it, on both sides and back, then pull it through the pelvic cavity. Continue to pull both the bung and the intestines, while you cut the ligaments which attach the intestines to the back.

Pull on the paunch in order to loosen it from the carcass, then cut the esophagus, near the diaphragm, letting the paunch and intestines to drop.

Next, remove the liver, then the gallbladder.

Make sure the head is off the ground, then cut out the diaphragm in whole. Pull the heart and lungs down and forward to cut out the large blood vessel that is attached to the backbone. You should remove the esophagus, heart, and lungs as one item.

After it’s completely skinned, the head should be removed. You can do this by slicing across the neck (through the atlas joint and above the poll).

The internal organs, and dressed carcass, should be examined for any abnormalities that could have a negative effect on the meat.

Splitting the Cow Carcass

The carcass should now be cut into two sides, by sawing completely through the sacral vertebrae. Do this from the inside. Once the cut is through the pelvis area, it would be easier to continue sawing through the back, making a split down the backbone’s center, to the neck. To help with balance, leave the neck attached to the carcass.

Look for any excessively bloody, or soiled and bruised pieces of meat. To help drain blood from the forequarters, pump them (up and down) a few times.

Next, use cold water to help wash the carcass and remove dirt and blood.

The appearance of the carcass will be more appealing if you shroud it with clean and wet white muslin. Make sure the shrouding is tight and secure with ties or skewers. This step will help the exterior fat smooth out while it chills.

Age the beef before cutting it, using the following guidelines:

  • A carcass with a thin layer of fat – 3-5 days
  • Thicker layers of fat – 5-7 days
  • Fully covered in fat – up to 10 days

Any longer than these recommendations will increase the risk of unwelcome odors and even spoilage. Keep in mind, if the temperature of the carcass goes above 40°F at any time, the time for aging should be reduced. In fact, if you find that the temperature has risen above that, start the process of cutting up the meat.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.