Thursday, December 7, 2023

Industry marks 50 years of deer farming science

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Half century transforms animal from pest to prized asset.
AgResearch scientist Jamie Ward says 50 years has achieved a lot of opportunities and essentially deer farmers are farming a new animal.
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Fifty years of deer farming science transformed a noxious pest into a high-value animal producing quality product for export all around the world.  

AgResearch and Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) last month celebrated the golden milestone of deer farming research that has advanced the industry since 1972.

The programme was established by scientist Ken Drew and veterinarian Les Porter half a century ago to help support the emerging deer farming industry. At the time farmed venison overlapped with feral venison.

AgResearch scientist Jamie Ward said AgResearch’s Invermay campus near Dunedin and its predecessor organisations have always worked in close partnership with the deer industry and farmers. 

“Fifty years ago, researcher Ken Drew and veterinarian Les Porter thought it might be a clever idea to put some science in behind the newly emerging deer farming industry.

“With incredible backing by early industry participants, innovation, positivity, and fantastic researchers, Invermay became synonymous with the evolution of the NZ deer farming industry and earned an international reputation for its science and research output,” Ward said.

“Fifty years has achieved a lot of opportunities and essentially we are farming a new animal.”

The research has included major advances in understanding of deer nutrition, health, behaviour and genetics, and in the development of export products such as venison, velvet and milk.

Drew said he and his colleagues faced a huge challenge in the early days, taking what was a dangerous wild pest and turning it into an animal that could be safely and successfully farmed.

“In the early 1970s deer was a noxious animal and that’s legally described as an animal that should be exterminated. The concept of farming a noxious animal has obviously got political consequences, as well as biological ones.

“Initially we had 18 staff involved and we would have 1000 people turn up to field days as some of our knowledge was gained on deer biology,” Drew said.

Tony Pearse, who spent 19 years as a researcher at Invermay and later many years with DINZ as producer manager, travelled overseas often to share NZ’s leading expertise in deer farming with the world.

“It became an international community of a new industry. It was a real privilege, really exciting,” Pearse said.

Deer science over the 50 years has included farmers’ access to quality genetics through DeerSelect, NZ’s national deer recording database.

One of the outcomes is larger deer. Where it once took deer 20 months to reach 55kg, that time has now been cut to less than 10 months.  

DINZ chief executive Innes Moffat said from the outset the deer industry did things nobody else did.

“The research at Invermay has always been done with industry collaboration and focused on industry outcomes. 

“As such, the impact of that science has been huge, and it has been key in developing the modern, sophisticated deer farming industry in NZ we see today,” Moffat said.

“While the early scientists developed methods for farming deer and progressed our fundamental understanding of them, the ongoing work in the programme is building on this to make us even better at what we do. 

This ranges from feeding the animals right and having the tools to select the right genetics, to developing new products derived from deer that meet the expectation of our global customers.

“The scientists have helped us overcome many challenges in the last 50 years. 

“We haven’t run out of challenges and look forward to continuing the collaborations between the passionate farmers in the industry and the equally passionate scientists to support them,” Moffat said.

Research is now underway into tracking deer foraging behaviour using GPS collars planned as a tool to phenotype deer.

The AgResearch team is developing and producing deer-specific wearable collars to characterise deer behaviours like walking, resting, grazing and ruminating.

Key challenges ahead include addressing environmental impacts such as climate change and water quality that will require solutions specific to the needs and challenges of the deer industry. 

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