Farmer discovers raising deer can be very profitable
Peter Bingham (Randall, Minnesota) is working to develop a deer-raising industry in the state. He hopes his herd, nine does and one buck, will become the genesis of an industry that will increase farm profits. With profit margins increasingly tight in agriculture, farmers are always looking for ways to diversify their operations. One option that is gaining attention is non-traditional livestock production.
Peter Bingham, who farms near Randall, thinks he can turn a few extra bucks by raising red deer for America’s dinner tables.
He’s the owner of Great Northern Deer Farm – an attempt to start a deer-raising industry in Minnesota. He said he’s interested in helping others get started.
“This isn’t a cure-all, but on a small scale I think I’m helping the economy,” Bingham said, noting that currently the United States imports $6.39 million of venison a year. “I’m doing my part to keep money in the United States.”
Red deer are a larger, tamer European cousin of Minnesota’s white-tailed deer, Bingham said. The animals are much like pets, allowing humans to pet their heads and rub their chins.
“Anyone who can raise cattle or other livestock can raise deer, and the animals would be a good sideline for farmers, Bingham said. Deer are usually more profitable than traditional farm animals”, he said. “Where else can you make $6,000 on five acres?”
In addition, the deer eat less than cattle and need less care, especially in winter, freeing up time for other activities, Bingham said. And their meat is a viable alternative to beef for consumers who want variety or lower fat intake.
“The American consumer is a diet-conscious eater that wants healthy, lean red meats,” Bingham said. “You go to the supermarkets and there’s a wide variety of vegetables, but there’s not a wide variety of red meats. People want a choice.”
Growing red deer is not a pipe dream, Bingham said. A slaughter plant in northern Iowa, Heartland Venison, has received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to start a venison packing plant. USDA officials are also inspecting the meat.
Slaughterhouses in Minnesota are also starting to butcher the animals, he said, and there’s plenty of buyers.
“There’s no risk,” Bingham said. “My risk is not doing my homework, which I’ve already done.”
Bingham has applied for a grant from the Sustainable Ag program through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Bingham owns nine female deer, known as hinds, and one male, known as a stag, he said. He and his wife, Kirstie, and their three children live on a 13-acre former turkey farm where they have an 11-acre enclosure that can hold up to 40 deer. Kirstie is a registered nurse at the St. Cloud Hospital, while Peter works fulltime on the deer operation.
Bingham uses rotational grazing to keep his pasture in good shape, shifting the deer between three permanently fenced paddocks, he said. Because red deer do not jump like white-tailed deer, the fence is 6- feet, 3- inches tall, with special reinforcements on the bottom to keep fawns in and predators out.
He supplements the herd’s grazing with a daily ration of one bale of hay, 20 pounds of corn, and other mixed grains and nutrients.
Though venison is an extremely minor component of North American meat consumption, Bingham said, red deer will be a viable and profitable crop for several years.
Demand is increasing rapidly while the deers’ reproduction rate is relatively slow, usually only one fawn a year, Bingham said. Consequently, an over-supply of deer is unforeseen for several years — if ever. Currently, there are about 3,500 red deer in North America.
Female deer are usually not butchered because they are too valuable as breeding stock, Bingham said. Hinds often sell for more than $3,000 and can breed for up to 14 years.
Venison is a big hit in fancy, big-city restaurants and is starting to catch on in more modest eating places, Bingham said. U.S. consumption increased 30 percent from 422 metric tons in 1990 to 597 metric tons in 1991. A metric ton is 2,200 pounds, or 1,000 kilograms.
The best cuts, about 30 percent of the animal, yield up to $13 a pound for the grower, Bingham said. Lesser cuts are usually sold for between $3.50 and $6.50 a pound.
Bingham says he sees nothing but an upward trend in venison consumption. Currently, Americans eat an average of 0.003 pounds of venison a year. If the rate increases to one pound eaten a year, there would have to be 4.5 million more deer carcasses to fill the demand, he said.
About 85 percent of the current American consumption is imported from New Zealand, where red deer are grown like cattle in America, Bingham said. But American growers have a big advantage, because they can sell fresh meat while New Zealand venison is frozen.
Bingham bought his deer last fall from a Canadian farm in Canada, and they arrived at the farm on Thanksgiving day, he said. After seeing a television story about the animals, he studied red deer farming for several years.
The Binghams moved to Randall two years ago from California. Peter was a peace officer and lobbyist for 11 years for the California State Police, but they decided to move from Sacramento to rural Minnesota to find a better lifestyle, Bingham said. His sister lives in the Twin Cities and Kirstie’s parents farm in North Dakota.
“I was tired of having my wife go to a grocery store where two hours earlier there had been a gang shootout with automatic weapons,” Bingham said. “I was better able to protect the state of California than I could protect my wife.”