This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
Milking deer to create high-value dairy products is no longer just an experimental industry for Pāmu.
The state-owned farmer is creating the cornerstone of a new industry, having established a specialist deer-milking farm north of Taupō, where it turns the product into high-value dairy products for the export market.
Aratiatia Farm, which has 175 hinds, is in its third season of deer milking, with herd numbers and production steadily improving.
The farm is the second deer-milking farm Pāmu is involved with, having worked alongside the McIntyre family on their Benio Farm in Southland since 2016, milking red deer with some success.
Pāmu business manager Jason Halford says the McIntyres offered a huge amount of support and advice in those first two years of operation.
“Peter and Sharon were pivotal in helping us get this off the ground – learning how to do it, learning how to milk them and when to be patient.”
Aratiatia Farm is run by a staff of four and one casual employee.
Herd numbers have lifted in its third season, from 100 to 130 hinds to milking 175 this season. The herd are all red deer, with no Wapiti genetics in them.
Red deer are chosen because they are more user-friendly for the staff and are slightly smaller than the Wapiti breed, farm manager Robert Smith says.
“Our staff are handling these things daily and we can’t have these big Wapiti hinds looking down at them as it’s intimidating.”
The farm’s production rate cannot be revealed because of the variability within the herd on a yearly basis and for commercial sensitivity reasons.
“All we can say is that production is increasing year on year. It is hard to give an indicative range of what they are producing,” Halford says.
Smith is relatively new to the job, having started in October last year, replacing former Aratiatia manager Mason Jones.
Recruiting staff for deer milking was an obvious challenge given it is such a niche industry, and Smith says they are lucky to have such good staff.
“We had to think outside the square and take a punt as well.”
That punt saw them hire two Welsh men, Aled Phillips and Harry Lloyd. Both had rural backgrounds in their home country. They were both working at well-known restaurant Fergburger in Queenstown and on one-year working visas when the jobs were advertised and they applied.
“They panned out to be exactly who we were after.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without them making things happen,” Smith says.
He also recruited Karina Linesey, who has a background in sheep milking and deer farming.
“She was happy to join our team and she brings the dairy experience while the two Welsh boys bring the muscle and energy.”
Linesey’s experience and knowledge have been crucial, with Smith’s own background being in deer farming rather than dairy. He was previously employed at Pāmu’s Rangitikei Station.
“Deer are my passion. I love deer and that’s what drew me to this. I brought the deer experience and I then had to outsource for the deer-milking experience.”
For Smith, the biggest learning curve was understanding how farming the deer impacted the herd’s milk quality and understanding somatic cell counts, bacteria, and dairy hygiene.
He lent heavily on Linesey and previous manager Jones for advice and to upskill himself.
The farm is now in its third season of milking deer. Prior to this land use change it operated as a support block for Pāmu’s organic dairy farms in the district.
The majority of the farm is hills with around 10% as flats. Adjacent to the farm is 600ha of Radiata pines, which are run as a separate standalone forestry block.
The deer are milked once a day, in the morning, through a seven-a-side, 14-bail herringbone shed, custom-built for milking deer.
The parlour was installed in the farm’s existing 25- to 30-year-old converted deer shed, formerly used for finishing deer.
The hinds come out of the paddock in the morning around 7am and drift into the shed for milking.
“They’re actually a dream and easier in my experience to yard than sheep or cattle,” Smith says.
From the yards, the deer are brought in for milking seven at a time. Deer nuts are used as an enticer to get the hinds into the bail and once they enter, a gate is used to keep them there.
“It’s far less stressful than I thought it was going to be,” Smith says.
The milking is completed by late morning-midday and the deer return to the paddock.
As for its taste, Halford describes the milk as “like eating an ice cream”.
“It’s that good. I milked cows for 25 years and would not drink from a vat but I would drink this stuff.”
Because the milk is not collected as frequently as in a bovine or ovine operation, it is stored in a 20-foot freezing container to maintain its quality. Once collected it is then processed at the Waikato Innovation Park’s spray dryer in Ruakura, Hamilton.
The hinds are also RFID tagged and are monitored for production via a Gallagher wand every 10 days.
Halford says the conversion was constructed during the covid-19 lockdown. Given the movement restrictions and issues so many businesses had with sourcing materials, getting it finished over that period was a huge achievement.
One of the biggest challenges has been to lift the performance of the milking herd and make sure that suitable deer are being milked.
The hinds are 100% naturally mated with the nine stags kept on farm. These stags are let out in early March in three mating groups and mating occurs over six weeks.
The stags often accompany the hinds to the shed every morning for milking so temperament is a significant trait that the stags are chosen for.
Red deer bred specifically for their milking abilities do not exist and as a result, the farm’s milking herd are standard commercial red deer originally bred for venison.
Over the past three seasons Smith has been selecting the herd primarily on temperament, but Smith found by trial and error that it’s a fine balancing act.
Initially, he assumed the more docile animals would be better milkers but discovered these animals started acting more like pets than farmed animals and were too domesticated.
The deer need to be quiet and easy to handle but not too quiet, he says.
“If they’re too quiet, they’re no good to us but on the other end of the scale, they’re no good either.
“They have to have a bit of movement about them – not from a nasty point of view but flowing – they have to be able to flow.”
This is especially critical when shifting the stock, when, if they are too friendly, the herd can jam up and refuse to move.
“They created inefficiencies. One hind would stop, and the rest would follow it.”
Hinds exhibiting that behaviour do not make the grade for milking.
Smith says people assume that deer still behave like they did when the wider industry was being established. The flighty, feral behaviour seen in the past has been largely bred out of them.
“They’re a totally different animal to 50 years ago.”
Deer temperament is also an incredibly heritable trait. Deer size is also important as a deer cannot be too large and intimidate staff or too small so it cannot perform.
Other traits that are more specific around milk volumes and quality will be looked at further into the future.
Halford says the genetics programme around deer miking was basically started from scratch a few years back.
“It’s a really exciting growth industry because what Robert’s doing here is just about pioneering.
“Where are the genetics going to go in deer? It’s pretty exciting.”
Smith adds: “Phase one was to see if we can milk deer on this property. It’s been proven and now our focus is on genetics and finding the right ones to milk.”
The hinds are sourced from different Pāmu farms – from the existing deer herd being farmed for venison at Aratiatia prior to the conversion, but also Rangitikei Station, and Pāmu’s farms in the South Island and the National Park.
In early March, Smith brought in a mob of yearling hinds, with 93% of this mob happy to be milked the day after arriving.
“These were run-of-the-mill venison hinds that had never been milked before.”
The hinds are pregnancy-tested in May with the goal of fawning to begin in early November.
The hinds are run in long grazing rotations over the winter on the farm’s hill paddocks and fawn in that country where there is plenty of shelter for them to give birth.
Once they are on those paddocks, they are largely left alone to prevent mismothering.
After fawning, the only way a hind recognises its fawn is via its scent from where it gave birth. Having the staff keep their distance helps facilitate this.
Feed quantity and quality is no issue because the hinds are set stocked through the spring flush at a low stocking rate on a 20-day round.
The low stocking rate policy is done for social reasons, Smith says.
“If you have the hinds at more than eight a hectare, there’s too much competition for fawning spots.”
The farm also uses Farmax and creates a feed budget to help guide decision making.
Between Christmas and New Year, the hinds are mustered down to the flat country where they are transitioned onto lucerne as the feed quality starts to drop off.
Because the hinds cannot keep on top of the pasture growth, Smith runs empty, carry-over dairy cows after the hinds have been shifted. The cows are used to clean up the pasture in the same way a sheep and beef farmer would use beef cattle.
This policy is carried out throughout winter and spring.
The fawns stay on their mother until January 10 or roughly nine weeks of age, when they are weaned onto fresh pasture and deer nuts.
From there, they are transitioned onto lucerne over the summer and run in a separate paddock away from the hinds. This season that mob numbers 220 and includes both male and female replacements.
The male fawns are finished on the property at 10 months for venison and the replacement hind fawns are mated as yearlings.
Smith says this year’s yearling fawns are in great condition and have just been mated, having hit their pre-mating target weights.
The hinds start lactating when fawning starts and keep producing milk up until early May, but that milk is not collected until weaning in January.
The farm has 40ha of lucerne crop that is used as the farm’s main summer feed crop. It is generally cut and baled in spring, providing another supplementary feed source if required.
Tall fescue grown in some of the more moderately hilly paddocks is also cut and baled.
The hinds and fawns typically graze these paddocks over summer, but this season the pasture growth has been exceptional at the farm. The late summer dry that generally occurs throughout much of Waikato post-Christmas was kept away by periodic rain.
The hinds are pampered as much as possible through feeding with pastures kept high to reduce the risks of parasites. The animals are vaccinated and given a copper boost twice a year.
The hinds are also condition scored by a veterinarian throughout the year. This process follows similar principles to condition scoring for dairy cows. Monitoring the hinds this way ensures they have plenty of fat on their backs at key times such as mating.
“The hinds are then more likely to get in fawn on the first cycle, and we end up with a better and healthier fawn,” Smith says.
This in turn also ensures the hind produces plenty of milk.
The farm is largely organic and uses no synthetic nitrogen or urea, instead using organic fertilisers.
Looking ahead, Halford says Pāmu’s plan is to keep growing the genetics base for deer milking and keep improving the animal’s performance around milking volumes and maintain conception rates.
Eventually, it is hoped to double the size of the milking herd, but that will require expanding the size of the shed.
Halford says deer milking has the potential to grow into something massive and sees parallels with its back story and how sheep milking started and has taken off in the region.
Demand for the powders that are created from the milk far exceeds supply.
“It’s exciting how quickly this is going to grow. The dairy industry took off and grew from that.
“Moving forward, the world’s our oyster.”