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Safe Handling of Wild Game - Big Game Carcasses
by Susan Brewer

Bleeding

When animals have been shot in the ribs, internal bleeding into the chest cavity may be enough. Most other shots take additional bleeding. Some hunters stick the carcass by severing the large blood vessel leading to the heart. Proper bleeding improves keeping qualities and appearance of the meat.

Dressing

Two major rules to follow are:
1) get the intestines, lungs, liver, and heart out as soon after the kill as possible and;
2) get the carcass off the ground and, if possible, into the shade to cool as soon as dressing is completed.

Wipe the body cavity thoroughly with a clean cloth, or wash if water or snow is available. Dry with paper towels or clean rags. Prop the cavity open with sharpened sticks and hang the carcass until the cavity surface is thoroughly dry. Be sure there is good air circulation. Put the carcass on rocks or logs if it cannot be hung.

Transport the carcass to camp and skin it if the temperature is expected to be above freezing the first night after the kill. After skinning, wrap the carcass in light muslin, cheesecloth, or mosquito netting and hang in the shade to cool. This covering will keep flies, bugs, and dust from the meat. Avoid heavy tarpaulins or canvas bags that hold in the heat.

If the weather is cool, leave the hide on to protect the meat on the trip home. Fresh meat should be kept at 30-40ºF when transporting. High temperatures enroute often cause spoilage, especially in gunshot areas.

In warm weather (above 40ºF) hunters should skin and quarter the carcass (or have a locker plant do it).

Hides

Avoid damaging the hide by dragging or careless handling. Salt the hides (2 to 3 lb. for the average deer hide) immediately after removing to prevent spoilage.

Aging

Aging of meat--also called seasoning, ripening or conditioning--is defined as the practice of holding carcasses or cuts at temperatures from 34-37ºF.

Quick aging of beef is brought about commercially by holding beef at temperatures of 62°F- 65ºF for 2 or 3 days. High relative humidity is maintained to prevent dehydration; ultraviolet lamps are used to prevent microbial growth.

Aging usually results in improvement of tenderness and flavor. However, not all meat should be aged. Aging carcasses with little or no fat cover is not recommended by meat specialist. These carcasses lose moisture rapidly; excessive weight loss and surface discoloration of lean meat result. Lean meat is exposed and is susceptible to deterioration through microbial growth. Slime formed by bacteria and mold growth then must be trimmed.

Because grinding or chopping tenderizes meat, aging is not necessary for carcasses that are to be ground, or made into bologna, frankfurters or other sausages.

Changes in Tenderness

Immediately after the animal's death, all meat decreases in tenderness. This is because muscle fibers shorten and harden as a result of rigor mortis. The changes are similar to those which occur during muscle contraction. The third day after slaughter, meat which has been cooled at 34ºF has returned to its original tenderness level.

If the carcass is to be made into chops, steaks and roasts, additional aging at 34ºF is often recommended. At 34ºF and high relative humidity, it usually takes 10 to 14 days for bacterial slime to develop on meat. This, along with the fact that tenderization proceeds more slowly after 14 days aging than it does from 3 to 14 days, is the reason aging should be limited to a maximum of 2 weeks.

Aging game that has been skinned often results in drying and high weight loss. For this reason, properly chilled game should be aged with the hide on unless it is to be stored in a cooler where the humidity is high.

Many meat processors do not recommend aging game. One reason for this is that much of the game delivered to a meat processor has already been aged long enough. Quick aging of the meat often occurs because the game carcass could not be chilled at 34ºF after the kill.

A 65ºF temperature at the time of the kill will result in less toughening and hardening of the muscles due to rigor mortis than will a temperature of 34ºF. In addition, the action of natural enzymes which are responsible for increased tenderness is much faster at 65ºF. Thus, aging at 65ºF for 3 days gives the same amount of tenderization as the more conventional aging temperature of 34ºF for 2 weeks. Therefore, game which is killed when the temperature is near 65ºF and held at this temperature should not be aged.

Game slaughtered in the colder months (November and December) should be aged longer than game slaughtered in the warmer months (September and October). Alternating temperatures, such as 65ºF days and 30ºF nights speeds up the aging process. Under these conditions aging game 1 week or less is recommended.

Game carcasses under 100 pounds often chill rapidly if the temperature is below freezing at the time of slaughter. Muscle contraction or rigor mortis hardens the muscle to a greater extent at temperatures below freezing than if the temperature is above freezing. Very rapid chilling and hardening causes meat to be tough. This condition is known as cold shortening; it will occur if the internal muscle temperature drops to 32ºF within 12 hours after the kill. Leaving the hide on will help prevent cold shortening and also help to keep the carcass from freezing.

Carcasses which undergo cold shortening should be aged at 34ºF for 14 days. If the carcass is frozen while hanging, little additional tenderization will occur because enzyme action is very slow at freezing temperatures. Frozen carcasses should be thawed and maintained at 34ºF. Alternate periods of freezing and thawing should be avoided because these temperature variations lower meat quality.

Deer carcasses should be cut approximately 7 days after the kill. If they have been held at higher temperatures (above 40ºF) the meat should be cut before 7 days of aging are completed. If the carcass is frozen, very little aging (break down of muscle proteins by proteolytic enzymes) occurs.

Do not age any game carcass if it was shot during warm weather and not chilled rapidly, if the animal was severely stressed prior to the kill, if gunshot areas are extensive, or if the animal was under 1 year of age. Aging has already occurred if the carcass has been in camp for 1 week in relatively warm weather. No further aging is recommended.

These aging periods are not needed if game carcasses are to be ground, cured or made into sausage. Most meat recipes utilize moist heat cooking methods which tenderize the meat and shorten the needed aging period.

Recommended Procedure for Handling Big Game Carcasses from Kill to Freezer

  1. Bleed by cutting the throat or sticking.

  2. Eviscerate as soon as the animal is dead.

  3. Hang to drain and wash inside with clean water. Put the carcass on logs or rocks if it cannot be hung.

  4. Chill. In warm weather (over 40ºF), when possible, it is strongly recommended that the carcass be taken to a cooler the day of the kill. If this cannot be done, transport to camp and skin if the nighttime temperature is expected to be above freezing.

  5. If skinned, use cheesecloth or light cotton bags to keep the carcass clean and protect the meat from insects.

  6. Make sure the internal temperature of the meat is cooled to 40ºF or below within 24 hours. This will often require cooling facilities.

  7. Follow the safe and recommended aging procedures.

  8. Trim fat and inedible parts from the carcass when it is cut.

  9. Mix 15% pork or beef fat with ground game and 35% pork fat with fresh game sausage.

  10. Wrap all cuts (fresh or cured) in good quality freezer paper and store at 0ºF or colder.

  11. Limit fresh game to 8 months frozen storage and seasoned or cured game to 4 months frozen storage.

References

Crawford, R.E. and York, G.K. Prepare to enjoy
venison. HXT-53. Agricultural Extension,
University of California.

Diedrichsen, E. Care and cooking of game meats.
E.C. 70-923. Cooperative Extension Service,
University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Field, R.A., 1973. Aging Big Game, Ag Extension
Bulletin B-513R. University of Wyoming,
Laramie, WY.

Field, R.A., 1973. The Mule Deer Carcass, Ag
Extension Bulletin B-589. University of
Wyoming, Laramie, WY.

Field, R.A., 1983. You and Your Wild Game, Ag
Extension Bulletin B-613, University of Wyoming,
Laramie, WY.

  1. This document is EHE-731, a publication of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  2. Susan Brewer, Ph.D., Foods and Nutrition Specialist, Illinois Cooperative Extension, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  RELATED SITES
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