Harvesting Deer for Meat Series

This week Winding Pathways will feature two blogs that cover the “ins and outs” of harvesting deer, landowner responsibilities and a sample agreement between landowners and deer hunters. This blog includes The Law, Equipment, and Ways to Process a Deer. The next blog on this topic will cover how landowners can manage hunters on their land and a sample agreement form.

Eating Deer

Frustrated homeowners often discover their landscape plants, flowers, and vegetables devoured by hungry urban and suburban deer.

Although we can find them annoying, deer are amazing. Deer are resourceful and adaptable. In many rural areas, their former habitat has been transformed into seas of corn, soybeans, or other crops. The hedgerows, woodlots, and brushy patches that once offered deer shelter have disappeared. So, they moved into town.

Many suburban and even urban areas offer a perfect place for deer to live. Parks and protected natural areas have secure places to live, and vegetable gardens, flower beds, and fruit trees are outstanding deer food. It’s no wonder so many towns are home to robust deer herds.

Although most people love seeing wildlife and enjoy having a few deer around when the garden is raided attitudes change quickly. In response, Winding Pathways and many garden books and blogs offer tips on how to protect trees and plants from hungry deer. Some hardly work, while others, especially secure fencing around gardens, keep deer out. Unfortunately keeping the hungry animals at bay is a never-ending and sometimes expensive task.

Many gardeners are proud to produce local organic vegetables. They might consider the deer that raid their garden a local, organic, free-ranging source of delicious meat.  When done according to state and local laws, converting a deer to family food in no way threatens deer herds. They rapidly reproduce, making deer a perpetual and sustainable food source.

Killing, dressing, and preparing deer meat is an unknown and somewhat mysterious process for suburbanites who have no experience with bows or firearms or converting a live animal to a meal. This blog will give them a basic idea how to do it.

To us shooting a deer is food gathering, much like picking spring nettles or mulberries.  We view deer as an opportunity to harvest local, organic, free-range meat.  

The Law

In the United States wildlife does not belong to a private landowner. It is the property of the people – all the people. Some wildlife protection laws are set by the Federal Government but individual states have the most responsibility for setting and enforcing laws that protect wildlife yet allow people to harvest certain species. Hunting is an important tool in reducing overabundant game species, such as deer.

Anyone wishing to harvest a deer must heed the laws of the state they live in. Generally, this means purchasing a license and hunting certain types of animals only during open seasons. The type of weapon used is also specified by the state.

Traditionally towns and cities have banned hunting and shooting of any sort for safety reasons. However burgeoning deer numbers and resulting vegetation damage and car collisions encouraged town councils to relook at their ordinances. Many have altered ordinances to allow citizens to harvest deer, even in fairly densely populated (by people) areas. State laws always apply and cities normally add their own regulations, mostly to ensure the safety of residents.

Our town of Cedar Rapids is a good example. People are allowed to buy licenses to harvest deer within city limits using bows and arrows if they:

  • Attend a training session
  • Prove proficiency with archery equipment
  • Purchase tags and licenses
  • Bring harvested deer to a fire station for officials to check
  • Use only permitted weapons during legal seasons
  • Inform neighbors of hunting
  • And several other specific requirements.

Hunting has reduced, but hardly eliminated, vegetation damage and deer/car collisions. It has put thousands of pounds of nutritious meat on the tables of many families.

So, if anyone wants to harvest a deer they should first check with their city or town to see if it is legal and what specific requirements are in place.  

Generally, anyone living outside city limits and a distance from neighbors only needs to abide by state hunting laws. These tend to be much less restrictive than urban or suburban hunting. Check your state’s Department of Natural Resources for information. Normally deer hunting regulations are posted online.

Two Ways to Harvest a Deer on Your Property

There are essentially two ways to convert a garden devouring deer to steaks, burgers, and chops.  They are:

  • Inviting a hunter to shoot a deer on your property. This eliminates the need to own a weapon, shoot an animal, and skin, dress and package it. It’s the easy way for most people but it’s not always simple. See the related Winding Pathways Blog on Tips for managing hunters on your land. Salespeople in local sporting goods stores can help locate a bowhunter. Landowners should request that their hunter provide them with some wrapped and frozen meat.
  • Do it yourself. The rest of this blog is general information on how to shoot, process, and eat a deer.


There are generally four types of devices legal and effective for killing a deer. A brief description follows:

BOW AND ARROW:   Archery is the favored and often only legal way to kill a deer in cities and towns. Skilled archers are amazingly effective in quickly killing a deer. Unlike firearms bows are quiet. Arrows have a very limited range with 40 yards being about the maximum. It requires hunters to be close to their quarry. Usually, bowhunters place a stand up in a tree. Deer rarely look up when roaming around and often come close to archers perched high. Also, being in a tree requires a downward shot toward the ground. The shooting angle and limited range make archery a safe hunting method in areas of dense human population. It is not easy and skilled archers spend many hours throughout the year practicing to be accurate shots. An upside is that archery is fun. Many people enjoy target shooting, and this can be combined with bow hunting.

SHOTGUNS:   Often states require firearm hunters to use shotguns in areas with dense human populations. Shotguns discharge either a single projectile called a “slug”, or a few large diameter pellets, called “buckshot”. Most states require hunters to use slugs.   These tend to be heavy and relatively low in velocity. When fired from a smoothbore shotgun they are accurate only at a range of 50 yards or so. Newer rifled barreled shotguns using slugs made for them are more accurate and can humanely kill a deer at 125 yards or even longer. Deer slugs tend to not travel a long distance so are commonly mandated near towns.

RIFLES:   High powered rifles are generally only allowed in areas of low human density away from cities. In the hands of a competent person, they are very accurate at a much longer range than shotguns. Rifles come in a wide range of calibers that launch bullets of different weights and velocities. It gets complicated, but generally, rifles aren’t allowed or used in places where the human density is high.

MUZZLELOADING RIFLES:   Before cartridge rifles were invented muzzleloading rifles were the norm. These require loading powder and bullet from the bore or end of the barrel. It is a somewhat slow process and muzzleloaders are single shot since it takes a while to reload. Generally, muzzleloaders shoot large heavy bullets at a slower velocity than cartridge rifles. They can be very accurate at relatively short range.  Winding Pathways is outside city limits and we use a muzzleloader to take a deer on our property each year.

An excellent way to learn how to safely and effectively shoot a firearm is to locate a local shooting range or sporting goods store that sells firearms. Many offer training and excellent information. Our next-door neighbor at Winding Pathways owns a nearby store called Cedar Valley Outfitters. It holds regular firearms training classes and will arrange private lessons to help novices learn how to safely handle and accurately shoot a firearm. Unlike big box stores that sell firearms smaller locally owned gun stores are likely to offer training.  A resource to help locate a store or shooting range is the National Shooting Sports Foundation.


Think a year ahead. It will likely take that long for a novice to decide to convert a deer to food, research the local and state laws, purchase an appropriate bow or firearm, and learn to shoot it accurately. Finding a mentor may speed the process.


The easiest way to process a deer is to take it to a locker and pay a professional butcher to covert the carcass into cuts. Most also will grind it or process it into sausage of many types.

Butchering a deer at home is not hard. It takes us about three hours to convert a carcass to cuts of wrapped meat in the freezer.

Hunters normally eviscerate a deer immediately after shooting it. This makes the carcass lighter to transport and helps it cool quicker. The best way to learn how to do this is to tag along with an experienced hunter and learn first-hand. YouTube Videos also show how to do it. It is important to cool meat quickly to prevent spoilage.  At Winding Pathways, we quickly bring a freshly killed deer to our garage where we have a simple block and tackle that lets us hang the deer by its hind legs. This allows us to easily skin and eviscerate it. Once completed we wash the carcass with water and cover it with a clean sheet to keep dirt and insects away from the meat. If the weather is cool – in the mid to high 30s or 40s – we let the meat age for a couple of days before cutting it into pieces ready for the freezer.


A veteran meat cutter is the best instructor to show how to cut a deer into steaks, roasts, chops, stew meat.  Because our freezer is small we bone out all the meat. We prepare a few roasts and several steaks but much of the deer is cut up into chunks for stew or put into great-grandma’s old hand cranked grinder and converted to ground meat. We can fit a butchered medium-sized deer into our small freezer and eat it throughout the winter.

Many YouTube videos show how to skin, butcher, and freeze deer meat. Some include cooking tips. One of the better ones is called FIELD DRESSING, SKINNING, BUTCHERING TO FREEZING-LARGE GAME PROCESSING-DEER.


When properly processed and cooked deer meat is delicious.  It is very lean so tends to be somewhat drier than beef.  Many people make the mistake of overcooking venison.  We cook it to the same degree of doneness as we would a similar piece of beef. Most of our venison is chunks used in winter stew or ground meat used in place of beef hamburger in chili, spaghetti sauce, and many other dishes.



Opossums are Wondrous Animals!

We like opossums and are always happy to see one shuffling off when we startle it after dark. This amazing animal gets too little respect and appreciation by people who consider them dirty, stupid, and ugly. They are just the opposite!

Opossums are doing something right. They’re survivors who have been on the planet far longer that humans. Often called ‘possums, they were once common only in southern states. Their fur is sparse and doesn’t cover tails or ears, so winter is rough on them. Warming temperatures are helping this animal move north, and they’re now common in Maine, Minnesota and other more northern states where they once were absent.

‘Possums are our only native marsupial. Like kangaroos, female opossums have a pouch to nourish their young. Born after only a 13-day pregnancy tiny babies make their way into her pouch where they remain for about 100 days feeding on mom’s milk. Once they leave the pouch they follow her around learning how to fend for themselves.

Mostly nocturnal, possums aren’t choosy eaters. They love over ripe fruit, especially persimmons but they’ll also snack on insects, worms, dead animals, and nearly any other animal they can catch or find. Think of them as a gardener’s assistant because they gravitate to decaying material.

New research reveals an important diet item. They enjoy eating ticks! ‘Possums groom often and any tick that climbs aboard one and attempts to bite is in for a surprise.  The grooming animal is likely to find the tick and quickly devour it. Fewer than 4% of ticks that climb on a O’possum successfully enjoy a blood meal. The rest become a meal themselves.

We’re lucky to have opossums in our yard.  We enjoy sharing space with these ancient, clean, and useful animals.  We hope you also have a neighborhood ‘possum.   Be sure to share a photo of your ‘possum with us. For information on the opossum/tick relationship go to Cary Institute.

Bears! Oh, My!

Bears sightings are in the west are common and increasing across the northeast. Mountain lion sightings and encounters are well documented in Los Angeles, CA.
A guest blog by Susan Fehsinger, New Hampshire
“I’ve spent most of my life in southern New Hampshire. Growing up, we never heard of bears being anywhere near our area, but their population has been growing rapidly. Now, we hear of them regularly. Our first live rural sighting was about 15 years ago. Since then, we either have seen them or evidence of them at least once a year.
“We live in the country on 16 acres and the nearest house is about 300 feet away across the road. There is plenty of bear habitat and they are becoming very common. Last year I was taking a walk along a class 6 road (a road that is not maintained any longer but is often used) when a black bear strolled up from the river and across the road about 30 yards ahead. I froze. S/he turned and looked at me for a long 10 or 15 seconds before continuing into the woods. Did I have my phone? Yes. Did I think to snap a photo? Nope.
“One morning this spring about 6:45, when the sky was fully light, I began to hear noises and thought our cat was running around upstairs. After a while, though, I looked out the window which opens onto our screen porch. Two bears were tearing into the stone retaining wall at its foundation. They were pulling out the seeds that the chipmunks had stored there. Both were fully grown and one of them was the largest I have ever seen in this area. The strangest part of this experience was that they didn’t spook at all. I called my husband and we both stood at the glass door taking pictures and talking.
“The population of our small town is growing, yet we are seeing more wildlife that used to be rare. I saw my first bobcat a year or so ago, also. It’s great to know that wildlife is doing well and large predators are around. We humans just need to be aware of potential danger — for us in case of a confrontation, and for them, if our behavior causes them to habituate to people. Fish and Game does not want to have to kill an animal that’s only crime is looking for food that we provide them.
“Beginning in early spring we are told to bring in bird feeders (and in my case stop using the screen porch as an extra refrigerator!) It’s definitely good advice because bears are excellent at finding any and all available food. Usually, the ones we see in early spring are females with cubs, and they can be very dangerous if a human  gets between “mom” and her little ones. The fact that “my” bears were digging into a stonewall to get at seeds stored by chipmunks underlies how good they are at their job — feeding themselves and their cubs. We can learn to outsmart them, but they’ve been perfecting their food-finding skills for a long time and their senses are much better than ours. We have to become aware and vigilant so we can enjoy the fact that they’re here among us — just not too close.”
Check out these links below about bears, habitat and behaviors. Many of these sites refer to “wild” places like parks and the North Woods. And, remember that the advice on respecting bears, keeping your distance, and storing food all to avoid bear encounters is similar and are great tips for suburban and urban dwellers.

Foiling Chipmunks

Our dining room table overlooks a tiny pond circled with large stones. Many wild animals come to drink or bathe. One of our favorites is the sleek Eastern Chipmunk. Often, chipmunks fill their cheeks with seeds that fall from our bird feeders and carry them off to a stash.

Chipmunk Tunneling

This chipmunk figured out how to tunnel under the trap to get the seeds.

One summer we watched a clever chipmunk problem-solve how to access seeds from a live trap without getting trapped itself.  The ingenious chipmunk tunneled under the trap and up through the wire, helped itself to the food and returned back out the tunnel to store its treasure for later eating.

We love chipmunks but many people utterly hate them and ask us how to rid their yard of the tiny mammals. Although they can undermine rock walls by tunneling otherwise chipmunks do slight damage. They are most commonly found in shady yards with woodpiles or rock walls.

Chipmunks may be unusually numerous in suburban yards because people discourage their predators.  Bull snakes love dining on tasty chipmunk dinners but few homeowners want a six or eight-foot-long snake sharing their yard. Many hawks also devour chipmunks but, like snakes, they aren’t common in town. So, these small rodents have few predators to fear other than marauding house cats.

An effective way to keep chipmunk numbers in control is to encourage predators.  If snakes can’t be tolerated, removing woodpiles and rocks will eliminate chipmunk homes.

Occasionally chipmunks and white footed mice climb into vent pipes plumbing or clothes dryers. An easy way to discourage them is to buy a few stainless-steel scrub pads sold in most grocery stores.  These are balls of coarse, somewhat sharp metal. Put the pad in the pipe in a way that fills the void but doesn’t cause the pad to compress much. It acts like a filter, allowing air to move through it but not letting rodents pass.

But, mostly just enjoy your chipmunks.

Lions in this Here Country!

Mountain Lion

These big cats have over 40 names. (Courtesy NYPL free digital file.)

Early one December evening a neighbor was driving home near our home when she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. Thinking a deer was about to dart in front of her car, she immediately stopped to prevent a collision.  She was astounded when a mountain lion crossed about ten feet in front of her  illuminated by headlights.

A mountain lion………in Iowa! Perhaps that’s not so farfetched. Our neighbor would know one when she saw it.

Mountain lions (Puma concolor) are spreading out from their traditional home in western mountains. A couple of decades ago the only known eastern population of the big cats was in Florida, where they are extremely rare and are usually called panthers. These big cats were once common throughout North America except for the far north. They also ranged throughout all of Central and most of South America. As big predators they were heavily persecuted by humans, and their habitat was devastated by settlement. A big blow to cougars was the elimination of deer from much of their range in the late 1800’s.

Much has changed to give lions, or cougars as they are sometimes called, an opportunity to expand.

Most people now appreciate them as beautiful animals and don’t shoot them on sight. Many states protect them from shooting. Also, the woods and deer have returned. In 1900 most of what today is a vast hardwood forest that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean was farmed.   Many of those farms went out of business and trees move in. Today, there’s near continuous forest for hundreds of miles and much of it is filled with deer, a favorite food of mountain lions.

A few years ago a male cougar walked from his Black Hills home to Connecticut, where he was hit and killed by a car. Most Midwest states have documented the presence of cougars. A few have been hit by cars. More have been photographed by trail cameras put out by hunters to track deer movement.  Some have been shot. Seeing a live one is very rare.

So, a cougar sighting near Winding Pathways in Iowa is neither impossible nor surprising. It was probably a young male cat seeking a mate and place to live.

Do mountain lions pose a threat to people, livestock, or pets? Not really. There have been documented cougar attacks on people, mostly in California where they are not hunted and have lost fear of people, but the risk in most places is trivial. Cougars are shy animals that choose to stay out of sight and prefer eating deer to dogs, sheep, cattle, and cats.

We wish we’d seen the mountain lion that passed through our neighborhood but he’s probably miles away by now.

This is an independently researched column. No money or goods have been exchanged for this information.

Outwitting Pesky Deer

At Garden Gate

A variety of fencing keeps deer and rabbits out of the garden.

Like millions of American homeowners we at Winding Pathways have a love/hate relationship with deer. Few animals are as beautiful as a peaceful doe nursing her fawns or as majestic as a powerful buck sporting husky fall antlers. But a love of deer only goes so far. Anger mounts quickly when they devour flowers and vegetables, girdle valuable trees, or dart in front of the car on a dark night. Last year we planted a small river birch that was growing well until a buck utterly destroyed it while rubbing his antlers on it. Frustrating!

Until about 25 years ago deer mostly lived in large forests and rarely ventured into town or suburbia, but as their rural population grew they moved right into town. Most suburbs have plenty of wooded pockets where deer can hide and nutritious forage in parks, gardens, and yards. Today deer are amazingly abundant in suburbia, where they prance up and down streets and dine on valued vegetation.


Deer generally do two types of vegetation damage. One’s relatively easy to prevent, while the other is more challenging.

RUBS:   Antlers form during warm months as a blood rich skin, called velvet, nourishes fast growing bone like antlers that are mostly calcium. By September, antlers have reached full growth. Velvet dies and dries, and bucks remove it by rubbing antlers against small trees. They prefer saplings a few inches in diameter. Rubbing often girdles and kills the tree, and deer always seem to attack the most valuable tree in the yard. It’s infuriating and costly. Although velvet is mostly gone by early October deer continue to bang and rub their antlers against trees throughout the fall.

The Cure:   Fortunately there’s an easy way to prevent rubbing.

At Winding Pathways we use heavy wire in 2” X 4” mesh that we buy in 50 foot rolls. It’s relatively easy to cut an eight foot length of fencing using wire cutting pliers. Once we have the section cut we ring it around the tree and hold the ends closed with cable ties. Usually one metal fence post driven 18” into the ground will hold the wire in place.  Sometimes two posts placed on opposite sides of the tree are needed.  We attach the wire mesh to the post using big cable ties. The wire stays in place year round until the tree is at least 4 inches in diameter and no longer threatened by rubbing.

Zip Ties

Attache zip ties firmly to a post.

What You Need to Make a Wire Ring

  • Wire: We buy rolls of 2”X4” four foot tall galvanized wire mesh from a farm or building supply store. Many brands and types of wire mesh are for sale but we prefer Red Brand. It is stiff and strong and we usually only need one fence post to hold it up.  Red Brand fencing is made in the US.   Less sturdy wire mesh is cheaper but bends easily, rusts more quickly, and usually requires a few fence posts to hold it in place.
  • Pliers: We unroll about eight feet of the wire roll on the driveway for cutting. Any type of cutting pliers will work to cut off a section but we find “Bernard” pliers perfect for the task.  These are usually made for anglers and have a wire cutter and spring that automatically opens the pliers after a cut. They make slicing off a section easy and fast.
  • Fence Post: With stiff wire mesh one fence post will hold a ring of wire in place around a tree.  Wire mesh that readily bends may need two or three posts. We buy  6 foot posts, called T posts, at farm or building supply stores and pound them 18 inches into the ground 12” to 20”  out from the tree’s trunk. A small sledge hammer makes a handy pounding tool. We then form a circle of the wire panel around the tree and fasten the ends together.
  • Cable ties, sometimes called nylon zip ties, make joining the ends of the wire mesh and attaching the wire to the fence post easy. The ties come in various sizes. It takes big ones to run through the wire mesh and secure around the post. Twist wire also works to hold the ends together or attach the wire mesh to the post.

Putting a ring of wire around valuable young trees is almost certain to protect them from rubbing and browsing. Just be sure to do it before damage starts.

Deer In Yard

At Winding Pathways deer come into the yard. We protect young trees with fencing as seen in the back to the right.

LUNCH AND DINNER WITH BREAKFAST TOSSED IN:    Deer love eating many landscape and vegetable plants. Although they have preferences, the hungrier the deer, the more likely they are to even eat plants they generally dislike. Garden books often list species of plants that deer do and don’t like to eat but beware, like humans, individual deer have food preferences. Although most deer may not like a particular plant species, others may consider it a dining delight. Deer seem to have regional tastes, so the plants they don’t like in Connecticut may be gourmet fare in Alabama or Iowa. Unfortunately, many plants that deer relish are the same ones homeowners like to plant, so protecting them is vital to success.

Damage to trees by rubbing is seasonal and normally only happens in the fall. In contrast browsing damage happens all year with deer generally eating softer vegetation during warm months and twigs during winter.

The Cure:   Preventing deer from eating valued vegetation is difficult but here are some ways to either eliminate or stop it:


No doubt about it. A sturdy fence keeps deer away from plants and prevents damage. Fencing has downsides. It’s expensive, often unsightly, and it requires maintenance. A fence can ring an entire property or just an area that needs protection, such as around the vegetable garden. Generally there are two types of fence used to prevent browsing.

  • Electric fences work well. Many newer ones are moveable and easy to install. Electric fences don’t need to be very tall. They are relatively expensive but their biggest disadvantage is that they sometimes give a shock to a careless homeowner or even a child. Many towns ban electric fences, so be sure one is legal before you buy one. We like fences made by Premier.
  • Nonelectric fences work well to exclude deer but also have disadvantages. They are laborious to install and are relatively expensive. They can be made of heavy duty nylon or wire mesh. Deer are amazing high jumpers and can clear a six foot fence, so a deer proof fence should be eight feet tall!


A good fence will prevent deer damage by keeping hungry animals away from desirable plants.    Repellents are less certain but can help reduce damage. Repellents are most helpful when temporary protection is needed or where fences won’t work and they are less expensive.  They have these disadvantages:

  • Need to be reapplied often and always after a rain.
  • Sometimes smell strongly.
  • May not be suitable for use on vegetables.
  • Only somewhat deter deer from snacking.

Our good friends Dave and Sue Kramer own Kramer’s Flower Farm and produce thousands of varied colored day lilies every year. Visit their farm in mid-summer and it is a sea of blooms. People love looking at colorful flowers but deer consider them lunch. Kramer’s farm is surrounded by woods, so they have to be vigilant in keeping deer way from their crop. Dave uses a home-made spray that keep deer at bay.

Kramer’s Deer Repellent Recipe


     One gallon of water.

      Three egg yolks

      One teaspoon garlic powder.

      One teaspoon cayenne pepper finely ground


Add ingredients and shake well. Leave in the sun for a couple of days. Shake again and filter through an old nylon stocking to remove lumps or they will clog the sprayer. Put in a standard sprayer and spray plants.  Treatment needs to be repeated often and after every rain.

 Deer don’t like the smell or taste of rotten eggs. Who would? Anyone who would rather not make their own egg based spray can buy commercial mixes. The one we use is called Deer Stopper and is made by the Messinas Company. The label says it’s made of putrescent whole egg solids, rosemary oil, mint oil and several inert ingredients.

After buying several inexpensive sprayers that clogged we bought a Stihl brand sprayer that works well and seems less likely to clog.

Whether using a home-made or commercial repellent remember it needs to be reapplied relatively often and always after a rain. 

Direct Action

Winding Pathways is near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Several years ago the City Council approved allowing citizens to hunt deer using archery equipment. Hunters need to prove proficiency with their equipment and special rules are in place to ensure safety. Each year hunters convert several hundred suburban and urban deer into chops and steaks. Deer meat is “free ranging, local, organic” and delicious.

Each year we harvest a deer from our property. This doesn’t stop deer damage but does provide us with food, and if enough people each take a deer, their population density and, thus, damage will decline. So, if it’s legal in your area, consider converting a deer to food. Normally a state and sometimes a local permit is needed. Look for a future Winding Pathways blog on how to harvest and dress a deer.