GRAND FORKS -- The last time Neil’s Quality Meats didn’t make venison sausage for customers who brought in boneless trim, owner Bob Bursheim was 7 years old.

That was 50 years ago, says Bursheim, who operates the retail meat market in McIntosh, Minn., with his wife, Laurie.

This fall, Neil’s Quality Meats won’t be making venison sausage, instead sticking with the popular beef and pork products they make and sell in the store. With the firearms deer season now underway in Minnesota, the decision to forgo making venison sausage is a sign of the times, a reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulty in finding reliable help, the Bursheims say.

In recent years, the shop had produced about 40,000 pounds of venison sausage, Bob Bursheim says.

“Is it a big deal? You bet it’s a big deal,” said Bursheim, 57, a second-generation owner of the business founded by his dad, Neil Bursheim. “To find anybody that’s used to working with food, that’s just about impossible.”

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Without help, there’s just not enough time to make venison sausage, he said.

“Is it weird? You bet it is,” Bursheim said. “Sometimes, change is inevitable – some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. It’s going to be awhile before anybody even knows what normal is or how all this is going to come out.

“The only thing you can do is try and figure out a path you can live with and go with it. And who knows if it’s the right one? I don’t think anybody can give you that answer because everybody is in the same boat.”

Scramble for hunters

As a retail meat store, Neil’s Quality Meats has never been a processor, but the Bursheims say many people they know in the meat-cutting industry are shying away from processing deer and other wild game this year.

That means deer hunters may have to scramble to find processors to cut and wrap their venison.

“We actually aren’t taking any whole deer” this year, said Deon Napper, who operates Napper’s Meat Processing west of Roseau, Minn., with her husband, Don. “The only thing we will take is if it’s boned out for sausage meat.”

That’s a first for the northwest Minnesota butcher shop, she says. Processors across the region are scrambling to keep up with butchering livestock, with backlogs that in many cases extend several months into 2021.

“We’re actually booked until the first of March,” Napper said.

Whether it’s because of the pandemic or something else, many people are buying and butchering more beef cattle, Napper says, a trend that influenced the shop’s decision to not take whole deer this year.

They couldn’t afford to shift gears from domestic animals to deer, a process that requires “a lot of cleaning and different things,” she said.

“We just could not lose beef customers,” Napper said. “Deer, we see maybe once every other year depending on the weather. Beef customers – they’re the ones that keep you going.”

Business as usual

Despite the demand for beef and pork processing, not every butcher shop is shying away from deer and other big game such as elk or moose. Deer season will be business as usual at Weber Meats in Reynolds, N.D., said Becky Paul, who owns the shop with her husband, Wayne.

Becky Paul of Weber Meats in Reynolds, N.D., stands in front of the shop's walk-in cooler filled with whole-bodied deer in this 2009 file photo. Paul and her husband, Wayne, own Weber Meats and will shut down their booming beef and pork business to process deer through Christmas – as they do every year during deer season. (File photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Becky Paul of Weber Meats in Reynolds, N.D., stands in front of the shop's walk-in cooler filled with whole-bodied deer in this 2009 file photo. Paul and her husband, Wayne, own Weber Meats and will shut down their booming beef and pork business to process deer through Christmas – as they do every year during deer season. (File photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“Our deer hunters are as important to us as our customers for beef and pork,” Paul said. “We have heard that a lot of places are not accepting the deer because they’re not going to shut down to process deer, but we are. It’s going to be just like every other year. We are quitting processing for domestic animals, our beef and pork, so we can fully process deer meat.

“We have (beef and pork) butchering scheduled into 2021 already, and I presume that’s why a lot of plants aren’t closing down to process deer. But I feel that our deer customers are just as important to us as our beef and pork customers, so I’m not going to neglect them.”

Weber Meats will cut and package deer meat through Christmas and begin making sausage from boneless trim in January, Paul says.

“We get up to 100 full-bodied deer hanging in the cooler at one time and we cannot have domestic animals hanging with that many deer because you can never keep them separated,” she said. “So, that’s why we shut down completely on processing domestic – so all we have in our coolers is wild game.”

At Langdon Locker, a butcher shop in Langdon, N.D., manager Josh Metzger said they plan to “go ahead as normal,” making venison sausage from grinder-ready trimmings brought in by hunters.

The only potential snag, Metzger said, would be if he loses the help he hires to make and stuff sausage; the shop doesn’t take in whole-bodied deer – only trimmings.

“We are taking in deer (meat) right now and plan on continuing to do so,” Metzger said. “Last year, we were processing between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of deer a week.”

The turnaround time typically is about three days for fresh trimmings and five days for trimmings that are frozen, he said.

All this while keeping up with the same unprecedented demand for beef that other plants are experiencing.

“We just take on that much more work” during deer season, Metzger said. “A lot of our processing for deer happens between 5 and 7 at night.”

Grind it, season it, stuff it “and into the smokehouse it goes,” he said.

CWD restrictions

Paul of Weber Meats said that while whole-bodied deer will take priority in the short-term, hunters need to remember that deer or other big game animals from out of state must be quartered before they can be brought into North Dakota because of restrictions in place to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease. CWD, which is fatal to deer, elk and moose, can be spread through the brain and spinal column of infected animals.

“Every year, I have to really stress that because you get some people that haven’t hunted for a few years and don’t know (the CWD regulations) and then they show up with a deer from another state and it’s like, ‘I can’t take it this way – you have to go home and quarter it,’ ” Paul said.

That also holds true for deer from North Dakota hunting units where CWD has been documented. The shop can accept whole-bodied deer taken from parts of North Dakota where CWD hasn’t been documented.

Whether quartered or whole-bodied deer, the turnaround time is a week to 10 days, Paul said.

“It’s a fresh product so it has to be done quickly,” she said. The shop doesn’t accept trimmed out meat until after the new year, she said, and hunters must call and get their names on a trim list.

“Then we actually call them when we’re ready to bring in their trim,” Paul said.

No doubt there are other processors out there like Weber Meats who this year will process deer like they do every hunting season. But just as they do when pursuing that trophy buck or tasty doe for the freezer, hunters may have to do some scouting to find a butcher shop to process their deer.

Planning ahead is going to be essential, said Laurie Bursheim of Neil’s Quality Meats, the meat market in McIntosh.

“Check with people who do processing of deer,” she said. “From what we understand from other industry people, there is a large percentage of (processors) that are not going to be doing it this year.”