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Morken: Easy steps to processing your own deer

Gary Morken butchers a doe he shot during the opening week of the North Dakota archery season this year. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Deer hunters in the Douglas County area will be faced with a decision this year after filling their tags on whitetails -- try to find a meat processor that is taking whole carcasses and maybe travel an extra distance to drop their deer off.

Or they could butcher the animal themselves.

Miltona Meats in Douglas County, which normally takes nearly 700 deer a year during firearms season, won’t be taking full carcasses this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither will Lake Country Meats in Alexandria. Both will be accepting trimmings to process into sausage, burger and other final products.

Klinder Processing of Carlos will take deer carcasses this season, but won’t be able to absorb more deer than the typical 400 or so it has the staff to butcher each fall.

If you haven’t ever done it before, this might be the perfect season to try butchering your own deer. This has always been a part of my deer-hunting tradition. My dad let me tag along in the woods with him from the time I was about 6 or 7 years old. Part of hunting if he got a deer was hanging it and then butchering, deboning and packaging the meat ourselves.


I love being a part of that process from start to finish, and it’s really not difficult.

Here is a step-by-step process in how I go about butchering my deer from start to finish in case you want to give it a try this year.

Getting the hide off

The first step in the butchering process is getting the hide off the animal.

The biggest thing here is deciding how you want to hang the deer -- by its legs or by its neck. I have worked from both angles and don’t really have a huge preference. There is a device that attaches right into the receiver of your truck for people who want to buy a product that will aid in the butchering process. I often just use a sturdy rope and tree limb.

If butchering a deer hanging from the neck, take a sharp skinning knife and cut upward under the hide starting near the top of the chest cavity. Once you are near the top of the neck under the jaw, slice the hide around the entire neck. The hide should almost rip off by grabbing and pulling down after that.

The process is the same if butchering a deer hanging from its legs. Start from the highest point on both hindquarters, cut the hide all the way up toward the knee and make a slit around each joint. This should allow you to grab hold and pull the hide down.

Knowing how to butcher your own deer is good practice, especially when taking out-of-state hunts now due to regulations in place that do not allow the transfer of carcasses across borders to limit the chance of spreading CWD. This 2019 North Dakota buck was shot in early November last year on an evening sit before taking the next day to butcher and debone the meat. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)


Removing excess hair

So much of getting great-tasting meals from deer comes in the preparation, and that starts during the butchering process.

We always remove the excess hair that gets on the meat after taking the hide off by using a small, hand-held propane torch and burning it. Look closely over all parts of the animal to remove any hair that might get left behind on streaks, roasts or trimmings.

Careful preparation of burning the hair, removing fat and silver skin and then washing the meat at the end of the butchering process makes for great meals where you don’t have to worry about experiencing that “gamey” taste that you hear people talk about with wild game.

Removing loins, hindquarters

Now it’s time to remove the loins and quarter the animal.

Make sure you don’t forget to take the tenderloins in this process. These small straps of meat that fry up great for a stir fry or grilled as a steak are found inside the chest cavity along the spine. You really don’t even need a knife to get at them. Simply take your fingers and run them along the rib cage or the vertebrae. It should pull out easily.

From there, I remove the backstraps that I’ll cut into steaks. These run parallel to the vertebrae on the outside of the rib cage and are simple to remove. Run your knife along the spine to break the silver skin you see covering the red meat. Then cut down to the last rib perpendicular to the spine at the end of the back strap to get your start.

I like to work from the top of a backstrap and cut down. Simply take one hand and slightly pull the backstrap away from the rib cage. Use the knife to separate the meat from bone.


Now I move on to removing the quarters. The front shoulders are easy. Grab hold near the elbow area of the animal and pull the shoulder away from the rib cage. The whole quarter will separate by simply cutting away at the connective tissue without going through any bone.

The hindquarters can be a little more of a process. I like to use a Sawzall, but a hand-held bone saw will work to remove the whole back end of the deer from the vertebrae.

That can also be used to cut through bone and separate the two hind quarters to be more easily worked on during the deboning process.

Deboning the meat

This is the part of the process that I assume intimidates most people who are new to working on their own big game.

Two key points I’ll make here are to use the bone as a guide and simply concentrate on separating the muscle groups of the hindquarters.

All of the meat off the front shoulder goes into trim for me to grind into burger. It doesn’t have to look fancy. I like to use a sharp and fairly pliable fillet knife here. Work the knife against the bone to remove all of the meat.

The important thing to recognize with the hindquarters is that these are multiple muscle groups that can be easily separated. Find the seams with your fingers and use your knife to separate the tissue that holds the muscles together by cutting all the way down to the bone.

Make sure you also cut off any additional red meat you find on the animal that can go into trimming and nothing goes to waste. A big buck produces a lot of meat along the neck.


Preparing the finished product

Once all the meat is entirely deboned, what you want to do with it is up to you.

Some people put most of their meat into burger, sausage, deer sticks, etc. Those are things you can do yourself too with the proper equipment, but all local meat processors are taking trimming to make into those finished products still.

By the time everything is done, I have steaks cut out of every last inch of backstrap. I have multiple roasts and many pounds of trim that I will grind into burger myself with the addition of a little bit of beef or pork fat that can be purchased for almost nothing at grocery stores or meat shops by calling them in advance.

For anyone who has never tried butchering their own deer, I strongly recommend giving it a try. It’s rewarding being a part of this entire process when you sit down for the multiple meals you will get out of your deer this year.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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