Starting a deer farm or ranch requires energy, innovation and much time spent in research. Once you have considered your options and decided what is right for you, visit established operations and talk to other deer owners who are raising the type of deer you are interested in. This first step will save you much time later and will enable you to network information critical to starting off on the right foot. You will also be able to begin formulating your business plan and marketing techniques at this time. Some steps to building a sound operation follow:
Know the Regulations
Find out what local and regional agencies regulate ownership, transportation, propagation and sales of the deer species you’re interested in and their products. (Some states and provinces do not allow private ownership of certain deer; others require a license or fee to maintain your permit.) Check with your state or provincial Game Management Agency and Department of Agriculture and even your township for regulations and ordinances that apply to your operation.
Check with your state or provincial representatives, senators and other officials about the possibility of grants and loans available for small business development, alternative agriculture or family farms. Your local department of agriculture may also be a source of information for monies set aside for alternative farming programs.
Evaluate and determine what niche of the industry you wish to pursue. Before buying one fence post, roll of fence, and especially stock, it is important to plan, evaluate, re-plan and re-evaluate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The best sources you have are those who are already in the industry. Contact them! You need not make the same mistakes that others have made. Plan for the overall development of your farm site. Then, prioritize the sequential development of the site.
Again, careful planning is essential for a successful operation. Design your range, pens, food plots, breeding areas and handling facilities in advance. It is best to incorporate plans for future expansion at this time. Since deer adapt well to most terrain, acreage suitable for deer farming may be relatively inexpensive. On one prime acre of land, you may accommodate2-3 adult whitetail deer, 7-10 adult fallow deer, 4-7 adult red deer, 7-8 axis deer and 1-2 elk.
However, keeping the number of animals per acre to a minimum reduces stress on the animals. You may find it will be more cost-effective in the long run to spread your animals out, in order to maintain the plant densities that will keep a pasture healthy and able to regenerate the following spring.
In developing the farm site, an important factor is a steady and reliable source of clean water. Fresh water is essential to any deer’s diet. It is also beneficial to try to use the deer’s naturally occurring travel routes and special use areas. These paths can help to create an overall plan regarding runways for movement of stock, breeding paddocks, fawning areas and a centrally located handling facility to which stock an reasonably be moved form your special use areas.
Choose hi-tensile fence designed specifically for deer or game. Small squares (or rectangles) in the fencing near ground level will accomplish much in the way of predator control year-round and help contain inquisitive youngsters in the spring.
An outer covering of shad cloth, plastic or wooden snow fence or other visual barrier is a valuable tool in further securing your livestock.
Corner and end posts are usually of greater diameter than line posts. Use quality gates for perimeter fence openings, including a pedestrian walk-through. Eight foot fence is normally adequate for containing most species of farmed deer; however, check with your state for special regulations that may apply.
Fence installation revolves around the posts that support it. Use high quality posts (spaced closely enough to support the weight of the fence without sagging) and galvanized fence staples to secure fencing. Work the fence from center to ends, creating a rubber band-like tension. This will reduce injury to livestock that come into contact with the fence.
The performance of your fence depends on the proper construction of the braces you build to support it. Seek out the experts and heed their advice when building your fence. Cutting corners here can lead to disaster.
Gateways should provide access suitable for passage of all necessary equipment. Plan for shelters, feeders and water facilities. It is wise to consider food and water dispensation from outside the pen for personal safety during the rut season. Build so that animals can be moved form one area or paddock to another without much handling or darting. Handling facilities often work best located centrally, and designed specifically for your site. Tie everything together with fence corners and gate entries built to withstand any storm. Build gate sills and overheads for ease of opening in any weather. Also, consider height of overheads to allow vehicles for heavy construction, plow snow and deliver bulk feed.
Protein, energy, vitamins and minerals are important to the deer diet. Just as with traditional livestock, the breeder should consider soil samples and the nutritional value of the deer’s diet to complete it with the right minerals. As far as proteins and energy are concerned, the owner should supplement feed if the pasture does not supply enough nutrients. Nutritional requirements of deer should be considered on a seasonal basis since they change based on gestation, lactation, antler growth and the available nutrients on your farm.
Good nutrition is required to maximize conception rates and improve weaning percentages. Weather permitting, deer will receive most of their nutrients from good pasture. However, during the colder months, dry matter will need to be added. There are many compound pelleted feeds on the market today which will sustain your hear along with browse, grasses and legumes. Custom formulas for your feeding grogram may also be set up through your local feed mill, nutritionist and/or universities with particular interest in ruminant nutrition.
Protein is an important part of the deer diet and should be supplemented when forage is low in protein. Protein pellets may be mixed with corn for quick energy and feeding during cold periods. Deer will eat good quality alfalfa hay whenever supplemental feeding is necessary.
Although the animals may have plenty of natural feed available going into winter, it is a good plan to begin supplemental feeding on a seasonal schedule. Even if one simply puts out a bit of corn, the animals need to become trained to feed annually. When winter storms come and cover available grass, it will be too late to educate the animals about the feed trough. During winter storms, it is advisable to feed them two times a day, adding more corn. Corn gives quick energy and the feeding gets the animals up and moving around. These measures help survival during inclement weather.
A deer’s social structure is based on the herd. Females and their young create one herd, while adult males form their own. They may remain separate for most of the year, missing only during breeding season, or the rut.
Whether large or small, every deer operation should have some form of handling facility. This facility will possibly include runways, mazes, drop or squeeze chutes, and will require an enclosure adequate for holding in preparation for transport, observation during health testing periods or quarantine. Those who do not build handling facilities must be prepared and trained to tranquilize their deer. Those who are not properly trained must be prepared to accept the potential morality associated with darting deer.
If you establish a rotational grazing system, deer will rotate from pasture to pasture and can be led to the working chute with four wheelers, a feeding truck, or even a bucket of feed. Depending on the breeders’ budget and, most of all, their goals, the working facilities can be as simple as a cattle facility with 8’ fences or as complex as completely enclosed buildings designed specifically for deer. If the breeder only needs a facility to vaccinate and accredit their animals, a simple layout and cattle chute is often effective. However, if they plan to cut velvet or develop a genetics program with artificial insemination or ET, a more complex facility is recommended to manage the deer.
Health Care Program
For many, a difficult aspect of deer farming is finding a deer-oriented veterinarian. Since deer farming as a commercial industry is relatively new, many vets have had little or no training in the care of farm0raised deer. If deer farmers make good use of the information and literature available, they can easily assist any large animal veterinarian in dealing with the health care issues that arise.
Work closely with your vet to keep abreast of necessary testing, de-worming practices and emergency procedures should your deer become ill or injured. Once again, a little extra time spent studying available printed material about the health and diseases of deer can be valuable. The North American Deer Farmer features a veterinary column in every issue with valuable information worth passing along to your veterinarian.
Weigh the cost of one animal lost against the price of a farm call and you will see there is no way to rationalize not having a health care program in place prior to purchasing stock.
Purchasing stock is one of the last (but certainly not least) steps in beginning your operation. Ideally the genetic and health history of the deer you are buying should be readily available. Buying only from reputable, established deer farmers will reduce disappointments and disagreement as time goes on.
All required health certification is customarily the responsibility of the seller, however, all details of the transaction should be in writing to protect both parties. Closed herds from known deer operations ensure health status; records of genetics are a value to the buyer. Be sure to attain the records on genetics and animal health. Also, be aware when transporting deer, capture and drugs will cause the deer stress.
Bucks/Stags’ – Be sure of the animal’s age and fertility. Has the buck or stag already sired fawns/calves? If so, how many does/hinds has he normally serviced during the rut? Are shed or cut antlers available for viewing and will they be part of the sales transactions?
Does/Hinds – Age and genetic background are critical factors if you are planning to breed does or hinds for future generations. F purchased as “bred” is this deer guaranteed to be impregnated or merely exposed to a herd sire during the rut season? Was she exposed in a single sire or multi-sire setting? What is her birthing history? Be as selective of your does/hinds as you will be with the sires that will service them.
Fawns/Calves – Nothing is more precious (or fragile) than a fawn or calf! Are you planning on bottle-feeding? If so, determine at what age you wish the fawn or calf to be pulled from the mother. Bottle-feeding is a 24-hour, 7 days-a-week commitment, and the life of the fawn or calf is never guaranteed. Confirm that the farm you are buying from has a health program for bottle-raised babies when they hit the ground. If dam-raised, when will you be taking possession of the fawn or calf? Will there be extra charges for the time during which the fawn or calf is being maintained until weaning?
The final phase of beginning your operation will be the safe transport of livestock form the point of origin to your destination. A cattle trailer will serve well for most trips, and an enclosed trailer with plenty of ventilation will serve as better transport for longer journeys. Moving deer must be done with calmness, care, quiet, and common sense in a properly planned and constructed facility. If you push too hard, you and your animals will suffer. If you sense that things are beginning to unravel for you or your deer, stop!
Non-accredited herds will need to be tested for tuberculosis and Brucellosis if they are transported across state lines. Chemical immobilization may be required in some cases. Safe Capture and transportation should be done by trained personnel under the direction of a licensed veterinarian. If necessary, discuss with the seller what steps he or she will take to ensure safe transport. If at all possible, speak directly to the person who will be doing the immobilization, if necessary, and the person actually doing the transport. Will the cost of immobilization and transport be the buyer’s or seller’s responsibility? If something goes wrong and the animal is injured or dies, what obligation do you have at that time? Make sure all arrangements for transportation and responsibility are in writing.
Insurance is available from some livestock insurers. Check with your seller, other deer farmers or NADeFA for suggestions.
Once you have established your farm, you will need to stay abreast of information relative to the industry. Your success depends on dedication to your goals and your animals. Sharing what you have learned will help future generations of deer farmers. Your deer farm will present you with challenges and joys. As you learn about your farm and your animals, continue to interact with other deer farmers, learning from them, and allowing them to learn from you.
Special thanks to contributors Brian Cahill, Marida Favia del Core, Nancy Green, Dr. Jerry Haigh, JoAnn Logan, Thelma Morgan, Pete Perdue, Cleve Tedford, Brad Thurston, and Jill Wood
©NADeFA’s Cervid Livestock Foundation 2001. Copies for personal use may be made. Other uses require prior permission.