You often hear of hunters complaining of rancid venison when the calendar flips to November. Old timer wisdom says that rutting bucks taste foul, making them a prime candidate for grinding with strong flavors. What does science say about this, though?
In the beef industry, cattle that comes through the slaughter line with inedible meat is considered a “dark cutter”. Dark cutter status is achieved through hours of extreme stress on the cow. This can come in a lot of different forms, like traveling, electric prodding, tight quarters, excessive exercise, temperature changes and noise. Studies show that the most prominent stressor is fighting and interacting with strange animals that livestock can experience at the sale barn and slaughter house.
The author with a buck he harvested during the rut.
In the U.S., less than 1% of all cattle are rendered this way. The meat from a dark cutter doesn’t go to waste, though, and it’s typically sent to packing plants and converted into dog food.
This seems to align with how bucks spend early November: beating up on each other and encountering deer they normally wouldn’t. Is that really the same thing as a couple bulls grinding it out in a small pen before walking down the slaughter line, though? I don’t think so.
Cattle were domesticated some 10,000 years ago. Part of their evolution to getting the bovine we know today was constantly selecting for ox that were the most timid and easiest to control. I’ve worked on cattle farms before, and know how taxing even the simplest things can be for cows. A vet once told me that they’re literally scared of their own shadows, making them more difficult to work with on sunny days.
Deer, on the other hand, are built to endure cold Novembers where they battle for breeding rights. They haven’t experienced any domestication, and are as wild as wild gets. It seems like sparring would hardly be considered a major stressor for them.
That’s not to say some other form of stress couldn’t turn venison bad, though. Some bucks will literally die of exhaustion from the strain of the rut, so it’s not unthinkable that their meat could taste worse this time of year. However, the small number of livestock that become inedible through stress doesn’t seem to align with the number of hunters who claim to have eaten sour rutting bucks. If it’s like beef, only 1 in 100 deer would be too rank to eat.
The reality is that the taste and tenderness of your meat is a reflection of how you take care of it. Immediately gutting your deer, getting it in a cooler and hanging it for the proper amount of time is way more important than how rutty your buck was.
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