Monday, February 26, 2024

Looking back on a velvet revolution

Neal Wallace
As a deer-farming family prepares to hold its 37th and final stag sale, David Stevens recalls a career that was sparked by a fascination with genetics.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.

It was the excitement of the unknown that drew David Stevens to the fledgling deer industry in 1979.

David and his wife Lynley were running Netherdale, a highly productive family sheep farm and he was a partner in a family-owned Coopworth stud near Balfour north of Gore, but the emergence of deer farming captured his attention.

“I liked that it was something new and exciting and an opportunity to progress with genetic gain. It was the excitement of it,” recalls David.

Family trips to Te Anau and seeing deer in nets strung under helicopters flying out of Fiordland only heightened his fascination.

Next month the family will hold their 37th and final stag sale, bringing to an end an era in which they have helped underpin significant growth in the quality and weight of velvet production.

It has been an exciting time.

But back in 1979 it was a case of sourcing red deer to stock their fledgling deer farm. Given the competition for animals, that was far from straightforward.

It was a race to get the paper and open the livestock sale section to check if there were any deer for sale.

Then it was another rush to view them before they were sold.

“When we lost one we would have a day of mourning, they were so expensive.”

Most of the original Netherdale herd came from deer farming pioneer Bob Swann from Fairlie.

David recalls many timers driving through the night with his cousin Lachie to buy a sire stag or hinds and extracting as much deer farming knowledge from Bob as they could, then driving straight home.

Hinds fawning at David and Lynley Stevens’ Netherdale deer farm in Southland.

During the drive home they would question whether they could get their newly bought two-year-old stags to cut 2kg of velvet.

“That was our goal.”

Other deer came from Glenaray Station at Waikaia and some were captured out of the Hokonui bush. It became something of a lottery whether those animals could be contained when they were released.

In 1982 David and Lynley became the fourth generation of the family to farm Netherdale when they bought the property, after which they decided to farm only deer.

Meetings of the Southland branch of the New Zealand Deer Farming Association (NZDFA) would go on well into the night as the topic changed from industry politics to exchanging ideas and finding solutions to stock management problems.

“We were all learning and we were all having issues with things on farm that we were quite happy to discuss with each other.”

He also credits scientists at Invermay such as Ken Drew, Tony Pearse and Colin Mackintosh.

“For the deer industry, they were amazing.”

David recalls helping organise an NZDFA conference in Queenstown in the 1980s.

No expense was spared and they still speak fondly of a memorable event.

“Although most of the committee had no idea what chair Rob Brookes had organised, it was an outstanding success.”

He managed to get the Earnslaw out of dry dock, have a dinghy at the venue full of oysters and dumped gravel on the floor of a hotel conference room as part of a gold mining village theme.

“We weren’t making any money but we were have some fun,” David says.

Before 1985 changes to taxation rules, the industry attracted non-farming professionals to the industry, who added energy and investment with a more business focus.

David says breeding stags for velvet was intoxicating.

“It’s in your blood, you can’t get enough of it. I’ve always said velvet is like a drug.”

He considers his hobby to be his job, but he qualifies that by adding that to be a stud breeder, “you need to be slightly obsessed”.

“My family have had to put up with a lot for a long time. We haven’t had many Christmas holidays.”

David attributes his commitment to the endless pursuit of genetic gain – which in velvet is extremely heritable – and the excitement of watching antlers develop in the 60 days from button drop, but also embracing early the then new technology of artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

“It was new so I we had to give it a go.”

Some early techniques were very basic.

Hinds were knocked out in the catching pens of his former woolshed, then tipped over and put in a cradle on the shearing board so the technician could artificially inseminate or insert embryos.

David’s first stag sale in 1987 and the next eight were shared with two other fledgling breeders, his cousin Lachie and John Cowie.

Hinds fawning at David and Lynley Stevens’ Netherdale deer farm in Southland.

In 1996 David converted the Netherdale woolshed into a deer-selling arena, a signal of their commitment to breeding stud red deer velveting stags.

Netherdale peaked at 2200 hinds, selling 25-30 sire stags a year.

Importantly, his growth was supported by regular genetic gain in his herd.

“We have had some tough years, but if you are getting genetic gain, you can cope as long as you can see improvement.”

Those tough years also made David resilient.

He has seen the stag market swing from velvet to trophy but recently it has swung back to velvet.

“It’s been good to us in the last six to eight years since the industry changed and China came in and started buying velvet direct from farmers.

“It changed the market focus and improved the quality.”

The contribution of Netherdale genetics to the NZ velvet industry has been significant.

In 2022 David sold a stag to a South Canterbury syndicate for $135,000, while last January’s sale of 23 three-year-old stags averaged $13,800 and he achieved a season-high auction price of $80,000.

In 2002 the average velvet weight of his sale stags was 4kg.

Last season David’s three-year-old stags cut up to 11.5kg of velvet and those offered at his 2023 sale averaged 8.5kg. This year they will average a little over 9kg.

Breeding goals start with temperament then producing clean velvet, a good body weight and an animal with reasonable body size.

He says body frame within the industry has been increasing.

His heaviest 26-month stag this year is 230kg, but he says the industry needs to balance body size and productive efficiency.

“What’s the point of a 300kg animal producing 6kg of velvet when you can do that with a 250kg animal?”

As David focused on developing Netherdale, much of the parenting of their three daughters, Andrea, Kim and Tania, was left to Lynley.

When he wasn’t working on or developing the farm, David was involved in industry politics as a member of the NZDFA for 40 years and serving on sector bodies such as the National Velvet Standards Board and chairing the NZDFA Selection and Appointment Panel and the NZDFA Quality Assurance programme.

He was national president from 1999-01 and is a life member of both Southland branch and the NZDFA national body.

He also served six years on Environment Southland.

“I couldn’t have spent the time off farm without having Lynley’s support. You cannot be involved off farm without great support at home.”

David says the agricultural sector needs to sell itself better by promoting what it does well instead of saying what it should do – and farming families are central to that.

In 2022 David and Lynley sold 370 stud hinds and their 2021 progeny to Don and Ben Hudson of Ardleigh Farm near Geraldine, who will continue to breed stud stags.

David, 73, and Lynley will continue to farm the 196ha farm on which they will run a small commercial herd, a flock of Wiltshire ewes along with cut-and-carry feed.

They are leasing part of the property to their daughter Tania and son-in-law Alan and to a lily bulb grower.

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