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Deer farming - is it for me?

An alternative farming enterprise to consider

There is no doubt that deer farming is one of the most exciting and rewarding forms of livestock farming but it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. The easiest way to describe the system is to say it is rather like farming suckler cows on speed. If produced to the highest standards for a supermarket contract the returns are excellent.

In all the years I’ve been involved in the deer and venison industry, I have never seen demand for venison and breeding stock as high as it is today. Consumer interest in the healthy, low cholesterol meat is driving excellent returns for producers. This demand for the end product is leading to a great deal of interest in breeding stock as existing farmers expand and new entrants come on board.

Keeping it simple, there are two possible systems for managing deer, either on a deer farm or a deer park. For the purposes of this article, the example is concentrated on deer farms running red deer. Fallow deer can also be farmed but are often run in park systems.

Considerations of deer farming

  1. Stocking densities

As a rough guide, one red deer hind will eat as much as two large ewes. Obviously, stocking rates will vary with the quality of the pasture with the below providing a guide:

  • Arable lowland pastures

This type of land might carry 10–12 hinds per hectare through calving and then with their calves from turn out in April to November. Alternatively, 15–20 yearling stags could be carried per hectare from April to finishing. This presupposes moderate fertiliser application, good sward and good drainage.

  • Upland sown pasture

With longer leys or permanent pasture and with shorter growing seasons but also with moderate fertiliser application, upland sown pasture can carry 8–10 hinds per hectare from May to the end of November with their calves at foot, or 12–15 yearling stags per hectare.

  • Rough grazing

Never reseeded, rough grazing might be able to carry one hind per hectare throughout the year providing winter forage is available and that the calves are removed from the ground at weaning.

  1. Fencing

High-quality fencing for the perimeter is essential and should be around two meters high. DIY costs can range from £8 per metre but it is important to get it right. Ideally, if you are inexperienced, a professional contractor should be used and contractor costs will vary with your location. Once the deer have learned to respect them, electric fencing systems can be used for internal sub-divisions or for strip grazing forage crops.

  1. Handling

Handling systems vary in cost, dependent on requirements, for example, a handling system can be created fairly simply using 8x4 plywood sheets but if stags are being reared for breeding something more elaborate is required. These prices could range from £10,000-£60,000 depending on the requirement, the number of stock on the unit and what sort of crush is selected.

Gross margin and returns

The table below outlines an indicative gross margin for a 500 hind unit on 235 acres produced by Tom Harris who runs his own deer farm. Returns can vary dramatically with prices ranging from the base level wild game price of about £2.50/kg to a price for farm assured product on a contract at around £5.50/kg. This costing assumes the latter.

Breeding and finishing

500 hinds on 235 acres

Sales

                       475 yearlings @ 60kgDV @ £5.50 £156,750.00

                       25 cull hinds @ 60kg DW @ £4/kg £6,000.00

Total sales £162,750.00

Operating costs

                        Feed £44,375.00

                        Straw £1,663.00

                        Vet and med £3,281.00

                        Transport £2,375.00

                        Herd replacements £4,063.00

                        Subscriptions £500.00

                        Misc £1,000.00

                        Grass management £5,400.00

Total costs £62,657.00

                       Gross margin £100,093.00

                       Gross margin per acre £425.93

Risk considerations

As with any livestock enterprise, it isn’t all ‘beer and sandwiches’ and there is no easy way to make money. Brexit could certainly affect the market. The exchange rate has already had an effect on New Zealand imports of venison and this could change again.

Investment costs are relatively high when compared to other livestock species so it’s important to consider all the factors in detail and commit to the decision for the long-term if this is the way you wish to go.

Deer can have problems with disease if not managed correctly. TB testing is an essential part of the management process as is routine worming and management of other parasites.

As with any of the larger livestock species, deer can be dangerous, they can be known to bite and kick to add excitement to the handling process. When in antler and rutting the stags can be aggressive, so it is important to attend training courses to make sure you are fully aware of what you are taking on before taking the plunge. The British Deer Farms and Parks Association have a wealth of courses available to attend.

Deer Farming in the UK is offering excellent returns at the moment and is an exciting and fascinating industry. To find out more visit www.bdfpa.org

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