Commercial Deer Processors: What You Need to Know

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.
                                                      Saturday afternoon of Rifle opener
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.


About Go Carnivore

Lifestyle of Meath Enthusiasts
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14 Responses to Commercial Deer Processors: What You Need to Know

  1. TAFKAP says:

    Do you have any suggestions for procuring commercial fat? I tried to get pork fat from the Fresh Market recently, and was told that health codes prohibit them from selling fat.

    • Go Carnivore says:

      A local butcher would gladly sell you fat. I am unfamiliar with that law in TN as even Kroger sells fat. Neumann Farms is a great source for high quality fat. They usually have it at the farmers market. Charlie’s Meat Market as well, even Whole Food will cut you fat.

      • Lucy COE says:

        I worked in a meat department for better than 30 years. I can tell you that you need to be very cautious of getting ( fat) from meat departments! In the course of a day, a meat cutter or butcher is processing meat for better than 10 hours. It is unusual for him to be able to take many breaks, there fire many meat cutters dip snuff to satisfy their nicotine urge. I have seen them spit in the bone barrel! (where the fat is stored until the ( bone man picks up the can.) On an average of a large business ( a grocery chain that does an average of 230,0OO a week, the (bone or fat man) picks that can up only once a week! Therefore, this fat, snuff, dirty tissues, and some fat with meat still attached ( for the lazy butcher) may be in that barrel with bacteria building for a week or longer! While the meat department holds a temp of about 45-55 degrees, each time the floor is cleaned this barrel could be rolled into back stock room with 80 degree temperatures plus. clean up can take up to two hours, therefore barrel could be in 80 degree temperatures for better than 14 hours a week, on top of the all ready bacteria growing environment that is contained in the bone barrel. I’m not saying all markets operate this way, however I have worked in 10 different markets in three different chains, ( as I trained as well), and this is what I observed over the years.

  2. TAFKAP says:

    Maybe it was just the pork fat, specifically. I don’t know. Or the butcher just didn’t feel like messing with it…..

  3. Pingback: 6 Underappreciated cuts of Venison |

  4. Jeff says:

    I’ve taken every deer I’ve killed to the processor, but for a long time now I’ve been wanting to do it my self. My only problem is the aging part.. I don’t want to spend a grand or more on a cooler.

    • Go Carnivore says:


      Aging should not be a preventive factor in self processing. You do need an initial 24 hour phase to overcome rigormortis. This can be done in a cooler on ice (or on a rack over ice in a cooler). Beyond that and despite what most people think, very few people are actually aging venison. In order to age meat, you need a tightly controlled environment with proper humidity and airflow. While hanging the meat for a few days definitely doesn’t hurt anything, its not really adding much unless done properly (which very few people have the setup to do, even most processors). Also, only cuts that you intend to cook as whole muscle and under high heat will benefit from aging. For most people, this is the backstraps and tenderloins.

      Cuts of meat that will be ground or slow cooked (roasts etc) will not benefit whatsoever from the aging process. Ground meat is tenderized upon running through the grinder and slow cooked/braised meats are cooked for hours until they break down. For example, if you were to do a taste test with 2 venison roasts cooked in crock pots for 9 hours, there would be no discernible difference between an aged roast and a unaged roast.

      When it comes to aging venison, there are almost as many myths as there are about the rut timing, moon phases etc. Basically, age your loin cuts for a few days either on or over ice, or in your refrigerator (I place them on a cooling rack in my curing fridge, which has a small fan for air flow). Everything else gets butchered as soon as it is convenient after the first 24 hours.

  5. Kitty says:

    Excellent article. I have been processing deer for 26 years now and I wanted to add that the aging process also helps with the texture of the meat (such as steaks). We age all of the deer we cut and our customers love it. While it may not affect the flavor of a steak, it definitely helps firm the hind legs up and produces a more uniform steak for cooking.

  6. John Ebersole Jr. says:

    I have been waiting since December to get my dried beef back from a butcher, I’m concerned my meat is no longer any good. I have never waited this long it’s very frustrating!

  7. Mario says:

    I was wondering how I can go about finding quality butchers in coastal NC. I plan on hunting the fall, first time, and I’d to get a quality butcher to do the work. Any suggest ones or recommendations on how to find one?
    Thank you

  8. Bob says:

    Very good read, I run a deer processing facility and I appreciate this article. More hunters should be aware of what their getting and the integrity of who they are dealing with

  9. Josiah says:

    Hi there… I shot a buck and was not able to find him till the next day. Thankful i found within 7-10 hours and he was in a creek. The creek keep the coyotes off him and his body was pretty cool when i recovered him. I quickly field dressed him and took him to a processor and placed him in his fridge. That was on September 12th and the processor just called him to come get my meat yesterday on September 23rd. My questions are do you think my meat was still good? Do you think that is average for the processor to take 2 weeks to processor my deer? I feel kinda of leery about letting someone else process meat that my family and I will be eating. But I was in a jam and had to get him in a fridge quick. His fee is $85…

    • Go Carnivore says:

      Lots of factors here, but most likely the meat is fine. Generally, if the meat has turned, you will know it. If you want to be sure, thaw a cut out and smell it. If it smells good, it is good. 2 weeks is a long time for a processor this time of year, though, keep in mind that most fresh meat you see in the grocery store is 2 weeks old, so assuming proper handling, should be fine. Let your noise decide.

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