Program Specialist, Value Added Agriculture
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach
If you live on acreage, there is a pretty good chance that you also love to feed birds and other wildlife. Most bird enthusiasts feed suet in the fall and winter when they need calories for energy to maintain their body heat, but having it out all year will attract woodpeckers, nuthatches and the occasional brown creeper at your feeder.
While there is a wide assortment of commercial suet products, making your own suet cakes for birds is easy, affordable and customizable. If you are a “quantity” birdfeeder, making your own is far more affordable than purchasing commercial products. That being said, it is messy and does require care around the stove and work area since you will be melting tallow (beef fat) or pork fat.
Suet is animal fat that has been rendered and then allowed to cool. One can purchase rendered plain suet cakes or chunks from a wild bird supply store. These cakes can be melted down and used in your recipe, but this option isn’t the most economical.
Tallow trimmings from a local butcher range from free-of-charge to $2/lb. If you have friends who butcher cattle for their own use, that may be another source of tallow. Tallow carved from your steaks and bacon fat from your kitchen work too, but the bacon fat is softer and unless from salted bacon, more prone to spoilage.
“Rendering” the fat is simply melting it to make suet that we can combine with birdseed and perhaps other dry ingredients. Tallow alone can simply be put out in net bags and hung outside. The birds will go for it too, but the additions make it much more interesting to the birds.
This is really fun to do as a family activity, but it is messy and there are some things to be careful with, especially if children are present.
- You can easily cut yourself. You will be using a large, sharp and slippery knife for slicing and cubing large chunks of beef fat. This will get extremely hard to work with as you proceed from batch to batch.
- You will be melting the fat on the stove. Use LOW HEAT to avoid a grease fire. Even so, have a towel handy to smother the pan should you have a fire. As the mixture melts, a little stirring goes a long way to dissolve the fat particles (about the size of BBs when they come out of your food processor) , and they don’t need to be fully dissolved when you mix it into your molds. Stirring as you add to the dry mixture will dissolve the remaining solids. If your pan is empty between melting session, keep it off the burner, until you have material in it.
You will need a stove, food processor, large sharp knife, medium-capacity pot with a handle, stirring spoon, ladle (great for topping off a container), and a small butter knife for build up in the food processor. Inexpensive plastic storage containers with snap-seal lids work great for the finished blocks. If only filled approximately an inch, it is almost the exact same dimensions as a commercial birdseed-suet block. Have on hand paper towels for the operation and dish-washing detergent, for clean-up when finished.
Tallow and the birdseed of your choice will make fine product. To this you can add a little flour or cornmeal, peanut butter, dried blueberries, mealworms, cranberries, dried and diced earthworms, honey, raisins and many other things.
- Slice the fat into 1- to 2-inch cubes and pulse it to saw-dust-like consistency in your food processor.
- Using VERY LOW HEAT, heat the chopped fat on low until it mostly liquefies. Never use higher temperatures to hurry the operation; the result can be scorching or a serious fire. Stirring the fat as it comes to temperature will accelerate the process.
- While melting the fat, ready a couple of containers. Add two cups or so of birdseed or your custom dry mix to each container. Working with fat at a temperature that is melted, but not dangerously hot, is a lot more safe to handle, and will never melt your containers.
- Pour the fat mixture between the containers and stir it in with your stirring spoon. It will probably take a couple of repetitions to fill the average container with well mixed product.
- Once topped off, allow the containers to cool and the mixture to solidify on a baking sheet. Cover and store in a refrigerator or freezer.
Presenting the Suet
Cages, logs, bags and trays are popular suet feeders. Feeders can be made out of real hardwood logs by boring a bunch of holes in it and covering it with a roof or squirrel-guard dome. Typically, 1 ½-inch holes are used to bore holes in the logs. Smaller, more frequent holes can be bored between the existing holes at ½-inch in diameter. The smaller-diameter-deeper holes are attractive to nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers.
Suet can go rancid in the hottest months, so it is not ideal to offer it from Mid-June to Mid-September. If your suet blocks will not be used within the week, it is recommended to store them in the freezer versus the fridge.