A look at pandemic-era deer processing

The home processor spends a lot more time with their deer after the harvest, but saves

money and has flexibility to make several end products.

The 2021 deer season is underway, with all the tradition that comes with it. Part of that tradition, of course, is getting meat for the freezer. However, the trip that venison will take on the way to the freezer might be a little different this year.

Donovan Pekarna, self-described “jack-of-all-trades” at Grundhofer’s Old Fashion Meats in Hugo, says there is limited capacity for processing this year, and he cites a lack of employees as the cause: “We just don’t have the help, actually.”

Once the season gets underway, he predicts Grundhofer’s could limit the number of deer they take in to around 100 per week or weekend. As for the condition of the deer, he says, “We want it whole, with the hide on.”

At Flicker Meat Company in White Bear Lake, manager Jeremy Hosek anticipates high demand but reduced capacity to respond. “We’d like to do whole deer, but this year there is a lack of staff, due to COVID. It’s hard to find people to skin and cut deer.” He doesn’t foresee a limit to the number of deer Flicker will accept, but it’s not out of the question. To keep up with demand, Hosek says they would like hunters to bring their deer skinned and quartered. He hopes to go back to accepting whole deer in 2022.

If they don’t plan ahead, it looks like hunters who end up notching their tags will likely encounter difficulty finding somebody else to process their deer. It could be enough in 2021 to mint another generation of DIY processors.

More and more hunters have started processing their own deer in recent decades for various reasons. Whether true or not, one commonly cited reason is that hunters have low confidence that they will get their deer’s actual meat back from a processor. Many worry that any measures they may have taken to bring the best meat to the processor will have been negated by those who didn’t.

Besides quality concerns, the cost of bringing meat to a commercial operation can be prohibitive, especially for those with multiple deer. Current prices in this area run from $125 to $200 for basic processing; extra services like grinding and making sausage cost more. Those costs have caused many to invest in their own processing equipment, and they often see savings in the first year.

Essential equipment for home processing is surprisingly minimal, since an entire deer can be reduced to steaks, roasts, and other basic cuts. All that is required is knives for skinning and deboning, as well as butcher paper and tape for wrapping. Some other items—like meat tubs and large cutting boards—are useful, but not necessary.

As far as know-how, all a hunter needs to do is learn the different large parts (or “primal cuts”) on a deer, which are not very different from beef. Once skinned, a deer is easily broken down into those parts, and soon deboned and wrapped. Common end products include rump and shoulder roasts, loins, loin (a.k.a. “chop”) and sirloin steaks, and stew meat.

This minimalist method will take care of all parts of the animal, but does not account for some favorites, like ground meat or sausage. Grinding one’s own venison requires a grinder of some sort, whether it be commercial grade, home mixer attachment, or even an old-fashioned hand grinder. Beef fat is usually added, because venison is naturally very lean.

But in the absence of a grinder, a commonly used alternative is to freeze the trimmings and cuts to be ground commercially. The ultimate cost is then reduced to grinding and mixing with beef fat. Moreover, going to a processor in January or February (after the deer season rush is over) can ensure that one’s final product is from their own deer.

No matter how a deer will be processed, a few tips will go a long way toward ensuring a year of good meals. First, cool the meat as fast as possible after the harvest. Keep it cool until processing; employing coolers and ice may be necessary in warm weather. Separate meat from ice and water to keep it from becoming waterlogged.

Second, take care during skinning to cut through as little fur as possible. Keeping hairs from getting on the meat during the skinning process is far easier than removing them later.

Third, freeze with as little air in the packaging as possible. Air in contact with the meat causes freezer burn and undesirable flavors— sometimes very quickly.

Hunters interested in trying their hand at home processing will find a wealth of helpful information online. Quality photos and videos go a long way toward understanding the various cuts of meat.

Availability for commercial processing this year is widely expected to be limited. Those who wish to take their deer to a commercial processor are advised to call ahead.


Roy Heilman is a contributing writer for Press Publications. He can be reached at news@presspubs.com or 651-407-1200.

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