How Do You Know If Deer Meat Is Bad?

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To know if deer meat is bad, use your senses. Look, touch, smell, and taste venison to determine whether it looks grayish, or smells earthy, and intense.

Touch your deer meat to see if there is a bounce to the muscles. Finally, taste prepared venison to see whether your deer meat tastes horrid, an indication it is bad. 

The Blood Trail of Dilemma

When I first killed a deer, it was long after sunset; late in the evening. I had spotted a young doe sauntering near a pool of water, oblivious that my scope picked her out distinctively.

I was hunting with a mentor in the stand, who happened to be a professional game management official. My shot caught the doe broadside, and she took off into a patch of cornfield. 

I was about to alight from the stand and track down the night runner, but my hunting mentor stopped me. He told me we should be back in the morning, and I couldn’t argue with a professional. 

My concern was whether the deer meat would still be good, and he assured me that it would. We left the woods for the night. 

Early the next morning, we set out where the doe had disappeared, and sure enough, there was a trail of blood. A few yards into the corn, and we saw where she staggered and fell, rising again as she fought to live. 

Then we found her, fallen to her side across a row of young corn. I had shot her in the left lung, and the blood trail led to where she lay. 

My hunting mentor was right; the meat was fine. The night had been cold, and the venison had cooled down. 

Quite often, this scenario has near replicated itself throughout my hunting days. I have shot and arrowed bucks that were coming out of cover right before total darkness.

The last few minutes of legal hunting light are the busiest if you ask any deer hunter. Afterward, I pray and wait till morning, hoping that my venison won’t go bad.

What Causes Deer Meat to Go Bad?

You have heard tales of deer meat going bad. These horror stories are full of endless pain and food poisoning medicine that you wouldn’t wish on your enemy.

The excessive deterioration of venison happens because of pathogens such as molds, bacteria, and yeast-like fungi. These microbial organisms are present in healthy living animals, but their populations explode in a dead deer’s carcass. 

Spoilage is contrary to venison aging, a controlled, deliberate deterioration that stops short of rotting. Deer meat is made more flavorful and tender by hanging to age, which breaks down tough collagen and connective tissue.

Factors that contribute to deer meat going bad are straightforward. They include temperature, moisture, weather, and deer conditions, plus time duration. 

Venison Harvest Body Temperature 

When alive, deer have a body temperature of around 101° Fahrenheit. Body temperature at the time of death, as is common for mammals, may heat up if they over-use their muscles in a dash for dear life. 

Your deer could have been calmly grazing before you dropped on the spot. Its temperature at death will be relatively lower to the buck that was chased down by dogs for the remaining 15 minutes of its life. 

There will be at least five or six degrees more to a hard runner deer’s temperature. This brings your healthy venison harvest temperature to nearly 107° F. 

Warm-blooded animals, including us, have a tight range of temperature variations. There are body mechanisms that control these variations like a thermostat.

These include panting, sweating, and shivering. When all three happen simultaneously, you are hyperventilating.

Bacteria and other spoilage-causing pathogens grow optimally at between 70° and 120° Fahrenheit. Ideal temperatures can cause bacterial populations in venison to double every 20 minutes. 

The more your dead deer spends more of these 20 minute time lapses at temperatures above 70 degrees, the multiplication of microorganisms is rapid.

Meat temperatures that fall from 70° to 40° Fahrenheit have diminished pathogen growth. When your venison temperature is below 40 degrees, there is a drastic drop in bacterial reproduction. 

Remember that it’s the temperature of your meat and not that of air around it, which should be measured.

Environmental Temperatures

The secret to avoiding venison spoilage is cooling the deer meat down quickly. Weather temperature is as essential to note, as is the deer’s body temperature. 

The most significant contributor to deer meat going bad is high temperatures in the air, earth, and water bodies. It makes sense then that venison left in the sunlight will spoil quicker than meat kept in the cool shade.

When the air temperature rises above 40°F, deer meat spoilage should be a significant concern. The inside temperature of a dead buck will be sustained longer if there is insulation around the body.

For instance, leaving a deer on the ground contributes to spoilage as opposed to hanging it on a meat pole. This exposes the body to the external air, especially if you skin and field-dress the meat soon after the kill.

The exception to this would be in regions that are already cold in deer season, and the ground is frozen. In such instances, it would be better to leave your deer on the ground as it’s cooler than the air temperature.

A few years ago, I had the chance to track a whitetail with a friend of mine. He had also shot the deer that previous evening and couldn’t find it.

After a long morning trek, we found it, and I can’t forget the results. The day before had been hot and muggy, the ground retaining much of its heat throughout the cool night.

When we skinned the whitetail, meat on the side which had laid facing up to the sky was fine. It was the down side that was next to the ground all night that had spoiled. 

My recommendations are never to eat venison from a carcass that shows signs of being bad. 

Concerns of Moisture

Once when I was hunting during the rainy gun season, temperatures were in the high 30°s. I left deer on a meat pole for two days, thinking that the temperature was cool enough.

Incidentally, I lost the meat to spoilage. 

Drying is one of the oldest food preservation techniques, way before refrigeration existed. Spoilage organisms require moisture to grow and proliferate. 

Thus dried meat, also called jerky, lasts long without freezing. 

Hanging venison in dry conditions caused the moisture on the meat to evaporate, reducing microbial growth. When deer meat is left in high humidity or moist conditions such as rainy weather, fungal and bacterial reproduction is accelerated. 

I advise against washing deer carcass after skinning or gutting unless you are going to refrigerate it soon. If your venison becomes exposed to innards’ contents, wipe the area with a rag soaked in salt and vinegar.

Clean meat is to be left as dry as possible and hung in a low humidity location.

Health Condition of Your Deer 

In a healthy living animal, microbes that cause decay are present but kept in check by intact immune systems. It’s not until the animal dies that spoilage is caused by rapid microorganism multiplication. 

A sick, elderly, or infected deer can have a compromised immune system. This means that at the time of its death, bacteria, yeast, viruses, and molds will already be at less than safe levels.

Deer that had been shot wounded and didn’t die will have wounds infested with maggots, bacteria, and other pathogens. For such animals, spoilage is held in check until the deer dies. 

Then, it’ll accelerate due to the deer’s poor health. The condition your deer is in when you harvest will determine the time taken by bacteria to cause rot.

Ethical hunting calls for deer to be shot and killed quickly and mercifully. It’s better; however, if you don’t recover venison from a wounded animal, for as long as it’s alive, systemic spoilage will not begin.

Microbial multiplication starts at an unhindered rate once the animal is downed. Environmental conditions come into play, creating a conducive situation for decomposition

When you shoot your deer, there’s already a reservoir of microbes within the deer’s guts. Damaged intestines allow bacteria to seep through into the meat and hasten spoilage. 

Your freshly killed but gut-shot meat becomes high in bacterial content from the moment your deer falls. In ideal temperatures, humidity and time, the meat provides microbes with rich nourishment for rapid reproduction. 

Removing a freshly killed deer’s internal organs, skin and blood cools down the meat. This delays decomposition, which causes your deer meat to turn bad.

It’s All a Matter of Time 

Time is of the essence if you wish to recover your venison before it spoils. There are several conditions that increase the chances of spoilage happening, and the varieties of temperatures to measure. 

If your air temperature is above 50° F, you have between 3 and 6 hours to recover your meat after the deer is down. A higher air temperature, coupled with elevated body temperatures from hard running, means a shorter window for recovery.  

When I shoot a deer at day temperatures above 40°, I check to see the expected night temperature. If the night is cool at around 20° F, I can leave the deer hanging and still find my meat safe. So, for how long should you hang deer? Approaching warm fronts and cloudy, humid nights are what you have to look out for. Always make sure to reduce recovery or hanging time for your deer meat if temperatures are consistently in their 40s.

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