For those who handle deer and other wild game products, deer season can be the busiest time of the year. For example, Cloud’s Meats, Carthage, Mo., must handle not only the increase in regular business by adding deer, but also the increase in holiday hams, turkeys and special orders during the same time period.
The week-and-a-half gun season in November for hunters in Cloud’s area generates on average 1,000 carcasses for the processor to handle, says Andy Cloud, plant manager. Specialty hunting seasons, including archery and youth hunts, run from mid-September to mid-January and also adds to the volume. These hunting seasons amount to Cloud’s serving about 2,500 deer customers in total during the fall and winter months.
While Cloud’s does process some elk and antelope from hunters who bring back game from out of state, the vast majority of what it handles is deer.
For Louie’s Finer Meats, Cumberland, Wis., its retail business definitely sees a benefit from deer season, with the gun season running nine days and a variety of hunting seasons running from September into January. In Northern Wisconsin where Louie’s Finer Meats is located, deer hunting and venison consumption are important to the economy.
Louie’s Finer Meats is primarily in the business of processed meats — sausage, curing and smoking — and does not have a slaughter facility. Accordingly, its wild game processing had emphasized the further processing into sausages and other products and did not offer processing of whole deer carcasses.
However, a few years ago Louie’s began offering processing of whole deer in a separate building next to its store. Louie’s decided to do this for several reasons: its customers wanted the service; it wanted to provide a full service meat market; it wanted to provide an opportunity for its employees to make some extra money; and it knew the business was missing out on some sausage processing business by not offering whole deer processing.
“Most people who drop off a whole deer request some further processed items, so it made sense for us to offer the service,” says Louie K. Muench, part of the management at Louie’s. “The whole deer processing has been so successful that we immediately outgrew the facility we designed for it. We are working on a larger space for whole deer processing.”
For the past couple of years, Louie’s has processed around 450 whole deer, which doesn’t include the majority of wild game customers who bring in trimmings for further process, Muench says. In 2013, Louie’s processed more than 90,000 pounds of wild game products.
Louie’s accepts wild game trimmings year round for processing and gets some orders placed throughout the year. Whitetail deer are easily the majority of its wild game business. However, Louie’s is willing to process any wild game species, and other species are a large part of its processing, especially early in the season.
“We are processing a lot of waterfowl into sausage products,” Muench says. “In the spring, many customers bring us wild turkey for processing — often cured and smoked turkey breast. There is a high bear population in our area, so we are processing a large amount of bear meat. We also process meat from people hunting in other areas of the country, so we’ve processed many species not found in our local area, such as elk, mule deer, sika or fallow deer, wild boar, and even sandhill crane.”
Handling the Volume
While deer hunting season brings welcomed business, the season is not without its challenges. With the increased volume, Cloud’s found that it needed to hire more people.
“It’s easy to hire people to move deer, to load finish product out and to help us with cleaning,” Cloud explains. “Those are easy positions to fill. The difficult positions are the skilled labor — people who can skin deer, cut deer, bone deer and make sausage. Our biggest challenge is to have enough people in those skilled positions that we’re able to process the highest quality product that we can as fast as we can.”
In turn, to keep Cloud’s more talented employees throughout the year, the company evolved its business. It diversified from a processing plant that does one or two things into catering, private label and other types of products so that it can keep its talented people year round.
The sheer volume also has made Cloud’s more thorough in keeping track of customers’ carcasses. It’s developed a check-in system that includes a triple check system where multiple tags go on the deer as they are weighed. Cloud’s places a numbered metal tag on the carcass that never leaves the carcass. The company also uses paper tags with the customer’s name on it to coincide with the metal tag. Then the customer receives a copy of their cutting instructions when the deer is dropped off that has the tag number on it. When the customer picks up their deer, the metal tag that corresponds with the customer’s tag number will be in the box with their meat.
“We’re averaging 100 to 120 deer cut per day, and sometimes you get lost in the numbers a little bit,” Cloud says. “Each number is not just a deer. It’s a customer, and for each number that customer is expecting to get their order right, and we want to get their order right. So being able to track things and do well it helps us to have customers who want to come back and use us again.”
The long hours also become a challenge. Many times Cloud’s receives deer at odd hours because of evening and weekend hunts. Cloud’s has instituted a self-check-in that offers hunters the opportunity to drop carcasses off in a cooler that is open to the public but closed to the plant. People can drop their deer off, fill out their own information with the deer, place it with the deer and Cloud’s will call them the next day for cutting instructions and with their deer’s tag number.
“What this does is keeps us from having to have labor late into the night and also for the weekends,” Cloud says. “Probably 15 percent of our deer are brought into the plant this way. It gives the ability to go ahead and receive people’s deer and get them under refrigeration, so that you have a better, safer product and just really streamlines the whole process.”
Muench believes the biggest challenge with wild game processing is that meat comes from an uninspected and unknown source and is prone to mishandling.
“We guarantee every product we produce, so we refuse to put our name on anything that doesn’t meet our quality standards,” he says. “We take extra care with wild game, under the assumption that it carries a high bacterial load. Most hunters are actually very good, and understand that they should take care of meat they will be eating. However, some are not familiar with proper field dressing or taking care of meat, so we must watch this carefully. We work to educate customers on proper meat handling, including speaking at public events regarding the topic.”
Mother Nature can offer some help in this area, Muench says. Last year was a very cold deer season, which resulted in very few cases of spoiled meat, compared to warm years, he explains.
Louie’s also recognized the value of limiting manual lifting of deer as much as possible. “Other processors have helped us with finding more efficient ways to process deer, such as designing a good hide puller,” Muench says.
Another challenge for Louie’s is completing orders in a timely manner and making sure customers understand their processing timeline.
“Deer season comes a month before Christmas, which is a busy time of year for us,” Muench says. “Also, January through April are slow months for our retail business, and the void is filled with wild game processing. We stress that most sausage orders will not be processed until after January 1, in the order they are received.”
While other plants are able to shut down their slaughter operation to get deer processing completed, Louie’s business is retail-focused, and Christmas comes immediately after deer season.
“We work very long hours to get the whole deer processing completed and then must wait until after Christmas for most of the sausage processing,” Muench says. “I often joke that it would be easier if they started deer season the week after Christmas.”
Cloud’s handles the processing volume increase using a different structure.
“It’s actually simpler during the gun portion of the season because we clear out all of our coolers, and for two weeks, we are strictly deer only in our plant,” Cloud says. “It does get us backed up on our beef and pork carcasses, but because deer is so profitable for us, we are willing to get behind to be able to strictly do deer.”
Cloud’s is a state inspected plant so it does have to have complete separation between wild game and beef and pork carcasses. During the long specialty hunting season, Cloud’s designates days that are only for processing deer in its cutting room and then will perform a complete sanitation before going back to beef and pork the next day. When it comes to the skinning portion of it, Cloud’s does have to continue killing beef and pork every day. As it does have deer come in consistently, it will keep then separate in the cooler and begin skinning deer at the end of its beef and pork processing day.
Helping to guide customers through meat ordering though offers processors valuable opportunities.
While many customers know exactly what they want, others are unsure.
“If customers are uncertain, our employees are very good at explaining ‘This is what I would do,’ or ‘This is what is very popular with other customers,’” Muench says. “We also offer samples of any of our products to help a customer decide on what to make. Some customers may drop off their meat and call us back later with the order, once they decide what they want with their family. It has helped to have a computer system that allows us to find a customer’s order from prior years. Many customers ask, ‘What did I do last year?’ and now it’s easy to show them.”
Computers are a huge asset in keeping the entire process organized, he adds. Once Louie’s orders are completed, they are immediately frozen and sorted alphabetically by last name and with a computer-generated order number on each box.
“We want to make sure to avoid cases of customers getting the wrong order or not getting their entire order, and it seems to work well,” Muench says.
Cloud’s guides everyone through their processing cut up. While most people know what they want when it comes to fresh meat — generally wanting steaks and burger — Cloud’s walks customers through cooked product offerings. This offers Cloud’s the opportunity to increase their profits through value added products. In addition, Cloud’s will add new products and have special products every year. For example, last year Cloud’s offered Andouille sausage as its featured product for deer.
“We want to tell them about that and tell them about the different types of snack sticks and summer sausages because those are big ticket items for us,” Cloud says. “We want to encourage people to get products like that because it just increases the amount of profit that we make.”