Deer farmers appear to be building their herds on the back of strong venison and velvet prices.
Existing deer blocks are being expanded and subdivided to run more stock, feeding systems are being upgraded and more weaners are being retained for breeding, says Silver Fern Farms (SFF) national deer manager Malcolm Gourlie.
“In the first Taihape weaner sale of the season, 1000 stag fawns sold for up to $7.49 a kilo. The 600 females sold into the high sixes. These extremely high prices and the ratio of stags to hinds point to a very confident industry. Breeders are retaining their better female fawns to build or improve the quality of their herds.”
Deer Industry NZ chief executive Dan Coup says a recent survey of the industry showed that since 2011 there has been strong growth in the size of the average deer herd. The average surveyed herd had 407 breeding hinds (330 in 2011), 264 velvetting stags (165) and 360 finishing stags (220).
“Since the overall size of the national deer herd declined in this period, this points to our big deer farmers getting bigger. Presumably there are fewer people running deer as a side-line or as a hobby.”
Firm evidence of a national turnaround in deer numbers is a little hard to come by. The first sign was a small uptick in stag numbers reported by Statistics NZ last year. Also, since late 2017, the ratio of hinds to stags at deer slaughter plants has been around 48 per cent, which points to the industry being in a rebuilding phase.
“Modest sustained growth in the national deer herd, built on strong market demand for its products, is good for the industry. It improves our economies of scale, encourages innovation and contributes to a positive vibe that is needed to attract new blood to the industry.”
Coup says venison and velvet prices have been firming for five years on the back of reduced supply, a strong traditional market and the development of new markets and market segments.
“Farmers who stayed with deer are being rewarded for their commitment. Many of them are growing their herds and reportedly there are newcomers looking for stock so they can get into the industry.”
On Tuapae Farms, near Kereru in Hawke’s Bay, deer numbers are being increased in response to the industry becoming “more consistently profitable”. They have invested about $40,000 in two kilometres of new deer fencing in the past year alone.
The business is run by Ben Gaddum, his wife Raewyn, sons Ru and Harry, and manager Hugh McArdle. Together they manage more than 5,000 red deer of which 1,700 are breeding hinds – about 100 more than last year. They also run 800 cattle and 950 ewes.
Ben says they generally spend $20-$40,000 a year to either upgrade or extend deer fencing.
“Historically there’s been minimal fencing on our farms, so we are still subdividing to get more out of the hills and flats. Also, we want to keep adding deer fences to expand the total deer area from the current 800 hectares,” he says.
In North Canterbury Mark and Gill Forrester run red deer on 1600 hectares above Waipara Valley vineyards, near Amberley. Their home farm is a 485 ha property, Forrest Downs. This adjoins Claremont Farm, which they have leased since 2008. A long-term arrangement with a supportive owner, including cost-sharing in new fencing, allows them to rear, finish, and increase the size of their deer herd.
In 2008, Claremont was running 400 hinds. Since then the Forresters have cut their sheep flock from 3,000 to 900 ewes and have increased the size of their deer breeding herd to 1,500, up from 1,200 last year. Mark feels 1,500 will be “about it” for deer unless they buy more land.
At nearby Waikari, Lyndon Matthews from Puketira Deer is opting out of sheep to go totally deer. He will lift his hind tally from 450 hinds to 750 and will deer-fence 65 ha over the next two to three years to complete the conversion.
It wasn’t rising deer returns that shunted him into action – he made the call last May when his wool netted him about a third of the year before. That clip was still unsold, he says. “It was the straw that broke the sheep’s back.” Besides, his three kids had left school to pursue their own careers and deer are much less labour-intensive than sheep.
At Waiwera South near the Otago Southland border, Craig Morgan is gradually replacing sheep with deer on a 300 ha lease property.
Half the sheep, beef and deer property was deer-fenced when he moved in, so he decided to keep going down the deer line. “It’s just to spread the risk and have a different source of income,” he says.
Building the deer herd will mean breeding and buying in more stock as cash flow allows. “I can’t just go out and spend willy-nilly. The venison schedule was $8/kg when I bought in-fawn hinds last September and now it’s $11/kg, so the move is panning out alright,” he says.