This headline could sum up a multitude of news reports over the last few years. Droughts and severe winters have left the United States beef herd size at a 63-year low. In response, beef prices have increased steadily with hamburger topping $4 a pound this year. Pork prices have jumped due to porcine epidemic diarrhea that has killed millions of baby pigs. Inflation, a growing human population, and a higher demand for meat in emerging economies also contribute to ever-increasing meat prices. Ironically, America’s deer herd has exploded in the last 30 years. The deer population in North America when the Europeans arrived has been estimated to have been over 50 million. With uncontrolled hunting, by 1900, they had been reduced to less than ½ million. Since being protected and reintroduced in many places, the deer population has rebounded to become a major overpopulation problem that exceeds what the land can bear. Presently, there are one or more species found across the continental U.S., southern Canada, Alaska, and northern Mexico, and the deer herd is estimated to now be higher than ever before. By some estimates the deer population can more than double in one year. There are more than a million vehicle/deer collisions each year with over 100 human deaths and a billion dollars in repair costs. Damage to gardens, landscaping, and agriculture and permanent damage to woodlands and prairies cost Americans millions more.
This is a scenario that repeats itself across my state each summer. A farmer has observed severe damage to his crops from deer and complains to the State Game and Fish Commission. Typically a group of Game Wardens, Sheriff Deputies, and others go to the designated crop field within the next few nights with spotlights and rifles. It is hot, the flies and mosquitoes are swarming, and the deer are covered in ticks and deer lice. The deer are shot and left for the buzzards and coyotes to eat. A lot of times the deer are intentionally gut shot so they will run into the woods to die. This keeps the carcass out of the way of farm equipment. Nobody likes to do this, but something has to be done. It would be much better if these deer could have been killed in the winter and the meat not gone to waste.
Preppers/survivalists are the ideal people to help solve this problem. They already own guns and know how to shoot. Many of the skills and tools needed to kill deer and process the meat are valued by people who want to be more self sufficient. In fact, mankind has been given dominion over all the animals and has a duty to not only keep populations in check but also to make sure none go extinct. You would think only in the land of plenty could there be high meat prices and an overabundance of deer at the same time. Still, we do have people in this country who cannot afford to buy as much meat as they would like. These facts beg the obvious question, “Why don’t more Americans kill deer to reduce their grocery bill and at the same time reduce the deer population?” I can think of numerous reasons I have heard over the years: “I do not have enough time.” “There is too much work involved.” “There is no place to hunt.” “I don’t like the taste.” I will admit that it takes time and work to hunt, kill, and process your own meat, but I think the skills that will be learned and keeping the population in check justify the effort. The expense will be less than the cost of store-bought meat, if you can hunt close to home and already own a suitable gun. Having a place to hunt will depend on where you live and who you know. People not liking the taste of venison, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle to overcome. For this reason, I would like to tell about my family’s journey to venison becoming our main source of meat.
Squirrel and rabbit hunting was the only hunting I had experienced until deer first began to repopulate our county in the early eighties. The first deer I ever shot was a small buck the day before my eighteenth birthday. No member of my immediate family had ever killed a deer, since there had not been any deer in our county for over 50 years. My mom cooked it, and we did not let any go to waste, but it was not as good as the beef and pork we raised on our farm. I did not kill another deer for six years. By then I was married and living in a county with a higher deer population. My wife had tried venison before we married and said it tasted nasty. We tried fried tenderloin in homemade biscuits and had our local meat processor make sausage, burger, and steaks, but it still didn’t taste as good as store-bought meat. Paying the local deer processor was expensive as the cost ran between fifty and one hundred dollars for each deer, depending on the cuts requested. I kept on hunting, because I loved it, but I would not shoot a deer unless it was a big buck. I was trophy hunting instead of meat hunting. We would not let the meat go to waste on the few, old, large-antlered bucks I killed each season, but sometimes a ravenous appetite was required to choke it down. Over the years I finally learned how to make even an old buck’s meat a treat to enjoy. Now we meat hunt first and primarily kill does, because their meat is not as tough and has a milder taste than a rutting buck’s. The killing of does is also the most effective way to keep the population in check now that our county is overrun with deer. On those rare times when a trophy buck happens along, the adrenaline still flows and he does not get a free pass. However, our focus is on meat rather than on antlers.
The taste of poorly processed and poorly cooked venison is probably the biggest reason we have a deer overpopulation problem. If every deer killed would be served up tasting like a grilled Black Angus steak or Prime Rib, we would not have very many deer. People usually acquire tastes for what they normally eat. Lots of foods eaten in other cultures and countries we would find unappetizing. That being said, venison can taste almost like steak with enough preparation. Beef is aged in a cooler to improve its taste. I do not have the facilities to do this for my deer, so I learned to improvise. There is a lot of written material and videos on skinning and butchering a deer that explains the process in much better detail than I can here, so I will concentrate on what happens after the butchering process. When I kill a deer, I try to get it deboned and in the freezer as soon as possible. Deer meat does not ruin very fast, but why take a chance? I shot a deer with a bow and arrow one afternoon and did not find it until 10:30 the next morning; still, the meat was just fine. The temperature did not fall below seventy degrees that night. Normally I do not even gut a deer if I can debone it immediately. After skinning, I cut the backstraps, or outside tenderloin, off each side of the spine from the neck to the hindquarters. (This is the best cut of meat.) Then the hindquarters and shoulders are removed. The hindquarters are the second best cut of meat. Any meat on the neck or carcass that can be used for burger is cut off. Lastly the inside tenderloin on each side of the inner spine is removed. If you want fried deer heart, make a cut between the upper ribs and reach in and pull it out. Watch detailed videos on butchering processes, if needed. I then debone the hindquarters and shoulders; all the deboned meat is wrapped and goes into the freezer. The bones and carcass go to my big dog. What is left after that– the head, hide, and guts– gets buried by a young fruit tree that will not start bearing for a few years. A few days before we need some meat, we remove a package of meat from the freezer to thaw. After thawing I use a fillet knife and a pair of catfish skinning pliers to trim and pull any fat, ligaments, or linings from the meat. It is important to remove anything that is not lean meat. A lot of the wild taste that people do not like is in the fat and blood. Ligaments and linings are difficult to chew, therefore, removing them is essential. The lean meat is dark colored; the fat, ligaments, and linings are white. I remove all the white and feed it to my dog, which prefers this over the best, store-bought dog food. Then, the meat is soaked in cold saltwater for about half an hour and rinsed repeatedly to remove blood. This is an important step, as the salt water helps get rid of the wild or strong taste people are not used to.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of meticulously trimming the meat and the removing the blood through soaking in salt water and rinsing. These two steps directly affect the quality of the finished product. To trim one hindquarter properly takes me at least 30 minutes, and I have been doing it for years. Commercial processors of deer will not spend the time to trim the meat meticulously. After the trimming and rinsing, steak-sized pieces are cut and submerged in saltwater in a covered dish in the fridge for at least one day and up to four days. When ready to grill, take them out of the saltwater and dry rub a seasoning salt for steaks on both sides. Then grill them at 500 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes on each side, until there is just a little pink left in the center. My wife never liked venison, and my youngest daughter is picky, but they both love deer cooked this way. The pieces that are too small to be eaten as a steak should be ground for burger or used in soups or stews. For a good burger on a bun, beef or pork fat have to be ground in with the lean venison, after the venison has been trimmed and rinsed. One of the best burgers I have eaten was ground venison blended with bacon ends at a ratio of 3 lbs of ends to 7 lbs of lean venison and then cooked on a George Foreman grill. Whatever way you choose to cook your venison, it will be better if it is trimmed properly and most of the blood is removed. Some areas in the United States do not have an overpopulation of deer or any deer, and unless you want to travel to an area that does, you cannot kill what is not there. Some of the telltale signs of deer population levels are road kill and visual sightings. Contacting your State Game and Fish Commission or talking to a local game warden is a quick way to determine local population levels. Having deer close to home makes it much easier to hunt them. If you can hunt private land that has a decent deer population, then you have it made. If not then public land is your next option. The first thing I do is find all the public land that is open to hunting within a two hour drive of home. The reasons I limit myself to a two hour drive are time and money concerns. This includes State Wildlife Management Areas and Federal lands. I go to my state’s Game and Fish website for state lands and United States Fish and Wildlife Service, B.L.M., or Corps of Engineers for Federal lands. Also, you can ask other hunters and game wardens about public land hunting opportunities in your area. I have hunted numerous public land areas over the past 25 years. The first thing I do after deciding on a particular spot is to study maps of the area. It is easy to look at maps online, and you should print one to have on your person when going to your chosen spot. With an old fashioned compass and a map, getting lost should not be an issue. Some of my most memorable and satisfying hunts have been when I used maps and aerial photos to pick an exact place to hunt on public lands. I get up in the wee hours of the morning and drive as close to my chosen spot as possible. I then take my rifle and gear and hike into where I want to hunt taking compass readings as I go. Most of the time, I climb a tree and settle into my portable tree stand well before daylight. As the sun rises and I can see my surroundings for the first time, it is almost like Christmas morning to find out if I have chosen a good place or not. It is probably better to scout the area first, but sometimes I like the challenge of hunting a new spot without prior scouting. More skills are required to hunt unfamiliar terrain on public land than hunting well known, private lands. That being said, I do appreciate being able to have good hunting land close to home. This allows a quick afternoon hunt when I get off work on week days and a deer in the freezer before bedtime, if I am lucky.
These are some of the benefits of deer hunting and processing your own meat:
- Help keep deer populations at a healthy level.
- Learn to use maps, compass, and GPS.
- Practice and increase proficiency with guns and possibly bow and arrow.
- Maintain all weapons and gear associated with hunting.
- Learn and practice tracking, scouting, and general outdoor skills.
- Spend less time watching T.V.
- Learn to identify what deer feed on and that you can eat some of the same things.
- Save money at the grocery store.
- Gain an abundance of low fat and totally organic meat.
- Learn how to butcher and process your own meat.
- See beautiful sunrises and sunsets, while getting fresh air and exercise.
I would like to encourage all those living in and close to deer overpopulation areas to do their part to keep populations in check. Experiment and learn to process and cook venison so it will be appreciated. Teach others to do the same. Last season we killed eight deer, and we just finished eating the last batch. This season will open in another month, so we should have killed one more to make it all the way through the year. Maybe, if enough people start utilizing deer meat, beef and pork prices will come down, due to reduced demand, thereby making meat more affordable to the people who can’t hunt.