Outdoorsmen and women pursue fish and wild game for reasons such as making memories with family or friends, time spent in the wild or on the water, and, the most important reason in my opinion, to fill the freezer.
You’ll often hear hunters argue they are closer to their meals because of this direct role in the harvest, and while this is entirely true when compared to picking up meat at the store, there are still ways to be even more in control of the entire process from field to fork. And, that is by owning the processing of the harvest.
Now it can surely be overwhelming when looking at all the different items one can buy to get started, but here are a few things to consider before you buy.
Start with the basics needs
Put the meat slicer, dehydrator and sausage stuffer back on the shelf. You don’t need them to get started with meat processing. Surely, they can be useful in the long run, but all you need to get started on processing your own meat is a good knife, a grinder and a vacuum sealer. Add in a small bone-saw and you are more than prepared for anything you should come across.
Now, chances are you already have a good knife, so just make sure to keep it sharp. When looking at grinders, think about how many animals you plan to grind a year. Anything more than one, and I would suggest starting with a .5HP grinder as they will grind meat more quickly and the components will last longer than those base models. If you want to make sausages, know some grinders can come with implements to do so.
Also, think about volume and frequency of use when searching for a vacuum sealer. Don’t skimp if you think it has the chance to become something you’ll use often or even use regardless of when hunting seasons are in.
Processing equipment is an investment
It is easy to have sticker shock at the thought of buying a grinder at a price tag of $300 or more and a vacuum sealer at a price point starting at $100, but consider the cost of your local processor turning your deer into only steaks and ground meat, and you’ll quickly recoup your purchase costs. Depending on what part of the country you live in, you could be looking at a range of approximately $75-100 for the basics, meaning after as few as five deer, you’ll be on the plus side of your investment. If you typically buy smoked sausages or other specialty items from your processor that come at a premium cost, or you use the vacuum sealer to preserve perishable grocery store items for longer periods, you’ll see an even quicker return.
Once you get the hang of things, there are plenty of other pieces of equipment you could invest in: meat slicers for making your own lunch meats; dehydrators and jerky guns for making jerky; mixers and sausage stuffers for more easily cranking out snack sticks, smoked sausages and more.
Control the cuts
You can ask your processor to give you specialty cuts or items off your animal, but chances are it will cost you more because they are spending more time on the butchering. With processing your own animals, the sky is the limit. For starters, you’ll learn where your favorite cuts come from as you breakdown shoulders and hindquarters. But, you’ll also be able to start processing more intricate things such as frenched rib roasts, T-bone steaks, or simply keep lesser known cuts like the eye of round or neck roasts out of the grind pile.
For turkey season, no longer reserve legs and thighs for the crock pot. Run them through the grinder for use in place of any recipe, including burgers, that would call for ground beef.
Avoid processor horror stories
While this may not be an issue with your processor, we have all heard the tales of less than ideal return on the quantity of meat, or the meat returned tasted bad despite proper field care and shot placement.
With you in charge of processing, you’ll ensure you get the highest yield from your harvest, because you’ll be in control of every morsel of meat on your animal, ensuring the least amount of waste. Meat yield off a deer can depend on the animal’s health, diet, etc. but, it may come in at anywhere from 35-50%. (read more at Deer and Deer Hunting)
Personal experiences with this type of thing is one season I got far more meat than I should have gotten off of a small mule deer. I got more than 30 pounds of ground meat and loins and tenderloins off a deer whose live weight could not have been more than 100 lbs. As processors may grind several animals back to back, chances are I got part of someone else’s harvest.
Conversely, I was lucky enough to shoot a mature bull elk the following year and I got far less than I should have because I was told the majority of meat was dirty despite taking great care to debone the meat, place it on snow banks to keep cool and clean, and finally loaded into game bags before delivering to the processor. Even more troubling, I only received about six or seven one pound packages of backstrap, when the combined weight of elk backstraps can tip the scale above 30 pounds before trimming.
How it all adds up
Now I won’t lie, it can take more time than you would think to work through a whole animal. But, as long as you are good with making time to start processing animals yourself, and you stick with it, the cost savings, increase in meat yield and the use of equipment for far more than hunting seasons, there really isn’t a down side to investing in some processing equipment and getting started today.