From Deer to Venison

For the past few years, I’ve been on a personal journey to learn basic animal processing from hoof to the freezer. It’s been a vision for Leafhopper Farm to be a place that offers all parts of the human diet, from garden veggies, herbs, and wild edible and medicinal plants, to both domestic, and wild animal meats. The meat was the most unfamiliar to me out of all my food harvesting when I first began working towards this goal. Now, I feel solidly aware of what it takes to harvest, prep, butcher, and store large animals for human consumption.

Usually, I have help in butchering my animals, both because the labor involved is intense, and I wish to facilitate learning experiences for others to learn about butchering. With my deer for the past two years, I’ve done the butchering myself to focus my learning and know the whole job in taking apart a larger animal. Last year it took me six hours to properly process my deer. This year, it took three. I’m finally getting the hang of this work, and becoming efficient enough to feel productive as a butchering apprentice.

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deer carcass aging in cooler

Looking at an entire carcass hanging in the meat locker might intimidate, but once you beguine understanding the breakdown of the meat, each piece falls away with incredible ease, and you learn how and why these animals are built for eating. The first thing to note is where the choice pieces of meat are located on a carcass. Then you learn how to separate larger sections at the joints. It’s a great anatomy lesson, because most mammalian structures are quite similar. This may seem gruesome to some, but it’s an important part of the journey in having meat at table. I want to know what it takes to get that delicious steak or burger, and now, I can tell you, it takes a lot of work, but the results are priceless.

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The picture above shows the deer in its larger sections, legs, back strap, lions, neck, and scrap to be grounded up (far left). I’ve taken everything off the ribs, backbone, and back legs, leaving only the front legs with bone in for this picture. Most of the meat on the front legs will go to grinding too, but there are a few steaks to be found with careful cutting. That’s been the biggest learning curve, and I’m still honing my prime cut skills. Below is the final cut of my venison without any bones. I take bones out because the meat will keep longer in the freezer without them.

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final cuts

The second most time consuming job in processing an animal after deboning is wrapping all the cuts properly. I start by placing the meat in a plastic bag tied off with metal wire twist ties. This keeps the meat from getting freezer burn, and extends its life in the deep freeze. Note that I am freezing the meat, something which is not sustainable if the power goes out. I’ve just begun working on building a smoker out of a converted old dryer. If I smoke and jerk (salt) the meat I can store it without an appliance, but in the climate of The Pacific Northwest, preserving food through drying is tricky. Most natives smoked their meats and left them hanging in the rafters of their cedar long houses. Maybe some day there will be a cedar long house at Leafhopper Farm, but for now, inventive alternatives will have to be found.

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There is still a lot to learn around butchering meat, but I’ve now got the basics and feel good about productively taking apart an animal for eating. What I would like to work on next is maximizing the use of all parts of an animal, including bones, organs, and obscure glands. This is a lifetime learning journey, and only one of many skills I’m working on at this time, so I have to be reasonable about what I take on, but I know i’m honoring the animal more and more with my care in the process, and I look forward to many more lessons from my animals and the food they provide for Leafhopper Farm.

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