Developing a Sustainable Deer Farming Industry

In 1998, Kaji Kado completed a study on specialty livestock for the Canada-Saskatchewan Agri-Food Innovation Fund. This study identified a number of significant challenges and obstacles facing developing alternative livestock industries including deer farming.

Here is my summary of some of the issues identified by Mr. Kado.

  1. The industry is too capital intensive. Producers have to invest a lot of money to get breeding stock. In addition, considerable investment is required for fencing, equipment and facilities. In some places (e.g., Alberta and Saskatchewan), this is becoming a major barrier-to-entry and is slowing the growth of the deer industry.
  2. Industry infrastructure does not exist. Other than in the case of bison, in which existing livestock infrastructure is usable, most production and marketing infrastructure has yet to be created to support deer farming.
  3. There are no production standards, weights or conformation. This is extremely difficult in an industry that starts with a breeding stock frenzy. Almost everyone appears to be interested in breeding any females to any males just to increase numbers. Little concern is being paid to size, conformation, rate of growth, and especially to the fact that the livestock will eventually have to be marketed as meat, fiber of hides.
  4. Farmers and non-farmers jointly participate in the industry. In many ways, this is a first for agriculture. It is the first time in which many non-farmers have joined with farmers to develop an industry. While it is good to have outsiders bring new equity into agriculture, it has also brought misunderstanding, instability and discontent.
  5. Production units are generally too small. Most producers have sufficient livestock numbers to make their operation more than a hobby, but insufficient to make it a business that would require investment in infrastructure and management. Most producers are only dabbling. Few producers are at a stage where they have production economies in feed purchase, haulage, etc.
  6. Production has not specialized. Current producers are trying to do everything themselves. This is not the case in mature industries such as cattle and hogs.
  7. Farmgate selling not an adequate way to develop an industry. Many producers are selling a considerable portion of their product themselves. While it is adequate for an individual, it is no basis for an industry.
  8. Marketable volumes have been too small. There is inadequate venison production to supply even small markets. Where venison is available, meat managers complain about unavailability of requested volumes, lack of selection and inconsistent quality due to lack of grading standards.
  9. Producer associations are not strong. Many associations don’t have the funding or resources to provide strong leadership, programs or support to their members. This in turn makes it difficult to attract and keep members, and thus represent and speak for the industry.
  10. Transportation is a problem. Because of the nature of animals, transportation to, and handling at, slaughter facilities have to be refined to preserve the quality of the meat. More research needs to be undertaken in this area.

In addition to Mr. Kado’s observations, here are several additional issues I see facing the deer industry:

  1. Lack of financing. Deer farming is considered a high-risk venture by financial institutions. Therefore, lenders require a considerable amount of owner equity and investment in the business before lending money. This obviously is a major obstacle to new farmers entering the industry, and for existing farmers to expand.
  2. Jurisdictional obstacles. Deer farming is regulated by the provinces and the states. They all have different laws and regulations. This makes the movement of deer across borders difficult, and in some cases impossible.
  3. Market saturation. At some point the market for breeding animals and trophy hunt bucks will be saturated. How soon this will happen, no one knows. Fortunately, potentially significant huge markets exist for venison and value-added products. However, as an industry, we better start developing those markets now!

I once had a client tell me he didn’t want to hear about the problems he had – he already knew he had problems. What he wanted to hear were solutions to his problems! Unfortunately, I don’t have any quick solutions to the challenges described above. It will take the combined efforts of individual deer farmers, deer associations, universities and governments to guide the industry towards sustainability and maturity. Let’s get started!