Each year in the United States, somewhere around 6 million deer are
killed by hunters. How many of these deer end up at commercial
processors versus DIY (“Do It Yourself “) processing is anyone’s guess, but by our best estimates, at least half of these deer are likely handled by
commercial processors, probably more like two thirds. First things first: We strongly advise any serious hunter to learn the basic skills of
butchering deer. While there is a time and a place for commercial
processors, especially while travelling, no one is going to put the kind of
effort into the job that you will and even if you do not always have time to butcher your own deer, having knowledge of the subject will allow you to
hold commercial processors to a higher standard.
Commercial processors are not all created equal. It is a unfortunate
observation that many hunters choose a processor based on a limited
number of factors which can be distilled down to simply to a matter of
convenience and a matter of cost. While understandable that one might
use the processor that is closest to your home or hunting grounds, it is not uncommon to drive out of your way in order to hunt quality land,
therefore, you should be willing to drive out of your way to use a quality
processor if in fact you require their services.
Cost: It seems that the average cost for a average whitetail deer processing job these days is about $65, though paying up to $120 for specialty cuts and sausages is not uncommon and basic jobs in the $35 range are out there. Some people balk at paying prices close to $100 for a butchering job, however, if you consider the cost of contemporary hunting, this is but a drop in the bucket. A single modern arrow and broadhead, sometimes destroyed in a kill, costs you $20+, for example. If paying ~$75 for a quality processing job seems too expensive, you should definitely consider learning to butcher yourself. You should also consider that with an average return of say ~45 pounds of meat, a $100 processing job is a mere ~$2 a pound (though, if you hunt Elk, caribou, moose or Northwoods deer, this number can get $$ real quick). Regardless, choosing the “cheapest” processor may actually end up costing you more per pound since a $45 job may only yield you 29% and a $60 job down the road may yield you 44%. The price tag is not necessarily indicative of the value.
Questions you should have about any deer processor:
1. Do I get my deer back? Seems like a simple enough question, though it is not uncommon for a processor to give you a “spread” of meat from someone else’s deer even multiple deer. Why should you care if you get your deer or not? I’ll answer that question with a question (a intentional logical fallacy, if you will) : Why wouldn’t you INSIST upon getting your deer? (feel free to answer that in the comment section). More importantly, wild game are not killed in controlled circumstances like domestic animals. As a result, you get a wide swing of variance surrounding the circumstances of death. Some animals are gut shot, some animals are left in the woods overnight, some animals run long distances before being recovered, other animals sit in the direct sun in the back of trucks for hours. Additionally, you have hunters who do sub par gutting jobs possibly spilling feces and urine on the tenderloins and, more common, dirt and hair on the meat. Is it fair for you to take extreme care with a animal that you killed only to receive the meat of a gut shot deer that ran for miles, laid dead in a (humid) swamp for 9 hours, was dragged for miles, covered in dirt and hair and then laid in the back of a truck for 3 hours in the direct sun? If the answer to this question is “no”, then you should not be patronizing processors that do not give you the meat from your deer. Furthermore, many hunters go to great lengths and exercise restraint until the most ideal, ethical and even meat-saving kill shots are executable. Other hunters, generally a small minority, will take most any shot that presents itself. This is a individual question of ethics, but do not let someone with a lower standard of ethics determine the quality of your next meal.
Another thing to consider here is that some processors who give you a “spread” of deer meat, give you the same amount of meat regardless of the size of deer you killed. In other words, hunter A kills a 200 pound, mature buck and hunter B kills a 70 pound yearling doe and both hunters get an equal amount of meat back.
2. What is your average yield? If you do a detailed processing job, you can usually get a ~45% yield, even 50%. If you use the Offal and cook the bones down to stock, you can even crack 50%. However, it is not uncommon for commercial processors to get a 30 to 35% yield, especially after opening weekends of different weapons throughout the season. This is largely due to the volume of deer they are handling and the fact that most of their customers do not scrutinize their practices. It is also not unheard of for processors to sell meat that they claim their customers never picked up. While this may happen from time to time, it is also not unheard of for hunters to receive their butchered deer with only 1 backstrap. Upon questioning, the processor might respond that any meat not returned was too damaged by the kill shot, which may or may not be true. Also note that some processors retain a 20% “butchers cut” for their own purposes. One might then be ”suspicious” of the $5 to $20 a pound jerkies, sausages and meat sticks for sale.
3. If adding fat to ground, what percent? I have seen breakfast sausage come from processors with a fat content of 50%. At this point, nothing about your ground venison tastes like venison. It is also a way for the processor to inflate your pricing and/or make you feel like you are getting a higher yield. You should limit the fat content to no more than 20% for ground meat and up to ~30% for sausage. (Sausage fat content is debatable, though keep in mind that there is a tipping point where blended venison will no longer taste like venison).
4. Where does the fat come from? I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that most processors are going to use the cheapest source of fat that they can get their hands on. If this is the case, you might philosophically consider that you are taking a free range, wild animal that may have been consuming a 100% natural diet and blending it with content from an industrially raised cattle that was likely finished on a corn diet. You may or may not consider this a compromise, but you should definitely consider it. If possible, use fat from grass fed beef or free range (even better, wild) pork. You could even give your processor the fat that you wish to be used. Also note that I have heard numerous hunters complain of receiving ground venison that was mixed with rancid fat. Either their processor purchased rancid fat and knowingly or unknowingly used it, or it sat in the processor’s cooler too long and he knowing or unknowingly used it. Either way, would you trust a processor that can’t tell if fat is rancid and would you trust a processor that would knowingly add rancid fat to your deer meat?
5. Are the seasonings fresh? Seasonings that sit on shelves for long periods of time lose their freshness. I once received some sausage from a processor where the seasonings tasted like sawdust. Obviously, the seasonings had been sitting on the shelf for a long time, or the processor purchased cheap seasonings. Like anything else food related, high quality, fresh ingredients go a long ways. Treat your hard earned deer with high quality ingredients and you will appreciate the meat that much more.
6. How is it packaged? Packaging can certainly make a difference in cost. Butcher paper is fine, though, more expensive, vacuum sealing will extend the life further. For my home processing, I use butcher paper on cuts of meat that I expect to use in the next couple of months. Items that I expect will be in the freezer for extended periods of time, will go in vacuum sealed bags. Since I do not have a commercial vacuum sealer, cuts that are too large to vacuum seal such as neck roasts, shanks or whole legs, I wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then place in butcher paper. Some processors use grocery store style packaging which is meat on trays wrapped in plastic. This practice is fine and will preserve meat effectively, though you should be careful when digging through the freezer as this thin plastic can easily be ripped or punctured and leave you with freezer burn.
In the end, the most important thing is for the hunter to have a properly butchered animal that he or she is happy to cook and eat. While you may have no interest in DIY butchering, or simply do not have the time to do so, knowledge on the subject can improve your return. Also note that even if you do not have a meat grinder, you can always butcher a deer yourself and then take the portions you want ground to a processor for the task.
Have advice? Have a story about commercial deer processing? Tell us about it.