From field to table . . .a pocket guide for the care and handling of DEER and ELK

(FN536, Reviewed April 2024)
Lead Author
Lead Author:
Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D. Food and Nutrition Specialist NDSU Extension Service
Other Authors

Martin Marchello, Ph.D., Professor (retired, Department of Animal Sciences, NDSU)

Web only
Publication Sections

Before the Hunt: New Considerations

Concern has grown in recent years about a disease affecting deer and elk called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which belongs to a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). CWD symptoms include weight loss, stumbling, tremors, lack of coordination, blank facial expressions, excessive salivation, loss of appetite, excessive thirst and urination, listlessness, teeth grinding, abnormal head posture and drooping ears.

Hunters should be vigilant about identifying deer or elk displaying CWD symptoms and report suspected cases to wildlife officials immediately. Many states have specific CWD guidelines for hunters. Hunters need to know not only the CWD regulations of the states in which they hunt, but also those of the states in which they may pass through during interstate hunting trips.

To date, there is no evidence that CWD has been transmitted or can be transmitted to humans under natural conditions. However, neither is there strong evidence that such transmissions could not occur. Research thus far indicates that the abnormal proteins responsible for causing CWD accumulate only in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, pancreas, and spleen—but not in muscle tissue.

Therefore, hunters should take a few simple precautions when handling and transporting deer or elk carcasses:

• Do not shoot, handle or consume any wild animal that appears sick.

• Wear rubber gloves when field dressing and processing animals.

• Request commercial processors handle animals individually so meat from other animals won’t become commingled.

• Minimize handling brain or spinal tissues and fluids.

• Bone out carcasses or at least avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen and lymph nodes of harvested animals.

• Do not consume the meat from any animal that tests positive for CWD.

A 3½-ounce portion (before cooking) of game meat provides about half of the daily adult protein requirement and 130 to 150 calories. Game meats are usually slightly lower in total fat but higher in polyunsaturated fats than grain-fed beef.

Field Dressing (Wear rubber gloves during field dressing.)

1. Place the animal on its back with the front end elevated and spread the hind legs.
Support carcass in position by placing rocks or sticks on each side.

2. Cut along the midline of the belly from the breastbone to the anus. Avoid cutting into the paunch
and intestines by using the handle of the knife and the heel of your hand to crowd the guts away.
Cut around the anus, loosening the bung so it will come out with the guts.

3. Cut the diaphragm (the thin sheet of muscle and connective tissue between the chest and
the abdomen) free from the rib cage by cutting through the white tissue near the rib cage.

4. Reach forward to cut the windpipe, gullet and blood vessels at the base of the throat.

5. Pull the lungs, heart and guts out of the animal.

Care in the Field

■ Be prepared for the hunt.

• Remember to bring a sharp hunting knife, a small hatchet, a whetstone or steel, about 12 feet of light rope or nylon cord, plastic bags and clean cloths or paper towels. Other essentials include proper clothing, binoculars, a water bottle of fresh water, a compass, a map and matches.

• In warm weather you may want to bring a
can of ground pepper and some cheesecloth. The carcass may be sprinkled with pepper
and covered with cheesecloth to repel flies.

■ Abide by game regulations for hunting, transporting and storing game.

■ Bleed, field dress and cool the carcass promptly. Improper temperature is meat’s worst enemy.

• The surface of the carcass may be contaminated with bacteria that can spoil the meat unless the growth is stopped by chilling.

• Clean your hunting knife often with clean
water and a cloth to prevent contamination
of the meat.

• Usually it is not necessary to bleed the animal because the bullet or arrow has caused enough damage to the animal to bleed it sufficiently. However, if the animal is shot in the head, it will need to be bled. If the animal is a trophy buck that you plan to mount, do not sever its throat because this will cause problems during mounting.

• Cool the animal quickly. Cool the carcass by propping the chest open with a clean stick and allowing air to circulate. Filling the cavity with
bags of ice will also enhance cooling.

• To aid cooling in warm weather, the deer may
be skinned if you have provisions to keep
the carcass clean. Use ground pepper and cheesecloth to protect the skinned carcass
from contamination by flies.

• In cool weather (28 to 35 F), wrap the carcass
or quarters in a sheet and hang in a ventilated shed.

• Do not allow the carcass to freeze. Freezing may toughen the meat.

■ Keep the carcass clean.

• Remove all foreign particles and loose hair. Remove bloodshot areas.

• Wipe out excess blood in gutted cavity with a paper towel or clean cloth and clean water.
Use as little water as possible because damp meat spoils faster than dry meat.

• Do not use grass or snow to wipe out the carcass because this may contaminate the carcass.

Care in Transport and Processing

■ Keep the carcass cool during transport.

• Do not tie a deer carcass across the hood of the car or put it in the trunk when it is still warm.

■ The game may be processed
commercially or at home.

• Be sure to keep the carcass cool until it reaches the locker plant. Keep the carcass out of direct sunlight and allow for adequate air circulation.

• If you choose to process your own game, don’t cross-contaminate during processing. Wash your knife, hands and cutting board often with warm, soapy water. Wear rubber gloves.

• Aging meat is the practice of holding carcasses
or cuts of meat at temperatures of 34 to 37 F
for 10 to 14 days to allow the enzymes in the meat to break down some of the complex proteins
in the carcass. Aged meat is often more tender and flavorful.

• Aging is not recommended for carcasses with little or no fat covering. They may dry out during aging.

• Leave the hide on and maintain the proper temperature when aging a carcass. If you do
not have the proper cooler space, spoilage or dehydration may result.

• Aging the carcass two to three days is sufficient.

• If you intend to grind the meat into sausage,
aging is unnecessary.

Care in the Kitchen

■ For immediate use, store the meat in the refrigerator and use within two or three days.

• Keep raw meat and cooked meat separate to
prevent cross-contamination.

■ Freeze game properly. Prevent freezer burn
by using the right packaging materials.

• Divide meat into meal-size quantities.

• Use moisture/vapor-proof wrap such as heavily waxed freezer wrap, laminated freezer wrap,
heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer-weight
polyethylene bags.

• Press air out of the packages prior to sealing.

• Label packages with contents and date.

• Avoid overloading the freezer. Freeze only the amount that will become solidly frozen within
24 hours.

• Game will keep three to four months in the freezer
if properly wrapped.

■ Do not can meat unless you have a pressure canner.

• Low acid foods, such as meat and most mixtures
of foods, should never be canned using the water-bath method.

• Pressure and adequate time are necessary to produce safe canned meat. For the latest canning information, contact your county NDSU Extension office.

■ Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator or
microwave oven. Cook game meats thoroughly.

• Foods thawed in the microwave oven should be cooked immediately. Refrigerator-thawed meat should be used within one to two days.

• Game meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160 F to reduce risk of foodborne illness.

• Big game animals usually exercise more than domestic animals so game meats may be drier and less tender. Moist heat methods such as braising (simmering in a small amount of liquid in a covered pot) may result in a better product. Chops and steaks may be pan fried or broiled.

• The distinctive flavor of game meats is mainly due to the fat they contain. To reduce the gamey flavor, trim the fat from the meat. You may wish to add other sources of fat to maintain the juiciness of the meat.

• Spices or marinades may be used to mask the gamey flavor. Meat should always be marinated
in the refrigerator.


For more information about food safety, visit
the North Dakota State University Extension