Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Applying experience in New Zealand deer farming to developing countries

A. de Vos

Antoon de Vos formerly a professor of wildlife biology and an FAO staff member, is currently an independent wildlife management expert based in Queensland, Australia.

This article reviews accomplishments and procedures of deer farming in New Zealand and considers their applicability to deer farming projects now in progress or under consideration in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Particular reference is made to a pilot deer farm in Thailand to which the author of this article provided technical consultation under an FAO Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project.

All deer species now in existence in New Zealand have been introduced by European settlers since the 1840s. In the 1960s it became apparent that the wild deer population, virtually unthreatened by natural predators, was reaching explosive numbers in protected areas and causing extensive damage to natural rangeland. As a consequence, deer shooters were employed by the government in-an effort to keep the deer under control. Initially, most of the deer carcasses were not used, but their economic potential soon led to the development of a meat processing industry.

At the same time, some farmers began to explore the potential of capturing deer and raising them as stock animals in fenced paddocks. Although early results were less than exciting because of administrative and technical problems, the deer farming industry gradually took hold. In the past decade, the number of farmers involved in deer farming in New Zealand, as well as the overall economic returns, have increased dramatically, in contrast to the general trend of agricultural activity.

Deer farmer numbers have grown from 979 in 1980 to around 4500 today. Actual numbers of deer on farms or ranches are up from approximately 104000 in 1980 to more than 600000 in June 1989 (Thorley, 1989). Deer have virtually become domesticated animals and are now mar aged intensely with the objective of maximizing productivity,

IN NEW ZEALAND deer have virtually become domesticated animals

In the year ending June 1989, the export value of New Zealand venison was some NZ$32 million (US$18.6 million). Including antler velvet, a highly prized medicinal commodity {see Box) and other products, total export value was NZ$45 million (US$26.1 million).

Deer farming is now a well-established industry, not only in New Zealand but also in Australia, China, several European countries, the United States and Canada. As increasing quantities of deer products are released on the world market, competition between deer farms is becoming more acute and therefore more intensive management will be required. Some of the current management and marketing practices in New Zealand are discussed below in the hope that such information may give clues as to what could be done in other countries in order to make deer farming a successful venture.

Farm layout and design

Farm layout and design have an important bearing on the workability of a deer farm and the ease of stock management Attention must be given to paddock design; location of gates; fencing; and design and siting of holding pens. Based on experience in New Zealand and elsewhere, an economically viable deer farm would require a minimum deer population of about 400 animals. Assuming a carrying capacity of approximately 20 deer per ha under good management, the minimum size of a working deer farm would be approximately 20 ha.

The farm should be subdivided into paddocks of 2 ha each; this permits the segregation of animals by age and sex. All paddocks should be connected by gates and a raceway, allowing access to a centrally located yard or holding pen, and each paddock should have access to drinking-water.

In terms of fencing, the essential point is that management of the herd depends on the size of the paddocks and their degree of security. The situation regarding boundary fences has not changed since the earlier days of deer farming. Fences must be strong and secure; wire mesh is generally better than single wires strung between fence posts, both in terms of security and as an optical barrier (Yerex and Spiers, 1987). Perimeter fences should be 2 m high, although it should be remembered that under exceptional stress conditions deer may be able to jump barriers even this high (de Vos, 1982).

In New Zealand it is now generally agreed that internal fencing need not be higher than 1.6 m so long as good management practices that avoid stressing the deer are employed. Again, wire mesh is better than single wires, particularly when fawns and calves are being fenced in. The use of single wire fencing may be necessary, however, in hilly areas where the terrain makes use of wire mesh impractical.

THE DEER FARM should be divided into fenced paddocks

To make movement of stock around the farm as easy as possible, the siting of gates must be carefully planned. Gates at the bottom of a slope should be avoided since deer can leap over very high barriers if given a downhill run. There is some controversy as to whether the best location for a gate is in a corner or in the middle of a fence line. Some deer farmers maintain that gates should be in the centre of a line, so that deer can move away from them as quickly as possible, Others claim corner gates are just as satisfactory. Whatever location is chosen, it seems that familiarity of the stock with the position of the gate is the key to successful movement. Yerex and Spiers (1987) suggest that the best location for a gate can be determined by observing where the deer naturally congregate when mustered.

Generally, common wisdom in New Zealand was that yards should provide a central drafting pen with several holding pens off it. Recently, however, there has been some change in thinking as to what is most suitable and some of the newest paddocks consist simply of a simple race with a number of small pens on either side. In effect, they are similar to some of the earliest yards built. The principal difference is the small size of the pens, allowing the deer to be worked easily (Yerex and Spiers, 1987).

Creating a natural environment

In order to keep the deer in good physical condition and also to meet their behavioural requirements, it is essential that an environment containing as many elements of natural range conditions be maintained. These include a certain amount of cover, preferred food plants and a permanent source of water.

In New Zealand, most deer farming has concentrated on getting the deer out of the forests and natural ranges where they were causing heavy damage, and into grassed paddocks. But without tree cover and combined with the heavy pressure of the concentrated deer populations, erosion often caused serious damage to deer farming areas. Recently, there has been a move to reintroduce trees into deer farming operations. In the wild, deer are woodland dwellers and natural browsers-the bulk of their diet comprises leaf material and herbage.

Trees can provide important supplies id highly nutritious fodder, as well as protecting the soil and water base. For example, (1989) reports that when one New Zealand farmer planted an extensive network of shelter-belts around his paddocks, the result was "improved flood protection and soil retention. Protection from the wind is beginning to help cropping and regrassing programmes".

Tree cover is also important in creating an environment more similar to natural conditions, thereby reducing deer stress. At various stages of the year, deer undergo stress caused by capture and release, yarding and handling, weaning, velveting, pregnancy and calving, etc. The natural environment helps considerably reducing stress, with resulting increases in fertility and overall health.

Antler velvet

In almost all civilizations, man has traditionally attached mystical significance to antlers and horns. For example, the legend of the unicorn seems to have arisen independently in several cultures in ancient times.

The earliest written mention of the medicinal value of deer antler comes from a silk scroll excavated from a Han tomb in China, dating from the Han dynasty approximately 2000 years ago. The scroll indicates antler-derived medical treatments and prescriptions for 42 kinds of disease.

Since then, deer antler, and indeed virtually every other part of the animal, including bone marrow, blood, teeth, fat, meat, penis, testis and semen, have been ascribed medicinal properties in oriental culture. In fact, the wide array of deer parts used for health makes deer the most important medicinal animal in oriental medicine.

According to Yoon (1989), in the Republic of Korea deer products are prescribed for vertigo, coughing, palpitation, insomnia, impotence, lumbago, diabetes and fever caused by weakness.


Although western scientific research into a rational pharmacological basis for the widespread use and properties of antler velvet has been slow to yield significant results, its survival as a natural drug over thousands of years is hard to ascribe to nothing more than a placebo effect.

Antler velvet is prepared for use by first burning the hair (the ash is retained for use as a haemostatic). It is then cut into small pieces that are immersed in alcoholic liquor for at least 24 hours. The velvet is then ground or cut into very fine slices, simmered over a low fire with other herbal medicines and served as a soup. An adult may take up to 20 treatments a year.

The healing qualities of antler velvet are felt to be closely linked to its size, shape and maturity; as a result, in New Zealand varying grades of velvet bring export prices ranging from NZ$240 (US$140) to only NZ$80 (US$47). Even at its lowest value, however, antler velvet represents one of the most valuable agricultural commodities produced in the country.

Herd management

Herd management entails a detailed knowledge of both deer behaviour and needs, as well as clear management goals, particularly with regard to desired output of venison or antler velvet or both. It must be borne in mind that optimal procedures will differ from species. Doer farming in New Zealand is principally concerned with red deer, red deer-wapiti crosses and fallow deer. The requirements for species found in other countries of the Asia-Pacific region, such as Musk deer (Moschus sp.), Rusa deer (Cervus timorensis), Chital deer (Cervus axis) and Sambar (C. unicolor), may be quite different.

Farmers have to make decisions such as how many animals need to be slaughtered and when; and what the male-female and age ratios should be for cost-effective returns to investment. In New Zealand, experience has shown that for venison production the best time to slaughter stags is at approximately 15 months of age, when they have reached optimum weight but still have low fat buildup. Hinds are culled on a sliding scale as they age, at the rate of approximately 10 percent per year of the 2-13-year-old population (Yerex and Spiers, 1987).

For production of quality venison, especially for export, slaughtering facilities must be well-equipped, hygienic, and supervised by public health authorities. Although slaughterhouses used for other domestic animals, e.g. cattle and sheep, could be used for deer, health regulations often make this impossible and necessitate the establishment of facilities exclusively for deer at considerable expense. In New Zealand, deer slaughtering facilities have been established through farmers' cooperatives.

With regard to antler velvet production, it is first important to understand exactly what velvet is. Antlers are outgrowths that develop from the pedicle, a permanent structure arising directly from the skull of the male deer. The early seasonal stage, called velvet, is cartilage that eventually hardens through mineralization into bone. When cut or broken deer antler is capable of regenerating and is the fastest growing mammalian tissue.

Antler velvet is highly valued as a medicinal product in Asia and the Pacific (see Box), and New Zealand deer farmers earn significant income from export sales of velvet, primarily to the Republic of Korea.

Under high-density farm conditions, it is necessary in any case to remove deer antlers to reduce the risk of injuries to the deer; by harvesting the antlers at the velvet stage, they can bring in an important additional source of income. For example, in 1988/89 top grade velvet earned more than NZ$240 (US$140) per kilogram (Bryant, 1989).

The stage at which velvet is cut is critical. If it is cut too early, there is a loss of weight (and money); if too late, there is a risk of calcification and loss of quality. In general, deer are ready for velveting approximately 60 days after the first appearance of antler growth. At this stage, the antlers may weigh from 0.5 kg to more than 2 kg, depending on species; top-quality red stags in New Zealand may yield more than 3 kg of velvet.

A YOUNG STAG after antler removal

To remove the antler velvet, the deer must first be anaesthetized, either totally or with a local anaesthetic injected just behind the antlers. In New Zealand local anaesthesia with a drug called xylazine is the most common process; however, this requires the presence of a veterinarian.

After the deer is sedated a tourniquet is applied to the base of the pedicle and the antler is removed using short rapid strokes with a stainless steel, fine-toothed meat saw. The tourniquet need not be applied for more than 20 minutes.

As soon as the antler is removed it should be tagged and hung on a rack with the cut end uppermost. A length of wire mesh makes an excellent rack. When cool, the velvet should be placed in a plastic bag.

Control of diseases and parasites

Deer are susceptible to many diseases including those of bacterial and viral origin, as well as to a wide range of parasites. As the number of animals held in captivity increases so do losses caused by diseases unless adequate measures are taken to prevent them. Control of disease requires first and foremost adequate prevention measures including appropriate nutrition, testing and vaccination, and regular drenching and/or dipping.

The particular importance of basic herd health is stressed by Dr J.C. Thonard, President of the Australian Deer Breeders' Federation:

"When we are called on to diagnose and treat one of our diseased animals, in a significant proportion of cases... our sick deer is the victim of its own normal microbial flora, which has been enabled to proliferate, and/or translocate, because its host's resistance has been reduced to the extent that the delicate balance between host and parasite has tipped against the host. Even with diseases due to external pathogens, the manifestations of disease can be held at bay by a host with optimal resistance and intact defences.

It is therefore up to the farmer to manage his animals in such a manner that they are in a continual state of health and optimal resistance to infectious agents. Despite emergency veterinarian attention, most of us with experience with deer reluctantly accept the dictum -a sick deer is a dead deer. Prevention then, has to be better than any possible cure" (Yerex and Spiers, 1987).

One of the most serious threats to deer health in New Zealand is tuberculosis. The disease was first identified in fanned deer in 1978 and in 1989 New Zealand instituted a compulsory tuberculosis testing programme, the first major producing country to do so (Hakkaart, 1989).

A drenching programme is also necessary to prevent lungworm infestation and stomach parasites among young deer. In New Zealand, drenching is carried out monthly on deer from 12 weeks up to nine of age (de Vos, 1982).

The potential for deer farming in developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region

Based on the successes in deer farming achieved in New Zealand, and the significant presence of deer in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region, several developing countries have expressed interest in developing or expanding deer farming operations.

The information provided so far in this article indicates that a properly deer farm requires considerable capital input, well-trained personnel and sufficient land as well as deer numbers to make the operation pay for its If. addition, appropriate markets for deer products and high enough prices to allow for a sustainable, long-term operation must be assured. This requires the establishment of a marketing structure or organization. For example, marketing in New Zealand is handled through the Deer Farmers' Association Inc., which also keeps producers informed on developments in the world market.

YOUNG DEER BEING HERDED for preventive medical treatment

Considering the complexity of initiating wildlife farming operations, the International Consultation on Wildlife Resources for Rural Development, held at Hyderabad, India, in July 1980 noted that:

"such farming, to be beneficial, useful and successful, should involve carefully selected species suitable for farming, requires detailed knowledge on aspects such as rate of reproduction, meat yield, resistance to diseases, behaviour under controlled conditions, ease of rearing, quality of product, market for the product, and economics of the enterprise" (FAO, 1981).

Thai pilot deer farming project

The consultation recommended that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) assist in carrying out activities for the establishment of wildlife farms. As part of its response to this recommendation, at the request of the Government of Thailand, through its Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP), FAO provided assistance in the establishment of a wildlife farm at the Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary in Chanthaburi Province, beginning in October 1985.

MALE DEER one demonstration farm in Thailand

Eighty percent of Thailand's inhabitants live in rural areas where undernourishment and severe protein deficiencies persist. Traditionally, the rich and varied wildlife resources provided a major source of protein for the rural population. However, as a result of uncontrolled hunting, and reduction of the resource base in the form of deforestation, over the past three decades Thailand's wildlife resources have been severely depleted.

Nonetheless, despite the limited availability of wildlife resources, rural populations continue to rely heavily on bushmeat for their protein supply. For example, wildlife accounts for an estimated 80 percent of the protein intake of the villagers in Chanthaburi Province (FAO, 1986).

Near the wildlife sanctuary, the local population is divided into some 35 villages, each with an average of 50 families. On average, each family controls approximately 2 ha of land. The main crops produced are maize, vegetable and fruit; domestic animals include poultry and a few cattle.

The overall objective of the TCP project was to launch a pilot deer farm to increase the food supply for the rural population and to contribute to family income through the rational use of wildlife resources. The deer farm was also intended to serve as a demonstration project which farmers could visit.

Selection of species

In Thailand, there are five species of deer: Sambar, Hog deer, Eld's brow-antlered deer, Muntjak, and Mouse deer. Sambar, Muntjak and Mouse deer are widespread, but Muntjak and Mouse deer are considered too small and fragile for farming. Hog deer are rare in the wild, but adequate stock is available from wildlife propagation centres and zoos; Eld's brow-antlered deer are almost or entirely extinct.

Sambar was considered to be the most suitable species since it is large in size, still available in considerable numbers in the wild, and produces big antlers. A significant amount of information is also available about Sambar biology and ecology.

Hog deer, although small in size, were also considered suitable for deer farming because they readily adapt to the bamboo-Imperata grass habitat that follows slash-and-burn agriculture (Miller, 1975). In addition, their meat is highly appreciated by the local population.

Project activities and results

During October and November 1985, the area designated for the farm was selected, perimeter fencing was established, and fences and gates were constructed.

Training in techniques of deer farm management was provided, including methods for domestication, herd management, range management and capture. Special attention was dedicated to monitoring and reporting procedures.

Each deer was individually marked with a numbered eartag and careful records were kept, of: the species of naturally occurring plants eaten as well feed provided; the physiological condition of individual deer; growth rates; reproductive rates; disease history, etc. In addition to concentration on meat production, the project also focused on the production of marketable antler velvet.

The results of the pilot project and information gathered from the observation of small private deer farming operations indicate clearly that there is strong potential for deer farming both far food and income. However, legislation designed to reduce uncontrolled hunting currently prohibits the sale of deer and deer meat except by the government. The government is now in the process of considering changes to existing laws to allow for the establishment of private or community-owned deer farms.

Considerations for deciding on deer farming

Before any deer farming operation is undertaken it is essential to make a cost/benefit analysis based on the best available information. The data base for such an analysis should contain the following components:

· Capital costs, including cost (or rent) of the land; purchase price of the deer; transportation costs; expenditure on land improvement; machinery and equipment;

· Fixed costs, including working expenses; machine replacement and maintenance; management charges, labour costs; feed and veterinary costs; running and maintenance of vehicles and marketing costs;

· Revenues including income from sales of meat, antlers, skins and other products.

In addition, averages of the following production coefficients should be evaluated useful life of stock; first offspring; breeding percentage; weaning percentage and live weight. Data should also be obtained on mortality losses, number of saleable animals; dressing-out percentage and saleable weight. The availability of trained workers and the active involvement of the rural population are also primary requirements.

The initial expenditures for the establishment of a deer farming venture will generally be expensive by local standards and appropriate start-up loans or grants will have to be provided. It seems apparent for this reason that either national or international agencies will need to become involved in carrying out sustained work in development aspects, the monitoring of results and in removing obstacles. These will include the development of appropriate market opportunities and the removal of legal impediments.

Demonstration projects would be helpful in convincing the rural population about the validity of having deer farms in their area. Another possibility might be to initiate cooperatives under government supervision, which could eventually be passed on to the private sector.

In the author's opinion there is no question about whether or not deer farms are viable from a technological point of view in the developing world. The demand for deer products exists and can only increase as population pressure augments. There are many areas now marginal to agriculture and stock raising where deer farming could prove to be a suitable land use practice. The Thai demonstration unit at the Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Propagation and Development Center, which so far has produced encouraging results, provides an example that could be followed by other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.


Bryant, D. 1989. Velveters lot a pretty happy one. The Deer Farmer, No. 54 (February 1989): 11.

de Vos, A. 1982. Deer farming: guidelines on practical aspects. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 27. Rome, FAO.

FAO. 1981. Proceedings of the International Consultation on Wildlife Resources for Rural Development. Rome.

FAO. 1986. Deer farming in Thailand. FO (TCP/THA/4511). Field Document No. 1. Rome.

Hakkaart, L. 1989. Deer put back in the woods: why one Wairarapa farmer is going against the grain. The Deer Farmer, No. 56 (April 1989): 27-29.

Miller, R. 1975. Notes on the behaviour of hog deer in an enclosure. Nat. Hist. Bull. Siam Soc., 26(1-2): 105-131.

Thorley, A. 1989. The Cinderella sector: deer farming in good shape as it nears the end of an eventful decade. The Deer Farmer, No. 54 (February 1989): 31.

Yerex, D. & Spiers, I. 1987. Modern deer farm management. Carterton, New Zealand, Ampersand Publishing Associates Ltd.

Yoon, P. 1989. Some mysteries of the East revealed: why deer is ''the most important animal in Oriental medicine". The Deer Farmer, No. 58 (June 1989): 17-23.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page