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Peter Swann was 13 years old when he was digging his first post holes for deer fencing on the family farm, Sherwood Downs, near Fairlie in South Canterbury.
That was in 1973, after his father Bob, a keen hunter, realised an opportunity to farm deer.
“Dad had developed the property in the early 1960s and was running 1800 ewes and 120 cattle on the flat land of Sherwood Downs,” Peter says.
“Deer were running wild in the hills behind, Dad was a keen hunter, he was looking for options to diversify, heli-capture was just beginning and he was onto it after seeing what his friend and deer-farming pioneer Sir Tim Wallis was up to.”
Bob started capturing in 1974, getting 75 hinds and six stags and that was the beginning of golden career for Peter.
“I am now in my 50th year deer farming and Dad, at 90, is still a keen follower getting out to anything deer industry related that he can,” Peter says.
Looking back, it has been an interesting and rewarding deer-farming era.
“I have seen the industry from nothing to highly successful and for Dad, who was a founding member of the New Zealand Deer Farmers Association and a board member for 11 years, it was about trophy but I took a different line into velvet.”
The initial heli-captured deer had its origins in animals brought in from England with some German breeding in their history.
In 1977 Bob and Peter captured the stag that was to become the start of their velveting.
“We were giving a deer capture demonstration as part of the deer farmers’ conference in Otago and we caught this amazing stag, we called him Big Dad.
“It turned out that he could grow impressive velvet. We entered him in velvet competitions and he won three years in a row.
“From here I picked velvet.”
At that time there was no velveting farming in New Zealand.
“A Korean was out here buying velvet off the heli-capture.
“I thought, I think we are onto this and that was the start of farming deer for velvet.”
The Swann family cut their first velvet harvest in the 1976-77 season.
After lambing 2000 ewes in the snow two years in a row at Sherwood Downs, the Swanns made the decision in 1990 to move to Mossburn in Southland, near where they were already grazing deer at Balfour.
They took their herd of NZ hinds and stags with them as well as a line of pure German stags Bob had been instrumental in importing.
It was here that their Glenfiddich Deer operation was established.
Peter always believed their NZ genetics would produce the quality velvet he had set goals to achieve.
With records dating from the first 1976 harvest, there was evidence that the original herd had very little calcification. It was more honeycomb.
After four years at Mossburn, when everyone else was crossing their NZ lines with imported genetics, Peter moved in the opposite direction and sold the German hinds.
“I was confident I could grow better velvet breeding with our NZ genetics and made the decision there would be no more imported blood going into our herd and we have been a closed herd from then.”
Farming velvet has been an evolution for Peter, who says it continued to be a moving target.
But he never stopped researching and remained confident he was on the right track.
“Many people never listened, never believed but the proof was always there. Even now the records are the proof and the scientific research is driving what has become a lucrative industry, in the right product and markets.”
In effect a soft-growing tissue that can grow up to one centimetre a day, velvet from imported bloodline crosses showed more bone calcification.
“I always believed the honeycomb-rich velvet from our NZ genetics would prove better quality and I kept breeding on that belief,” Peter says.
“Eventually the science proved me right – the lower the calcification the higher the organic matter. That is more blood flow and blood weighs less so our weight-to-bulk ratio is lower because the profile of our antlers is different and we are getting a higher volume of the higher grade.
“It is the active ingredients that are key and it comes back to quality before quantity and while we harvest [cut velvet] in weight, we sell in volume.”
Proving the genetics and breeding over time is the first average of just 2.2kg per stag at Mossburn in the 1990s to a 10.6kg average this year.
Increased profitability and satisfaction were realised when Glenfiddich Deer teamed up with Wānaka-based Alpine Deer in 1995 and moved away from the traditional velvet market, another goal in the breeding achieved.
“We were asked to do overgrowing, called supreme in velvet, for initial trials in freeze-dried velvet powder. It was about working towards getting lower ash content [bone calcification] and greater percentage soft tissue.
“We have been testing for 25 years and got as low as 28.1% with the ash testing the scientific base for my breeding.
“Everything is further processed into powders or capsule extracts and I am now getting paid for the yield, quality rather than weight, that I produce and that’s unique in NZ with just a handful of other velvet growers in the same league.
“It was my dream to get all my velvet into further processing. People said you can’t do, it will never work. Well, I proved them wrong.”
With the goal to get a 10kg average of velvet per head across the herd also achieved with a 10.6kg this season, Peter called “job done” on a herd he can trace right back to its first heli-capture in 1974.
“We have achieved and gone beyond what we thought we could possibly get in animal production and further processing so we are going out on a top note.”
Glenfiddich Deer moved to Mid Canterbury in 2003 and, with the last of his goals achieved, Peter and wife Jema are planning their retirement from deer farming.
“We have increased production by 50% since we came to Ashburton, so for us retirement is a good decision at the right time.”
The herd has been sold as a going concern and has moved to Levels Valley in South Canterbury with Peter and Jema retaining ownership of a few stags.
So, the future of velvet farming?
“In the future NZ deer farmers have got to get paid for quality and that will mean moving away from the traditional velvet markets into further processing, diversifying into a modern commodity to meet new-generation customer demand,” Peter says.
“It’s been intensive, it’s been a huge commitment over many years, now it’s time to first find somewhere to live and then get on and enjoy some travel, something we have both always been keen to do,” Jema says.