Saturday, January 2, 2016

Economics of Hunting

Growing up in Wisconsin, the deer hunting season was as close to a holiday as one could get without official state sanctioning.  We were enthusiastic participants in the jubilee--countless hours in the woods and swamps waiting for a deer to walk by (watching the antics of squirrels and woodpeckers in the meantime), and countless more hours trying to chase those same deer past uncles and cousins, inventing hare-brained fail-proof strategery on a truck tailgate while eating sandwiches and apples, playing cribbage while cooking celebratory tenderloins, and playing poker late into the night.

It was a family gathering as much as anything, but the question sometimes arose--how did the price of the venison we were currently in the process of procuring compare to something comparable we could buy?  The question has become more poignant now that we now need to buy non-resident licenses at a premium price of 567% of the resident license cost.  This week, we realized we had never actually sat down and calculated it.  Fortunately, that type of calculation is just the kind of thing we do here on this blog.

Time to put on our number-crunching hats and look at some scenarios.  And time to make a spreadsheet!

First, here are the numbers we used, broken up into five scenarios.  Scenarios 1a and 1b incorporate the cost of a low-end, but serviceable rifle ($300 on sale from the local farm store), and a $25 box of shells for an initial sight-in.  Those costs are assumed to be divided up evenly over the first five years, and work out to $65 for years 1-5.  Another four shells are included for a tune-up and the kill shot, at a cost of $5.  (For bow-hunting, a likely-non-reusable arrow and a possibly-reusable broadhead could also be approximated at $5, maybe a little more.)  A resident deer license in Wisconsin is $24, and the cost for a typical excursion included travel to the hunting grounds at about 200 miles round trip (calculated at a travel cost of $102, using an approximate GSA mileage rate of $0.51/mile), about $25 in extra food (per person) for donuts, granola bars, celebratory beers, etc., and a processing fee of $85, if we were to take the deer in (Scenario 1a).  The "hanging weight" of the deer is assumed to be 80 lbs, which roughly equates to 110 lb dressed and 140 lb live weights, which are typical for upper midwestern whitetails.

Scenarios 2a and 2b assume that the gun is paid for, and is sighted in and close to accurate.  This is closest to the situation we had growing up. Scenario 3 is closest to our current situation, with $160 for a non-resident license, no travel costs (because Jake's parents now live in a cabin on the hunting grounds), and no processing costs, since we'll be gosh-darned if we let some careless butcher guy waste a single ounce of that deer.

Scenarios 4a and 4b are for comparison to elk hunting in Colorado, including a drive from the Denver area up to the legendary Flat Tops Range by Yampa (310 miles round trip). The lowest elk processing fee we could find was $275 (others were close to $1.00/lb), and the average field-dressed weight for an elk is in the range of 350 lb.

Scenario 5 is if dear old Dad wanted to drive out from Wisconsin to Colorado for an elk hunt, and also wanted to outsource his elk processing.

The total cost works out to $2-4/lb for Wisconsin whitetail venison, $0.70-$1.50/lb for resident Colorado elk venison, and about $5.69 for non-resident Colorado elk venison, if that non-resident drives from Wisconsin, with the breakdown shown above.  Processing adds about $1/lb to the total cost for the deer, and a little less for the elk.  The lower travel cost from Jake's parents' new digs pretty much offsets the increased cost of the non-resident license. (Thanks, mom and dad!)  Unfortunately, it doesn't work out quite as nicely coming to Colorado to hunt elk.

For comparison, the lowest beef prices we could find were about $3.51/lb (composite value from averaging ribeye, filet mignon, back ribs, sirloin, and strip steaks from here; it's bolstered by the ribs, but that brings it into the wholesale range recorded by the USDA).  The grocery store conventional beef (averaging prices for hamburger, sirloin, and strip steaks in the weekly ad of our local King Soopers store), came in at $4.92/lb.  Buying grass-fed beef directly from the farmer was marginally higher at $5.23/lb (from averaging prices here, here, here, here, and here).  To give an idea of the range of farm-direct conventional beef, the last link also offers that next to its grass-fed beef, at $4.50/lb. 

So, long story short, hunting venison is generally less expensive than buying beef, especially if you do your own processing and don't have to travel far to hunt.  A corollary is that if you do have to travel, you can probably decrease your price per pound by getting multiple tags to fill on the trip (e.g., elk plus mule deer plus antelope).

Of course, all of the above is predicated on the assumption that the hunt is successful.  That's not necessarily a given, as the Wisconsin deer hunting and Colorado elk hunting success rates show.  But if you do your homework ahead of time, your odds of success are probably higher than the average.

Practicing by hunting the rare and elusive feed bag target is an important part of the pre-hunt homework, but be careful not to shoot any chickens!

Have you calculated your hunted meat costs?  How do they compare?


  1. I think your post is pretty interesting and you did a good job of being objective....but to be fair you really do need to compare the venison to grass-fed beef, maybe even at organic prices. Most grocery store beef is mass-produced from feed lots, so their prices are much less, but quality is also much lower. Around here the processing fee for a deer is $70, cut, wrapped and frozen. Of course if you do it yourself, you don't have that cost, maybe just a few bucks for the wrapping materials. There is also the health benefits of being outside in the fresh air, in the woods. And if any transportation costs are going to happen anyway, because you will be visiting relatives you might be able to eliminate including that cost! Nice to see it all broken down! That last scenario will have to be explored!

    1. There are definitely a lot of benefits to hunting that aren't included in the model, but I was trying to keep it simple. You're right, though--I should have probably included the packaging materials in the self-processing scenarios. A hanging weight of 80 lbs should give about 40 lbs of venison, frozen in 1 lb portions (conservative, since roasts and maybe steaks are at least 1 lb), would take probably 40 quart-size freezer bags. Looks like 50 bags costs about $4.50, so 40 bags would be about $3.60, which would add $0.09/lb. The processing fees do definitely vary, but the $85 figure I pulled right from the Miesfeld's website. That seemed most relevant to our situation growing up, though the price may have increased in recent years. :-)

      As far as the comparison to the different types of beef...I think it gets complicated. The deer are definitely free-range and non-medicated, but at least close to home, their diet is probably pretty similar to the local cows since they spend an awful lot of time in the corn, soybean, and alfalfa fields. The deer get it a little fresher, and get to supplement with some acorns, but I'm not sure you could call them organic or grass-fed. A north woods deer or an elk would probably be closer.

      In any case, the far right bar in the third-to-last picture is for grass-fed beef if you get it directly from the farmer; in the grocery store it would obviously be higher. But since most of the hunting scenarios look pretty good even when stacked up against conventional, farm-direct beef, they'll just look even better against more expensive, higher-quality beef! :-)

  2. Extremely interesting post, and an excellent analysis. Dan and I aren't hunters per se, but we will deal with destructive wildlife on our homestead and we will eat them rather than waste them.

    It's difficult to truly compare food costs because they vary so much around the country. Northerners are often amazed at low our food prices (and general cost of living) here in the south, but when salaries are compared, well, Southerners couldn't afford food if the prices were higher.

    There are a lot of hidden costs to the industrial food system as well, especially on the environment. But I think the way you did it is the bottom line approach that most folks can grasp.

    1. I think destructive wildlife on the homestead is probably the most economical of all meats--there's no travel costs, probably no extra food costs, you get an extra bonus of vegetables-not-lost, and if you ask nicely, the DNR might even give you a free license to prevent crop damage.

      Plus, you know they'll be extra tasty because they've been eating the good food from your garden!