By Hamish Barwick
Where were you in ’72? That’s when deer science got off the ground in New Zealand with the establishment of a deer farming research programme at Invermay Agricultural Centre in Mosgiel, Otago.
The programme was established by scientist Dr Ken Drew and veterinarian Les Porter to help support the emerging deer farming industry.
AgResearch scientist Jamie Ward, who is on the organising committee for the 50th anniversary on Monday, September 26, said the event was intended as a celebration for the deer industry after a tough couple of years. It includes an open day at Invermay and a gala dinner in Dunedin at the University of Otago Union.
The deer farming industry had come a long way since 1972, he said.
“At the time, farmed venison overlapped with feral venison. We now have a high-quality product with quality venison every time,” Ward said.
In addition, deer farmers diversify by selling velvet, and other opportunities such as deer milk and tourism packages where local and overseas hunters would be invited to bag a stag.
There was also the possibility of increasing value from the fifth quarter of the deer – namely the skin, bones, sinews and offal, to provide more to the price on the hook.
Ward said the velvet market was currently “going great guns”. However, venison had suffered a downturn due to the food service market being affected by COVID-19.
While farming deer for their milk was not research undertaken by Invermay, it was a happy consequence from the centre’s lactation research from 2003-2006.
Ward explained that post-weaning growth rates in deer during autumn are variable and some fawns have a substantial live weight check at, or after weaning, which may be due to their underdeveloped rumen. Deer researchers at Invermay examined the relative intakes of pasture and milk, with a view to making pasture management recommendations for the combined hind-fawn unit to farmers.
After that, some farmers considered the possibility of selling deer milk, or other deer milk products such as cheese and cosmetics.
Pamu (formerly Landcorp) now sells deer milk from herds farmed in the South Island. It is described on the company’s website as a ‘rich, creamy, super-milk’.
Deer science had also come a long way in 50 years. For example, farmers have access to quality genetics through DeerSelect, New Zealand’s national deer recording database. DeerSelect stores pedigree and performance records, then uses this data to provide estimated breeding values and economic indices.
Another outcome was breeding larger deer. For example, the time it took for deer to reach 55kg had been cut from over 20 months to less than 10.
Research was now underway into tracking deer foraging behaviour using GPS collars. The AgResearch science team are developing and producing deer specific wearables to characterize deer behaviours like walking, resting, grazing, and ruminating. This is planned as a tool to phenotype animals, that they hope can one day move into regular farm use as is seen in dairy herds to monitor welfare, health, and landscape use.