From Field To Table: Selecting A Wild Game Processor
You put a lot into your hunt. Here's how to make the most out of your successful season.
Many hunters use a game processor to handle the butchering of everything from deer and boar to elk, moose, and even bear. Even DIY types will hire a processor's services rather than involving themselves in what can be a very big job.
A professional processor has several advantages over the average hunter, primarily, a dedicated facility for butchering the animal. While many DIY hunters make do with a table in the garage, a processor will have ample cold storage for aging the carcass, plenty of table space, and specialized equipment to make the job easier. Not only do they break the carcass down into steaks, roasts, and ground meat, many offer options such as turning your meat into jerky and a variety of sausages.
If you are lacking in the facilities or desire to butcher your game animal yourself, you can have a processor do it for you. Here's how to go about selecting one.
Start with a Referral
If you are going on a guided hunt, the guide likely already has a short list of processors he works with. If you're hunting on your own, see if your fellow hunters if they have any favorites. You can also ask at outdoor stores that sell hunting licenses, the local gun club, or by talking with a hunter safety instructor. If you're still stumped, your state department of fish and game should be able to point you in the right direction.
What to Look for in a Processor
See It for Yourself
Ideally, visit the facility in person and make arrangements BEFORE you set off on your hunt. You'll want to reassure yourself that you're dealing with a clean, reputable place. While you are there, you can discuss drop off hours, processing options, and cost.
Drop Off Convenience
Find out what their drop off hours are. Some places might not have very convenient hours, making it necessary to ice down your animal to keep it cool until the processor is able to take it. Some facilities offer a 24/7 drop off capability where you can place your animal into one of their receiving refrigerators even if no one is there.
Plenty of Refrigeration
While we're talking about refrigeration, does your prospective processor have adequate space to age the meat as long as you would like, and good freezer space to quickly freeze the meat after processing? You want to ensure yourself that the processor won't be overwhelmed by demand for their services.
Discuss how long they will age the carcass before butchering. If you have specific preferences, let them know. Ask what the expected turnaround time is to get an idea of when you could expect to pick up the finished meat.
Ask to see a sample of their final packaging. Is the meat wrapped tightly in plastic, then wrapped in butcher paper to protect it in the freezer? This is the traditional way of storing meat in the freezer and is perfectly fine as long as the packaging protects the meat from air contact. Many processors have commercial machines that can vacuum seal your meat for a small additional charge. Vacuum sealing will maintain your meat's quality longer than traditional butcher paper wrapping.
Look for Variety
Find out what your options are for processed products. Some processors will only grind the trim meat for you, but many will offer a variety of options including a dozen different kinds of fresh and smoked sausages, salami, jerky, and snack sticks. Heck, some places even make such things as seasoned chili meat, bacon-wrapped filets, and tamales! See if they offer any options for marinating the meat before they freeze it. This can be a handy option for a portion of your meat as it'll be ready for the grill as soon as its thawed.
Make Sure Your Meat Stays Yours
Ask how they handle the grinding of trim meat. A good processor will grind each hunter's catch separately. Others will combine all of the trim meat from the same species and grind it together to save time. This makes it easy for them, but it might not be very good for you. You know if your animal was properly harvested, cooled, and handled, but you can't say that for everyone else.
Finally, once the animal has been processed, how long do you have to pick it up? A good processor will have a lot of business during hunting season, and freezer space will be at a premium. Most places will charge additional storage fees if the meat is not picked up after a certain amount of time.
Cool It Down
Know how to properly field dress and cool the animal immediately after it is harvested and tagged.Your number one priority is to get the carcass cleaned and cooled below 40 degrees F to prevent spoilage, then get it to your processor as soon as possible. Even when you select the best processor in your area, they can only deal with what they are given, so make sure to give them the best. You put a lot of effort into your hunt, don't let it all go to waste by letting your prize spoil before you can get it in for processing. A reputable place won't process a spoiled carcass.
Keep these tips in mind when arranging for your processing services to get the most out of this season's game. With a freezer full of top quality meat, you will keep your family well fed for quite a while!
Behind the Scenes
Want to get the scoop straight from the processor? The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks department has an excellent article behind the scenes of an elk processor, and offers best practices for cooling your catch in the field.