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Have knives will travel

Fri, May 2nd, 2003
Posted in Features

Tarry Litscher of Litscher Processing in Rushford is one of the few on-farm butchers who will do custom processing on the farm. On average, Litscher will on-farm-butcher between 120-150 beef a year. Photo by Mike McGrath

Any farmer who raises cattle for his own meat knows that there are a number of small processing plants around Fillmore County that provide the valuable service of butchering and processing the homegrown stock.

When its timewhen the critter is "finished" for meatthe farmer loads him up and hauls him to town where the butcher converts the animal to fresh steaks, roasts and burgers.

While getting the beef critter to the butcher may be easy most of the time, what happens when the steer thats been raised for butchering is an unmanageable, "Ornery Charlie," who from an early age was an independent cuss, a fence jumper, a kicker and runner who just didnt like to be controlled or contained?

Perhaps the reason "Ornery Charlie" was even kept for finishing is because he just refused to be loaded onto the trailer with the other calves and charged over the gate and over the hill to faraway pasturesselected for finishing by default because of his "bull headedness."

Well, thats when you call in Litscher Processing in Rushford. Owner and butcher Tarry Litscher is the last of the local on-farm butchers. Tarry is a man whose skills with a shotgun and a knife can make clean, quick work of the otherwise daunting task of dealing with the "Ornery Charlies" of Fillmore County.

It was inevitable that I would eventually get an Ornery Charlie on my farm. Our Charlie was every bit the fence jumper from an early age and that is why he was "chosen" to be our next beef critter. As I wondered how I would ever get Charlie in a trailer to haul him to town, a neighbor told me about Litschers services, so I made an appointment.

It was a gray and chilly afternoon last December when Tarry arrived at my farm at about 2:30. In the back of his pickup sat a large, stainless steel flat pan and several buckets of tools.

"Let me see your tractor and loader," Tarry said after a cordial introduction.

I pulled my tractor out of the shed and raised the loader as high as it would go.

"Yeah, that will work," said Tarry. "Where is he?"

"Up the valley," I responded. "Hop on and well go get him."

As we drove up the valley, the small herd of beef cattle, so accustomed to expecting that hay is coming when they hear the tractor, came to greet us on the farm road. Charlie was leading the group just as he always did.

"There he is, right in front," I said as I stopped the tractor to contemplate how we would set up the whole processwhere we might get Charlie to move to for the final act.

Suddenly, I noticed that immediately to my left stood Tarry with his shotgun raised and pointed right at Charlie, 60 feet away.

"Boom!" went the discharge from Tarrys shotgun and down went Charlie with a slug between the eyes, dropped right in his tracks in the middle of the farm road.

"Wow," I thought to myself as Tarry laid down the gun and quickly went to work. "This guy wastes no time!"

With a knife as sharp as a morning razor, Tarry made several skilled cuts for draining the blood and preparing a spot to hook Charlies leg for the loader lift. In just a few minutes I was backing the tractor down the road with Charlie swinging from the end of the loader while the other cattle looked on in wonder. We stopped at a clean grassy area near the barn and I laid Charlie down for the surgery.

Shoot, skin, gut, split, quarter, load and gone. Thats the process of steps that Tarry works through when he comes to the farm.

"This is what I like the mostgoing out on the farm to butcher," said Tarry as he skillfully slid the knife between the skin and the meat.

"You never know what youre going to have to deal with when you get to the farm," added Tarry. "Sometimes theyre really wild and you shoot them as they run. This one was easy."

For Tarry, on-farm butchering is a niche that keeps him busy. "I do about 120 to 125 beef a year," he explains. "But I also do sheep, lamb, hogs, buffalo, and during the fall and winter, lots of deer."

Tarry doesnt do any killing at his processing plant, only the aging and processing. He also has a retail meat counter at his state-inspected butcher shop in Rushford where customers can purchase a wide selection of choice beef and pork, and also specialty items like bologna, sausage, and smoked meats, all made behind the counter.

Litscher Processing is widely known throughout the area as the place to get your venison processed. For five months of the year Tarry processes over 500 deer for local residents. About half of the deer are brought in already boned out for Tarry to make venison sausage, a local specialty.

We were twenty minutes into the skinning and gutting process and I was sitting up on the tractor following his instructions for lifting Charlie higher to facilitate each step, when we both noticed that the other cattle had now gathered at the gate and were looking on to see what was happening.

"You know what those cows are saying to each other down there?" Tarry asked as he nodded towards the bovine crowd gathered to gawk at our little proceeding.

"No, what?" I asked curiously.

"There saying: Ooooh, Charlies going to be really mad when he wakes up and sees what theyre doing to him!"

As I looked at Charlie lying there with his four legs pointed straight up in the air, I burst into laughter, which I sorely needed at that point, and thought about how mean Charlie had been as the "bully" of the herddespite the good life he had been living on our green, grassy hills.

"Ok, lets lift him all the way up," instructed Tarry as he split the carcass in two halves for the final steps.

I carefully operated the tractor and loader to swing the sides of beef over the stainless steel pan in the back of the pickup. When the meat was just above the pan, Tarry made two skillful cuts to disjoin the halves into quarters that were then lowered slowly into the pan.

"Ok, that does it," he said with a smile and a handshake. "How long do you want him to age?"

As Tarry drove up the farm lane towards the road I looked down at my watch. It was 3:40. One hour and ten minutes had passed since Tarry arrived and our beef was now on its way to the aging cooler in Rushford.

As I drove the tractor across the farm to the woodland where I knew Mother Nature would assist in the recycling of Charlies unwanted parts, I reflected on how, in a country where most people havent a clue of where their food comes from, we here in Fillmore County are quite fortunate to be able to raise our own food, and have the services of a local craftsman like Tarry Litscher, whose skills can provide the bridge that connects the farm field to the farm table.

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