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Thursday, 23 October 2008 21:27

Deer Farming on Small Farms - part one

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Deer farming is not for the faint-hearted.  It means a big commitment in terms of money and time and a good deal of know-how if it’s to be done properly.  For you with your lifestyle block, the financial returns are not likely to be great.  You will have to be very keen on looking at deer in your paddocks to justify the sacrifices you’ll have to make!

Here endeth the homily, now the facts. 

Before you begin to farm deer, you will need:

  • Sufficient land for up to one deer per acre, possibly more if you have fallow deer or very productive land
  • Sheltered paddocks with sturdy fences at least 2 m high
  • High sided races and yards
  • Adequate handling facilities, because deer need regular attention for routine procedures such as drenching, vaccination, velveting, and most important of all, Tb testing
  • Enough money to provide supplementary feed when the browse and pasture have been eaten
  • Good basic knowledge about deer and a source of good advice on the food they need, their reproduction, health and disease and so on 

More on all this later in the series.  In this first part, we discuss some of the basics – the main types of deer farmed, managing stags, controlling numbers and the importance of good stockmanship.

What type of deer?
 

Most of New Zealand’s farmed deer are red deer.  The rest are either the much larger wapiti (also known in New Zealand as ‘elk’) or red x wapiti crosses or the much smaller, more flighty fallow deer.

On your small farm, you should probably choose red deer because wapiti types are much larger, so more difficult to handle.  Fallow deer may also be an option because they do not wallow in water systems as red deer do, and they are relatively small.  However they are generally more flighty and they need specialised handling facilities. 

  • An adult red stag weighs over 200 kg liveweight.  
  • An adult red hind averages 90 to 110 kg.
  • The rutting (mating) season is in March/May
  • Gestation lasts about 233 days.
  • Hinds calve in November and December.

 

  • Adult fallow males (called bucks) weigh 90-110kg.
  • An adult fallow female (doe) might weigh about 45-50kg.
  • The rutting (mating) season is in April/May.
  • Gestation lasts 234 days.
  • Does fawn in December.
Farming systems
 

There are three basic types of commercial deer farming operation:

  • Breeding involves breeding
  • Velvet purchasing or breeding deer and selecting stags with good antlers for velvet production.  Because of the difficulties of handling stags this is unlikely to be a practical option for the lifestyle farmer.

Most lifestyle farmers don’t attempt to profit from their deer.  They may well simply want to have a few deer around to look at.  This means they may have a stag, a few hinds and their calves.  Single stags don’t have to be de-velveted, but if they are it is a vet-only procedure when the antlers are velvet in summer.  Hard antlers can be removed later by any stockman but this is a very dangerous procedure because stags in hard antler are very aggressive.

Stags and bucks
 

Deer are highly seasonal breeders.  Stags in particular go through huge body changes each year:

  • In spring, they put on weight rapidly and their antlers grow.
  • The antlers harden in summer.
  • Autumn is the rutting season.  The antlers are hard and the stags are very aggressive.
  • In winter their temperament mellows again, but their appetite remains low.
  • They cast their antlers in late winter/spring and new antlers begin to grow.
  • In spring they start eating well and putting on weight ready for the next rutting season.
What are the main changes in the rut?
  • Stags are extremely aggressive and dangerous during the 6 or 8 weeks of the rut. 
  • They will roar, patrol their territory and fiercely protect their females.
  • You must take great care to keep people and other animals out of the stag’s paddock.
  • During this time the stags hardly eat, and they lose up to 30% of their body weight.
  • The rut may last from March to May.
Controlling numbers
  • You must manage your small herd of deer so that you don’t become over-stocked. 
  • Cull hinds when they get to about 10 years old or earlier if their teeth are wearing or they are losing body condition.
  • To prevent the stag or buck mating with his daughters he should be replaced at least every second year.
  • If you don’t want to replace your stag, sell your weaners each year and if you cull any hinds replace them with weaner or yearling hinds purchased from another deer farmer. 
Good stockmanship
  • Good stockmanship is vital with deer to prevent accidents and to ensure the deer are content and thriving.
  • This means patience, keen observation and accurate interpretation of any changes in behaviour that could warn of a health or welfare problem.
  • Always approach deer quietly and calmly. 
  • When moving deer, let them make their own way if you can, but move positively without hesitation and always move slowly.  
  • If deer are rushed they may panic and that’s when accidents are likely to happen. 
Warning
  • Hand-reared hinds and stags have little respect for humans.
  • They can charge and they can rake with their front feet. 
  • During the rut, hand-reared stags are particularly aggressive and highly dangerous.

 

Dr Marjorie Orr, lifestyle farmer and veterinarian (retired)

Dr Marjorie Orr - veterinarian and lifestyle farmer. Dr Orr is a recognised authority on animal welfare in New Zealand and has served on several government committees, especially those concerned with writing codes of welfare for sheep and dogs. Her service to animal health and welfare has also been recognised by awards from the NZ Veterinary Association and MAF. She is also a strong SPCA supporter.

Website: www.lifestyleblock.co.nz/images/imgDrMarjorieOrr.jpg