Deer Farming in Australia

Deer are not indigenous to Australia. They were introduced into Australia during the nineteenth century under the acclimatization programs governing the introduction of exotic (non-native) species of animals and birds into Australia. Six species of deer were released at various locations. The animals dispersed and established wild populations at various locations across Australia, mostly depending upon their points of release into the wild. These animals formed the basis for the deer industry in Australia today.

Commercial deer farming in Australia commenced in Victoria in 1971 with the authorized capture of rusa deer from the Royal National Park, NSW. Until 1985, only four species of deer, two from temperate climates (red, fallow) and two tropical species (rusa, chital) were confined for commercial farming. Late in 1985, pressure from industry to increase herd numbers saw the development of import protocols. This resulted in the introduction of large numbers of red deer and red deer/North American elk (wapiti) hybrids from New Zealand and North American elk (wapiti) directly from Canada.

Statistics compiled during 1997/99 suggest that in 1997/98 there were approximately 190,000 deer in Australia. Fallow deer comprise about 49%, red deer (including red hybrids) comprise about 39%, rusa 6.5%, elk/wapiti about 3%, and chital about 2.5% of the total farmed deer population.

The national farmed deer herd is distributed throughout all states although most are in New South Wales and Victoria.

The number of animals processed annually has continued to increase, despite the downward trend in venison prices since 1997. Of concern is the apparent increase in the number of female animals processed (which may suggest that the industry’s production capacity is reduced) and the number of ‘whole herds’ committed for processing. With more than 40,000 animals processed in 1998/99 and 60,000 in 1999/2000, there is justified concern that future years may see a dramatic drop in production.

Average venison prices (weighted to consider variations of price paid relative to hot carcass weight and less the industry levy) did improve from an industry low of approximately AU$1.60/kg hot carcass weight in June 1999 to approximately AU$2.70/kg in June 2000.

From 1997, average prices (weighted to consider variations in price paid for different grades within and between species) for velvet antler were similarly depressed (about AU$22.50/kg) but 1998 prices showed a slight recovery (up to about AU$36.50/kg). The recovery continued into 1999 where average prices exceeded $100/kg.

At least 85% of all venison produced in Australia is exported, principally to Europe. At least 90% of all velvet antler produced is exported in an unprocessed state to Asia.

The industry has embarked on a Quality Assurance program. This is slowly growing in an effort to increase client confidence in the commodities it produces and to guarantee international market access for those commodities.

The Australian Velvet Accreditation scheme continues to have a positive effect on quality that in turn has a positive effect on price paid to growers.

The industry appears to be showing limited signs that it is emerging from a state of depression caused by both internal and external factors that include: (i) the Asian currency downturn; (ii) the industry’s lack of competitive advantage in influential markets (particularly in respect to New Zealand competition), and; (iii) within industry processing and marketing competition for limited product volumes of venison.

Industry Structures

From the formation of the Australian Deer Breeders Federation in 1979, the industry representative body has evolved through the Deer Farmers Federation of Australia to the Deer Industry Association of Australia Ltd (DIAA), which was registered in 1995. The DIAA represents all sectors of the Australian Industry and members subscribe directly or through state branches, breed societies or processing associations.

The industry has established two product development and marketing companies, the Australian Deer Horn and Co-Products Pty Ltd (ADH) and the Deer Industry Projects and Development Pty Ltd, which trades as the Deer Industry Company (DIC).

ADH collects and markets Australian deer horn and co-products on behalf of Australian deer farmers. It promotes the harvest of velvet antler according to the strict quality assurance (QA) program promoted by the industry. The company also plans and co-ordinates regular velvet accreditation courses for Australian deer farmers.

DIC undertakes project work to help the industry achieve its goals as described in the industry five year plan, or otherwise as required by the DIAA.

Industry Development

Industry estimates suggest that until the early 1990s the rate of the annual increase in the number of farmed deer was up to 25%, but after 1993 this rate of increase fell to probably less than 10%. The main reasons for the decline in the deer herd growth rate at such a critical time in industry development were: (i) severe drought conditions up to 1998 affecting eastern Australia during 1993-96 (in some areas the drought lasted until 1998) and (ii) the consequent slaughter of large numbers of breeding females, at very low prices. These factors combined to decrease confidence within the industry. Lack of confidence saw a drop in new investment within the industry and a lack of willingness of established farmers to expand their herds.

With the development of strong overseas markets for venison and velvet (Australian Deer Horn and Co-Products Pty Ltd), and the prospect of better seasons ahead in 1996, the trends described were seen to have been significantly reversed. However, the relatively small size of the Australian herd was seen to impose undesirable restraints on the rate at which herd numbers could be expanded to meet the demands for products.

Supply difficulties were exacerbated when the supply of products, particularly venison, was maintained by the slaughter of young breeding females. The net result was depletion of the industry’s female breeding herds.

Research and Development

Industry research and development programs are funded by statutory levies on sales of animals for venison, velvet antler sales and the sale of live animals into export markets. The bulk of funds are collected from levies raised by the deer slaughter levy (venison).

RIRDC funds projects within objectives of the 1996-2000 five year plan including animal nutrition, pasture quality, carcass quality, antler harvesting, promotional material and technical bulletins. All projects have generated a significant volume of research information, which compliments similar research undertaken in New Zealand and other deer farming countries.

Major projects funded by levy funds include the Venison Market Development project during 1992 to 1996. This initiative resulted in a dramatic increase in international demand for Australian venison and an increase in the domestic consumption of venison.

However, the rapid increases in exports of venison were accomplished at the expense of maintaining the size of the national herd, (depletion of female stock through slaughter for venison and live exports).

In an effort to maintain existing venison markets in the short term and to increase them in the long term, the industry’s top priority (in 1997) became the increase in size and production capacity of the national herd. However, since 1997, the decline in farm gate returns has significantly reduced industry confidence and has seen an increasing number of producers leave the industry and a decreasing interest in new investment in the industry.

The average annual budget allocated for deer industry research during the 1996-2000 Deer Industry Research and Development program ranged from AU$100,000 to $250,000. Although the majority of these funds have been obtained from the deer slaughter levy in the past, the current contribution of velvet antler levies to total levies receipts is significantly greater than in the past.