For many hunters, the prized deer, elk or antelope means more than a mount on the wall of their home; it means a year's worth of hard-earned steaks, sausages and jerky.
The process of getting that meat from the field into the freezer requires time and skill. Some hunters decide to do it all on their own, but for a set fee, a local processor will do the job and keep the meat clean and fresh. Hunters must be sure to take some steps in the field before bringing the meat into a processor, said Bill Hamil, owner of Steamboat Meat and Seafood Co., which will prepare elk, deer, antelope, bear, moose and mountain lion kills for consumption.
First, hunters should fully eviscerate the kill -- including removal of the windpipe -- before bringing it to a processing facility, and should take great care to prevent any fecal contamination of the meat, Hamil said.
Next, cool the animal to prevent spoilage, using tips such as opening the shoulder blade and hip socket to ensure proper cooling throughout the animal's body.
"Definitely dress the animal expediently," Hamil said. "It's very important to dress it right away and bring its body temperature down.
If necessary, a hunter can skin and quarter the animal, but if the animal comes in with its skin still on, it stays cleaner and holds moisture better, he said. When quartering an animal, Hamil also recommends not splitting the loin down the center to prevent any contamination from the spinal cord, which could contain chronic wasting disease.
Black pepper can be spread on the meat to keep flies away, before the animal is brought in to the store.
Also, hunters should be sure not to put meat in plastic bags, which do not breath, increasing the risk of spoilage.
Gary Baysinger is the owner of Mountain Game Processing in Craig, which processed about 3,000 big-game animals last season and also has a Grand Junction location. He recommends that hunters bring animals in as quickly as possible after the kill. For instance, if an animal is killed in the morning, it's best to get it to a processor by the afternoon.
He agreed that keeping the animal cool is of utmost importance -- some hunters put bagged ice inside the cavity to keep it cool.
Both packinghouses will custom process animals per hunter request, though additional fees may apply. Sausages, bratwursts, snack sticks and jerky are some of the products hunters can have made.
Hunters should expect to pay between $200 and $250 to process an elk and $100 to $125 for a deer. Many area processors will ship meats, though freight costs quickly become expensive.
Turnaround time usually ranges from two to 10 days, depending on the business of the hunting season and how the animal was prepared in the field. Mountain Game Processing offers a 24-hour turnaround if needed, Baysinger said.
For those who want to process their meat on their own, Baysinger recommends finding a cool place to let the animal hang for a few days. Then bring it inside, cut it into four primals -- the round, chuck, rib and loin, and take from those the different cuts of steaks and roasts desired. Hunters can grind some of the meat into hamburger and use some for sausage and stew. It is a lot of work, Baysinger said, and people need to be very careful to keep the meat clean. n