“I can kill him I can kill him I can kill him I’m going to kill him–“
Dusk was robbing the colors from the treeline as I knelt against the boulder, my eye pressed painfully into the scope as I steadied the crosshairs over his heart.
God, please let this shot kill him.
The buck–my buck–crumpled forward and slid lifelessly down the hillside as the other deer bolted, bounding into the pines. I exhaled. Thank you, God.
I can tell you all about the long journey up until that moment, the smell of the wet duff, the stillness of the woods, the tightly-wound anticipation buzzing within me as I crept, slowly, quietly, carrying with me the intent to kill. But that’s the story of the hunt. This is about the value of the harvest.
The Economic Breakdown of Breaking Down an Animal
I’m no expert. I apologize, but if you had some kind of vision of me annually trophy hunting blacktails in the mountains, let me dispel it right now. This was my very first buck. I’m quite new at hunting big game.
Growing up around hunters familiarized me with phrases like “meat in the freezer” and “stocked for the year.” Getting a buck was this big prize, not only for the hunter, but for the family he brought it home to. Over the years, this question formed in me:
How many meals are in one deer?
Most of the country’s buck hunters will answer with a larger number than what I will provide. We hunt blacktail deer, which are generally smaller than the whitetails that populate the rest of the country, and are much smaller than mule deer bucks which weigh somewhere between 150 to 300 pounds; whitetail bucks weigh in at an average of 150 pounds, live weight. My three-point blacktail was about 110 pounds. It felt closer to double when we were dragging it up the hillside in the dark. I worked for that buck.
That work didn’t end for me after pulling the trigger. There was no four-wheeler waiting to cart the deer back to camp; the guys didn’t gut it or haul it for me, though my significant other and a friend took turns helping me drag it out; and I didn’t take my buck to the butcher: we hung it up next to my SO’s buck in the garage and broke them down ourselves. Which was a whole lotta hard work.
So, back to my original question: how much meat can you harvest? According to The Venison Book, a smaller deer, weighing 90 pounds, yields between 40 and 45 pounds of meat. I was darned frugal when I was cutting up my buck (mostly all of my trimmings went into the meat grinder), and I ended up with 50 pounds of meat, or 45% of the buck’s live weight. It seems the book was right on target with how much could be harvested from the smaller-sized deer. Larger deer will yield higher percentages of meat to live weight.
The Value of Meat in the Freezer
Can you put a value on venison? Calorically, yes: one pound (depending on the cut) is about 720 calories. Multiply that by my 50 pounds, and I added 36,000 to my personal food supply. One four-ounce patty of ground venison is 180 calories. If I stick to four-ounce portions, the deer will provide 200 meals. That’s without sharing. (I always share).
Monetarily how am I doing? Well, how much would 36,000 calories of meat cost at the store? According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, “‘all-fresh’ USDA choice-grade beef” hit a record of $5.28 per pound in February of 2014, and it’s still rising.
To purchase 36,000 calories (or 58.2 pounds) of lean ground beef it would cost $307.30. This would be a consumer’s out-of-pocket expense. I’m going to leave the question of environmental expense up to the reader. If you’re curious about meat production emissions, check out this site.
Of course, I had my expenses, too. My deer tag was $30.50. My gear is an investment; I use it for all of my outdoor activities; the gun was borrowed, and the bullet, too. We split the cost of fuel, which was $83. My hunting license was $45.93, but again, I duck, quail, dove, and pheasant hunt, so that cost is spread out across these activities. Monetarily, I’m doing alright. Had I purchased a second deer tag for $37.80 and shot a second buck, I’d have come out further ahead in dollars per pound of venison.
But value reaches far beyond just cutting down the grocery bills. The blacktail lived free, feeding on branch tips and tender grasses up until that moment when I took its life. There’s a value in pulling out a venison loin for dinner–a cut of meat that I meticulously harvested from my own kill. There’s value in removing myself from relying on the beef industry to feed me. There’s a value in the experience I had up there in the mountains, not knowing what it would look like, or where it would happen, but having faith that it was going to happen–that I would bring one home.