You've Dropped Your Deer. Great! Now What?

Consider these safety tips for field dressing and processing harvested deer to make it great-tasting venison.

Published on: Nov 22, 2012

Deer hunting season will soon be underway, and thousands of farmers will head to the woods with visions of venison on their minds.

Most experienced hunters would say: "I already know how to field dress a carcass; been doing it for years." While that may be true, most could stand a refresher course on how to bring home the best vension. So scan these tips from Martin Bucknavage, Extension food safety specialist at Penn State’s Department of Food Science.

While chronic wasting disease has been in the news lately, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania, there’s no evidence of a link between CWD and human illness, says Bucknavage. None the less, "It’s still best to take precautions. Make sure the deer you killed appears to have been healthy, and follow the general guidelines for handling and processing deer, such as wearing rubber gloves and minimizing contact with brain and spinal-cord material."

Youve Dropped Your Deer. Great! Now What?
You've Dropped Your Deer. Great! Now What?

Processing guidelines
The time from the deer is downed until its processed has the largest impact on the safety and quality of the meat. That’s why he urges following these guidelines:

•Eviscerate the animal as soon as possible to cool down the carcass as quickly as possible.

•Wear a pair of rubber gloves while field dressing to prevent bacterial cross contamination.

•Avoid cutting into the internal organs, especially the intestines.

•Tie off the anus with a string or rubber band.

•Don't cut into the brain, spinal cord, spinal column or lymph nodes while butchering.

•If the outside temperatures are above 40 degrees F, speed carcass chill-down by inserting plastic bags of ice or snow into the body cavity.

•Once out of the field, get the carcass into a cooler or refrigerator as soon as possible. If outdoor temperatures are below 40 degrees, prop open the cavity with sticks to promote cooling.

•Don't tie the deer to the hood of your vehicle. Smart hunters know it only heats the carcass.

•If possible, hang deer by hind legs with head down when aging or butchering. That prevents brain and spinal fluids from contacting the meat.

•Do not age the deer if temperatures are greater than 40 degrees. That only leads to unwanted spoilage.

•Clean out the carcass cavity. If you rinse it, be sure to dry it thoroughly to discourage bacterial growth.

"During field dressing, if any of the internal organs smell unusually offensive, or if there’s a greenish discharge, black blood or blood clots in the muscle, do not consume the meat," cautions Bucknavage. "If you kill a deer and question the safety and quality of the meat, immediately contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The agency has policies for authorizing an additional kill."

What to do with that meat
After field dressing and transporting the carcass, you have to decide to finish butchering at home or taking it to your butcher. Here are two online publications you can download for future use:

The "Field Dressing Deer Pocket Guide" is a free, 12-panel publication explaining how to field-dress a deer safely. Extensively illustrated in full color, it explains the process of field dressing and also covers important food-safety information for hunters.

"Proper Field Dressing and Handling of Wild Game and Fish" is for hunters and anglers who handle animals, fish and birds in the field. It details the potential risks involved in contaminating the meat or fish while dressing, handling and transporting it. This free, 12-page, illustrated publication describes the importance of temperature control and gives detailed instructions for safe field dressing and transporting of deer, small animals and game birds.