4 min read
Dr. Mark Smith hunting deer with twin sons

More than 220,000 white-tail deer are harvested in Alabama each year. This equates to roughly 5.5 million pounds of venison making its way to the dinner table, grill, or other products such as various sausages or jerky.   

There are many venison dishes, from simple to highly sophisticated, and some of them would win over even the greatest skeptics. The bottom line? Venison that is properly cared for from field to table can be delicious. 

Bad experiences with venison are most likely a direct result of poor handling of the animal once it is harvested. The following are several tips for bringing home a freezer full of delicious, free-ranging protein for the table. 

Venison Harvest Tips

  • There are many methods used to field dress a deer or other large mammal. Everyone one has their own preferred method or process and there are several instructional videos available online to give guidance on field dressing an animal. The bottom line is to choose a quick and efficient method that minimizes the exposure of meat to bacteria sources such as the animal’s rumen or other stomach material, feces, urine, and foreign debris such as dirt. Keep in mind, bacteria naturally occurs nearly everywhere.
  • Always be sure to wear rubber, latex, or nitrile gloves when field dressing animals. This will reduce the risk of disease transmission through contact with bodily fluids, such as blood. Although likely quite low in most instances, there’s still no need to take the risk. Just wear gloves. 
  • Keep the knife as clean as possible during field dressing and butchering. A package of anti-bacterial wipes comes in handy for periodically cleaning off the knife blade and hands when necessary.   

Carcass Preservation

  • Above all else, get the carcass cooled and keep it cooled as soon as possible. Remember, the meat must be kept cool from the time the animal dies to the time it is cut, packaged, and placed in the freezer or consumed. Cooling wild game to less than 40 degrees F as quickly as possible will slow the growth of bacteria and keep the meat from spoiling. At no point during the process from field to table should the carcass be exposed to heat. Not only will heat spur the growth of bacteria which will eventually cause meat spoilage, it will also cause hair slippage from the hide resulting in a ruined cape of the trophy animal  intended for mounting.
  • When hunting in warm southern climates, or in the early archery seasons in the northern states, it is best to remove the hide to ensure proper cooling if the carcass will hang outside to cool. A general rule of thumb for deer-sized animals is to remove the hide if temperatures exceed 40 degrees F. Always remove the hide for larger animals such as elk or moose which, due to their larger body mass, will retain heat much longer. All of the thick hollow hair that keeps a deer warm during the harshest of winters also makes it harder to quickly cool down the carcass. However, in extremely cold environments it will be best to leave the hide on to minimize freezing.
  • To cool meat down quickly, submerse it in slurry of ice, water, and salt. Simply add coarse salt and some water to a cooler full of ice and stir.
  • If there is a need to rinse out the cavity due to leakage of intestinal fluids, feces, or urine, do so sparingly and wipe dry immediately using paper towels. The same goes for spraying down the outside hide, do so sparingly and wipe dry immediately. Remember, moisture causes bacteria to multiply, not only causing meat spoilage, but also hair slippage of the hide of a trophy animal.
  • Be on the lookout for, and be sure to remove, all bullet fragments throughout the entire wound channel and vicinity. It can be surprising just how far away from the wound site bullet fragments may be.    

Transportation and Storage

  • Avoid the use of plastic bags or tarps for transporting the carcass or parts thereof (i.e., hind quarters, front shoulders, etc.).  Plastics not only seal in moisture, but they also seal in heat. Use breathable cotton game bags or heavy duty cheese cloth bags made specifically for game meat. If there is no other choice but to use plastic, make sure the meat has thoroughly cooled before placing it in plastic bags. Also be sure to remove the meat from the bags each evening to cool and dry. 
  • Whether hanging an entire carcass, or game bags of meat, hang it in an area where there is plenty of shade throughout the day. Although it may feel cool outside, direct sunlight can heat up a deer carcass pretty quickly. Use a tarp to create shade if none exists as this will also keep water off your meat when it rains. 
  • When hunting in warm weather, and a long way away from a cooler, consider purchasing an insulated cooler bag to help keep the carcass cool. These full-sized insulated bags allow room for an entire carcass and some ice to keep everything cool until.   
  • Get meat up off of the ground because the ground acts as an insulator. As soon as possible, get the animal carcass hoisted into a tree to allow better circulation to speed up the cooling process. Hunters can also simply lay the carcass on top of a couple of logs. The main point is to allow good air circulation. No tree in sight for miles? No problem. Buy a portable hoist that fits in the trailer hitch of a truck. Not only will this get the carcass up off the ground, but it will also make gutting and skinning that much easier. 
  • Don’t tie the animal over the hood of a vehicle or load it in the trunk while it is still warm. Engine heat can ruin meat in a hurry. Although the harvest of an animal is something to be proud of, parading it around town in the heat of the day in the back of a pick-up is not a good idea either. 
  • Now that Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been confirmed in northwest Alabama, be sure to frequently check the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s CWD website for the latest information on CWD in the state and handling, processing, and transporting harvested deer and for additional information on how to bring back venison and trophies to Alabama from other states.
  • After you’ve finished butchering your deer, be sure to properly dispose of carcass once all meat has been removed. Please visit the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s CWD website for guidance in the handling, processing, and disposal of deer and deer parts.

More Information

Once the deer is hauled out of the woods and to camp or home, the forestry, wildlife, and natural resources team has a series of short how-to videos on processing and packaging venison. The Deer Processing Video Series includes easy to follow step-by-step instructions will get hunters well on the way to putting some healthy venison on the table.

For more information, contact Mark Smith, Extension Specialist


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