Deer are often run as a secondary enterprise alongside other livestock, but there are 2,300 farms where they provide over 50% of revenue. These specialist farms carry 63% of all deer. The farms increased in number by 50% between 1997 and 2007. In the early 2000s, deer were farmed in all parts of New Zealand, but were most plentiful in Canterbury, Southland and Otago.
Most of New Zealand's farmed deer herd (about 85%) is red deer. The balance is mainly wapiti (elk). Interbreeding between the two species is common, especially for commercial venison production. Further genetic improvements have been made with bloodlines imported from Eastern Europe, the UK and North America. Small numbers of fallow deer are also farmed.
Roaring and rutting
Like other industries, deer farming has its own terms. A female red deer is a hind, and a male red deer is a stag, but a male wapiti is a wapiti bull. A spiker is a one-year-old stag, and a weaner is a young deer of four to six months. The mating season is called the rut, and the bellowing noise that stags make during the rut is called the roar.
Deer are naturally skittish, and farmers had to find ways of yarding and handling them to minimise stress. Deer yard design is now well established. Deer like to run in circles and the best access from paddocks to the yards is through a curved raceway leading to the entrance. The animals feel more comfortable if they can avoid eye contact with humans when they enter yards. There have been accidents when fast-moving deer reach a yard from a straight entrance and realise they are trapped. They panic, and run straight back at those trying to herd them.
The raceway should lead into a large yard with high, solid walls, which leads to yards that hold 15–20 deer, with a smaller yard nearby for up to 10 red deer. The yards where deer are handled are normally covered, as this makes the animals more settled and easier to work. Many farms have a central circular yard with gates pivoted in the centre, giving a full 360-degree swing.
Yarding and handling principles are the same for a large deer farm as a small one. A few large yards can lead to progressively smaller ones as deer move towards central holding pens. This will avoid deer piling up in the corner of large pens. In paddocks, fences need to be made of netting at least 2 metres high.
The hydraulic crush
Modern yards contain a hydraulic ‘crush’ where the sides of the pen move in and out and the floor moves up and down. These can become pens about 1.2 metres wide, enabling people to work closely with a small number of deer. For wapiti, which are bigger and more fractious and unpredictable, the crush can hold a single animal. Farmers can then handle the animal while standing outside the pen.
A quiet, assertive manner works best with deer. A herd will always have some animals with bad temperaments, and these should be ear-tagged and culled from the herd. It is best to avoid handling deer during the hot part of the day in summer to limit stress.
Deer could not have been farmed in New Zealand without the development of purpose-built fences. These animals can easily leap traditional fences or push between tightly strained wires. A New Zealand company, Cyclone, made the world’s first deer netting in 1967. By law, deer fences must be 1.9 metres high. They are normally made of tanalised pine posts and deer netting.
Code of welfare
New Zealand deer farmers must follow an approved Ministry of Agriculture code of welfare. The code covers the minimum body condition score (which rates the condition of each animal on a scale from 0 to 5), daily feed and water requirements, standards for yarding and holding facilities, seasonal management and farmer responsibilities. This code outlines recommended best practices and is a comprehensive guide to modern deer farming techniques.