Deer herding: history and economics
7 February 2017
Richard Elmhirst surveys the history of deer farming and the economics of supplying meat
Farming deer for profit came to the fore in the early 1970s when New Zealand farmers discovered that, rather than being a pest destroying forests, the animal was a significant asset, parts of which were highly marketable in Europe and China. But farming deer for meat actually stretches back many thousands of years.
Bones found in archaeological excavations throughout northern Europe show that red deer comprised most of the meat in the diet of our ancestors 30,000 years ago. Many of us with northern ancestors have digestive systems that have evolved to respond to venison’s high level of protein and limited fat.
The Romans brought the concept of deer parks to the British Isles, but the Normans expanded the number to between 2,000 and 3,000 parks by the 12th century. The management of the deer will have varied, but it must have come very close to a farming operation.
When deer were first taken to New Zealand by boat, the settlers could not have imagined that they would become a serious pest. But the New Zealanders began to realise that wild venison could be sold to Germany at a good price, and as the numbers of such animals diminished, their thoughts turned to farming. Factories, chillers and shipping were put in place and the New Zealand Deer Farmers’ Association was founded in 1975.
Closer to home, Kenneth Blaxter, Director of the Rowett Research Institute, began to investigate the feasibility of farming deer in Scotland in the late 1960s, and the British Deer Farmers Association was formed in 1979.
Thanks largely to television cookery programmes and the public interest in healthy eating, the consumption of venison in the UK eventually rose from retail sales of £32m in 2006 to £43m in 2009, an increase of more than 34%. Some 3,500 tonnes of venison now comes from the wild in Scotland, but its 2 major game dealers have to import over 1,000 tonnes to meet demand.
Deer for profit
Like any other grazing animal, deer convert herbage into meat. They do so very efficiently and are not fussy eaters, so anything from tree branches, docks, red clover, stubble turnips, strip-grazed kale to grass, hay and silage are acceptable. Copper–selenium licks are also advisable. An adult hind will consume about 8kg of silage per day in the winter, although, as in the wild, their appetite wanes in January and February.
As deer are nearer to their wild forebears than most sheep and cattle breeds, it is helpful to understand how they live naturally and replicate these conditions on the farm as far as possible. In the wild, as the day shortens in September, the females – referred to as hinds if they are red deer – start to come on heat, with the rut peaking the following month.
It is advisable for breeding purposes to have one stag for each group of 30–50 hinds, and if 2 groups are in adjoining fields there must be double fencing as stags are inclined to fight through such barriers during the rut. Calves are born after about 230 days of gestation and twins are rare.
The secret to an easy life for a deer farmer is to get the animals used to a call signifying food, which means they can be led down a raceway or back into the field if a fence is damaged. Being very territorial, they regard home as where they are born, and, having calved once, a hind always likes to do so again in the same place in subsequent years. The hinds also like to hide their calves for the first 2 or 3 days, so some long grass or other cover in the calving paddock keeps them from trying to push the calves through the netting under a hedge.
Buildings are not essential, and well-fed deer are quite happy lying out in the snow at temperatures as low as –10°C, although they do like shade on hot sunny days as well as shelter from the wind. The main reason for buildings is to protect the land because, although deer footfall is much lighter than that of cattle, adult deer weighing 120kg can churn up the grass round feeders and gateways.
Farmed deer occasionally need to be handled, and there are well-established systems both for this and weighing, while electronic tagging is helpful for monitoring their growth rates. Locating deer pens and equipment indoors means the animals are properly contained and can be tended in bad weather. Under the TB regulations, all farmed deer must also be tagged before they leave their place of birth.
Artificial insemination and embryo transfer is now well understood too, with several farms and parks developing outstanding bloodlines.
Farms and estates will need to consider set-up costs: fencing is the major investment, and it is necessary to think in the long term. Well-constructed, well-designed fencing will last for at least 30 years and provides the confidence that animals will be contained and safe. The size, type and, if made of timber, the preservation method will mean the difference between a 5- or 30-year life.
HC4 treatment for timber is a minimum requirement; posts should also be 200mm in diameter at the top, extending 900mm into the ground and 1.9m above. Netting should have full-length vertical wires spaced at 150mm and at least 13 horizontals, closer together at the base to stop mothers pushing new calves through into vegetation for cover.
Fencing of this specification will probably have contractors quoting £12–£20/m, but can be put up by farm labourers with initial training, particularly in the formation of box strainers at pulling points.
In terms of investment in the animals themselves, most farmers start with the purchase of breeding females and a stag. By joining the British Deer Farm and Parks Association, it is not difficult to source animals, and visiting several herds with animals for sale will provide useful comparison.
No two deer farms are the same. The cost of a yearling in August ready to go to the stag in September can be anything from £350 to £500, and as with all stock you should shop with care. Growth rate and temperament are the most important attributes, and you should also ask for evidence of carcase weights. See, too, how close you can get to the animals and assess their reaction to their keeper.
Having put your hinds to the stag, you can expect calves from May to July. Late calves are a nuisance, so be sure to take the stag out in December. Ideally he should have been de-antlered before the rut so he can be mixed with other males away from the females.
Calves born in May or June can be weaned in September and put on a grower’s ration. Keep them indoors in bad weather, using straw or woodchip bedding and feeding them silage, hay and concentrate. Growth is rapid at this stage, and human contact during feeding is the best way to tame them and judge their temperament.
Ease off expensive concentrate in January or February, when calves will naturally have lower appetite, but still feed them a small amount to maintain contact and their appetite will increase again through March to turn-out.
By September, well-bred and fed animals should be ready for market. There are various outlets, and one group of producers called First Venison has a good relationship with retailer Waitrose that requires an annual increase in numbers.
Costs and returns
For every farm there will be a different cost structure but the figures in Tables 1 to 3 give an indication of the potential returns.
Note: Assumes 100 hinds in 3 rutting groups of 35–36 each, with 80% of calves reared to finishing
Table 1: Cost of breeding and finishing red deer
Note: Assumes 100 hinds in 3 rutting groups of 35–36 each, with 80% of calves reared for sale at weaning in late September
Table 2: Cost of breeding and selling red deer store calves
Note: Assumes 45 stag calves and 35 hind calves purchased and 44 and 34 sold, respectively, with 2% mortality
Table 3: Cost of finishing red deer store calves
I am indebted to Dr John Fletcher MRCVS for the historical information and his encyclopaedic knowledge of deer.
Richard Elmhirst is a deer farmer in south Yorkshire. He runs a 1-day introduction to deer farming on his holding