Proud to be a Deer Farmer

I am a little disheartened with the many negative comments directed at my industry of late. Yes, we have been faced with many problems lately in the game farm industry. However, our problems are no more or less than those of any other livestock/grain farming sector.

Every livestock farmer deals with the threat of herd disease and sickness. Grain farmers handle new strains of hard-to-kill weeds and low grain prices as a regular part of farming life. But neither grain farmers nor traditional livestock farmers are misrepresented as badly or their problems overemphasized as much as those in our industry. Why is that? I would like to challenge those in the media industry to rise above the perceived negatives and begin representing the our industry in a positive, accurate fashion.

Why did we become deer farmers?

We became deer farmers because of our interest and obvious appreciation of the animal. For us, whitetail deer are an enigma and an enjoyment to farm. They are low maintenance, and require less labour and feed than the traditional cattle herd.

Pastures can normally carry 6-8 mature does and their offspring for each beef cow/calf pair. They are browsers, not grazers, and their feed consumption decreases in winter months. They are hardy, intelligent and adaptable to our weather. They are highly productive and generally have twins and often triplets, making deer a good investment with an above-average rate of return. This investment can be maintained on less acreage and poor quality land unsuitable for other types of farming.

Money can be made in this industry. Good! Finally, a section of agriculture that can be self-sustaining, that may see some profit in a well-run farming operation. Is there money to be made in cattle? You bet, in a well-run farming operation. In a province such as Saskatchewan, which is facing farm crisis, the economic benefits of diversification are a necessary and valuable source of salvation for the family farm.

Whether farmers raise cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, deer or elk, if the farming operation is ethically run and legal, it is all agriculture. I am proud to be a deer farmer!

Trophy ranching – positive for our industry

Trophy ranching serves a great purpose in our fine province. Not only does it bring new money to Saskatchewan, but it also provides a final destination for those animals that have outlived their breeding potential. Slaughter on a harvest preserve or trophy ranch is a viable alternative to the traditional slaughterhouse idea. It is a humane and efficient method of slaughtering of our commercially-raised, domestic livestock.

On-farm slaughter occurs regularly in rural Saskatchewan. Who hasn’t helped a neighbour kill and eviscerate chickens? Hogs are often killed on-farm and added to the freezer in the form of chops or sausage. Goats are a sacred meat in some cultures and are often killed on-farm in a special ceremony with prayers said over the carcass. Consider the usefulness of a cow that has passed her productive prime. Has that usefulness been outlived? No. She becomes beef in that farmer’s freezer. Where does the slaughter and processing occur? Usually on-farm. It is convenient and humane, and eliminates the long trip to a slaughter plant.

The deer that we raise are sheltered, well-fed, and given veterinary care. Then, having lived a long and productive life, they are killed by hunters willing to pay the price for the meat, antlers and experience. Why not? Many creative farmers have incorporated the value-added benefits of pheasants, bison or wild boar to their agricultural game plan. As with all livestock, the purpose is to strive for quality production, which ensures a quality end-market slaughter.

In today’s agriculture crisis, I applaud those who can develop new and creative diversification and investment value in their agricultural enterprise. Some might call it the ultimate evolution of the hunter/gatherer/farmer in the tradition of the North American native peoples. Although the media and opposing forces would have the public believe this is a new and unacceptable venture, it truly is a generations-old tradition – we kill and utilize what we have produced. Call it hunting, harvesting or slaughter… I call it academic agriculture. And I am proud to be a deer farmer!

Environmentally sustainable rural development

The raising of deer is not a new venture. Deer farms have existed in China since about 2000 B.C. Europe also has a long history of captive deer farming. Even QDM (Quality Deer Management), largely practiced in the US, is a form of raising quality deer – without the fences.

From an agricultural perspective, deer are some of the most “environmentally friendly” animals to raise. They do not contaminate the groundwater, they do not contaminate air quality, they don’t require clear cutting or deforestation of farmland, and they don’t require chemical sprays to encourage a higher than natural yield.

Studies have actually been done on alfalfa hay pastures where the introduction of deer to the hay pasture has increased the quality and growth of hay over that of vacant alfalfa plots. As browsers, unlike grazers, quality growth in deer pastures lasts longer, is not chewed to the ground and allows for continual fresh growth. Since deer naturally eat less than cattle and forage in a manner less devastating to the pasture, deer farming is up to three times as profitable as traditional livestock.

Virtually the entire animal has real value. Unlike traditional livestock raised specifically for the meat markets, deer have various uses. The creative deer farmer can find entrepreneurial merit in developing a variety of markets which may include the hide, urine, hooves, antler, pizzels, fly fishing products, and taxidermy as well as meat and more!

And then what about marketing the “experience”? That experience could mean a variety of things to different people. Perhaps it is an educational/interest tour, or a photo shoot, or a hunt. We truly believe that giving those impromptu interest tours is one of the best parts of deer farming. Few people have the chance for an up-close-and-personal look at a deer. The experience can be wrapped up in one word – tourism.

We cannot discount the value of a venison market as well. Venison has been the meat of choice for the gentry in Europe for centuries. Now venison is often the meat of choice for the health-conscious. It now graces the menu plans for such well-known health movements as Weight Watchers. Venison is low in cholesterol, fat and calories and high in protein. Many restaurants, even locally, are beginning to offer venison, bison and other specialty livestock meats on their menus. Even discounting our local markets, we in North America have not even begun to supply the demand for export of venison. According to the North American Deer Farmer’s Association, “North American deer farms currently supply only one-quarter of today’s burgeoning North American venison market.” Indeed, it has a very bright future. And I am proud to be a deer farmer!

A well-regulated industry

The deer farming industry in Saskatchewan is governed by the joint efforts of Saskatchewan Food and Agriculture (SAF) and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). SERM plays a small part in the equation as well regarding the movement of animals.

So we answer not only provincially but federally as well, and we adhere to The Domestic Game Farm Animal Regulations Chapter A-20.2 Reg 10 of the Animal Products Act. These regulations outline requirements for enclosure, identification, import/export, transport, processing and penalties for non-adherence. For instance, as deer farmers, we are required to purchase a game farm license, TB test our entire herd every 3 years, have 2 unique forms of identification on every animal (ear-tags generally), apply for and file transport forms every time an animal moves on/off farm, and send in a yearly inventory of births and deaths for our stock.

The latest addition to the regulations is the Mandatory CWD Surveillance program. This program requires that we send in the heads of all deceased deer within 15 days for diagnostics testing, and do a yearly head count (bring all animals through for an approved inspector to record all ear tags).

We are also required to follow humane animal management as outlined in the Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Cervids (CARC). I would hazard to guess that the traditional sheep, cattle, or hog farmer would be shocked and appalled if this level of regulation were to be placed on their livestock industry.

Am I saying this level of regulation is bad? Well, it certainly is stringent…often too stringent. And that is where I believe we need to work with the regulating bodies to help improve and make workable this system of regulation. We CAN be thankful that here in Saskatchewan, because of regulations, we are largely supported by Sask Ag. who views our industry as a viable diversification model in the agricultural livestock industry. There are many states and provinces that do not have government support – generally the ones who disallow deer farming/trophy ranches. So, I can be proud to be a deer farmer!

Media hype and misinformation

We cannot begin to count the negative articles and publicity our industry has received of late. Why is that? Again it is generally a ploy by the media to sell papers, market radio shows, and attract viewers. They thrive on the emotional rhetoric that will attract the uninformed public.

Take CWD as one example. With all the publicity CWD has received, you would think it was Foot and Mouth or worse. Typically these types of headlines are reserved for diseases that have great consequence for human transmissibility. For example, by mid September 2002, 3 people have died due to West Nile Virus in Canada and another 17 people were being tested for the virus (a virus transmitted through mosquitoes). Oddly enough, very little has appeared in print.

Yet CWD has been a constant headline, even though experts have stated with fact from the Center for Disease Control, that “the models indicate that there is quite a barrier blocking this type of transmission” and “at this point in time, no human link has been found to CWD.” (Dr. Beth Williams).

As well, on a local farm level, did any of these media outlets take the time to figure that out of 8,280 Saskatchewan-farmed cervids put down due to CWD, 7048 of them were tested (1199 were not – elk calves: too young to be tested); 230 were positive (3.2% – all elk and all in one single province); and there were to date 40 infected premises. (CFIA stats, Jan. 2003)

Now if you consider 38,000 farmed elk in the province (fall 2002 stats, SAF), and that 230 tested positive (not even necessarily clinical – only a total of 21 were clinical), that is less than 0.6% of the total farmed elk population in Saskatchewan! Add to that the total of farmed whitetail and mule deer and the total farmed cervids reaches 45,250 – only 0.5% CWD infected game farm animals in the province. Only because of the superior level of our (internationally-recognized) Saskatchewan mandatory CWD surveillance system are we able to track and monitor these numbers. Saskatchewan attacked this disease aggressively. So far this disease obviously is NOT the unbridled epidemic that the public has been led to believe.

What about the numerous domestic (traditional) livestock diseases that can be transferred to wildlife populations? For instance, Johne’s, liver flukes, or lungworm or even calf scours are all more prevalent in domestic livestock farming than 0.5%. These can be found in farmed and wild populations. Deer (domestic and wild) can contract TB, but where does this form of BOVINE tuberculosis originate?

Without shutting down or double fencing the entire domestic livestock industry, there is always going to be the possibility of transmission to the wild. Or, I pose also the possibility of wild transmission to traditional livestock industries. Deer do not simply transfer deer diseases to deer, cattle to cattle, or sheep to sheep. It is not a unilateral sharing within one species. CWD appears to be species-specific or an exception, but many other domestic diseases can be shared reciprocally between species.

SOME disgruntled elk and deer farmers have, of late, begun a campaign to take the federal government to task for “allowing CWD into Canada” and encouraging the industry to flourish despite the odds against them. Basically the blame is being placed at the feet of the government for “governmental systemic negligence concerning disease and market problems with these animals,” as one lawyer for their cause stated.

However, this class action lawsuit is being launched on behalf of SOME elk and deer farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This class action suit is not endorsed by the majority, as it holds more potential for devastation of an industry than for the good of the industry. Yes, CWD has affected the deer markets for a short time. Yes, the industry is very stringently regulated. Yes, the industry faces opposition from certain wildlife organizations federally and provincially. But the Saskatchewan/federal governments have largely supported the industry. As one CFIA employee stated, “We don’t shut down industries because of disease, we deal with the disease, just like we do with any other livestock industry.”

Even so, the Canadian Wildlife Federation has called for a ban on game farming due to CWD and its potential effect on the wild populations of deer. However, in Colorado, where it was first discovered, they recently reported that their elk populations are at an all time high – despite CWD. Ironically, if we continue to look at the facts, the state with the highest incidence of CWD has been Wyoming. BUT Wyoming allows no game farming or high fenced operations.

In 2002, Whitesands, New Mexico reported a positive CWD wild mule deer – there are no captive cervidae facilities within 250 miles of the positive tested deer. Obviously, game farms are not a necessary factor in the transfer of CWD. There is regular discussion of the potential of disease transmission through nose to nose contact (through high fence). However, when you consider that Michigan has a positive TB problem in the wild, and yet the farmed cervid industry continues to maintain a TB free status, this theory of transmissibility remains only a theory – unproven at best.

And, yes, trophy ranching and game farming have economic spin-offs. Saskatchewan trophy ranches alone in 1999 (their first year in operation) took in over $5 million in direct revenue. This is “new” money coming into a depleted farm economy every year, most often from non-resident hunters. It does not include the millions of “residual” dollars spent in the tourism sector (hotels, gasoline, restaurants, hunting equipment, etc.) Trophy ranches continue to grow and increase their clientele each year.

Game farming has traditionally been considered a “small” insignificant industry, but game farms in Saskatchewan outnumber dairy farms (an established traditional industry) by 2 to 1. There are 311 dairy farms presently in Saskatchewan and there are 604 elk, whitetail and mule deer farms.

The Canadian game farming industry on the whole has a total farm capital market value of over $1.35 billion. In 2000, Canada-wide, deer and elk farms spent around $140 million through the purchases of fencing, veterinary supplies, and machinery. Gross farm receipts show that individual farms averaged $80,000, according to the latest agricultural census taken by Statistics Canada.

Deer farming obviously has a place in rural/farm diversification and in many cases has allowed the family farm to sustain and prosper despite low grain or domestic livestock prices. Despite opposition, the benefits and enjoyment to be had from this industry remain…and that is why I am STILL proud to be a deer farmer!


Source: Tara-Lynn Barks, a deer farmer in Saskatchewan Canada and Co-Editor of Deer Tracking magazine.