Velveting a ‘huge’ business shift

Velveting a ‘huge’ business shift

A passion for deer has led Southland farmers Tony and Michelle Roberts to transition from dairy to full time deer and beef farming. The couple has started Top Deck Deer, a velveting and trophy deer business in Merino Downs, just north of Gore.
It was in May last year the couple sold their dairy farm along with other blocks of land near Tapanui. This allowed them to purchase their 269ha Merino Downs farm with around half that land dedicated to Top Deck Deer and the rest to their beef o peration.
Top Deck Deer runs about 140 fallow does and about 110 fallow stags, which form their trophy deer business.
They have operated this fallow deer operation for some time but the velveting business is new and they run around 120 red hinds, 120 red fawns and 240 red stags for this velveting operation.
They aim to eventually increase red stag numbers to 300. Tony admits it has been a huge change to start deer velveting but it is a challenge they have thrived on.
A big job was getting the fencing on the farm right to accommodate deer as well
as building new deer yards.
Traceability of velvet product is important for overseas markets so Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) tagging gives tracking from farm to end product.
Tony says Top Deck Deer works in well with their beef operation where they buy in four day old calves from dairy farms and weaned beef calves at 100 kilograms and rear them through to 18 months.
Busy times for each operation tend to be the opposite and they use the beef on the deer block to clean up the pastures.
Deer velvet grows within 55-60 days and harvest quantities from a single animal can be anywhere from around 2.5 to 11 kilograms depending on the animal and its age. Typically there is a first cut then at least one period of regrowth each season.
Fully feeding deer along with the right supplements can improve harvests. “We’ve been learning a lot,” says Tony commenting on their first season as deer velvet producers.
“It’s been about getting familiar with handling the deer and minimising damage to velvet.” Next season the Roberts plan to reduce mob sizes to ensure less competition for food and result in easier handling.
It will also be possible to cull more heavily to improve the genetics. Tony plans to undertake DNA testing of hinds and fawns to select the best velveting genetics.
Theirs is a real family run operation with Tony and daughter Kate taking on the day to day running of their business with Michelle focusing on the administration and financial aspects.
Kate is also presently starting up her own small sideline business – a small herd of Simmental cattle. The environment is a focus for the family.
They plan to focus more on enhancing the environmental aspects of their operation including protecting wetland areas, fencing off waterways and riparian planting.
Tony, who is the South Island representative for the New Zealand Fallow Deer Society, has also joined a small DINZ associated environmental awareness group for local deer farmers.
The aim is to come up with long term solutions to ensure the industry is operating in an environmentally sustainable manner. While it’s all been a challenge to make such a dramatic shift with their business Tony says it’s also been exciting.
“Because deer is a smaller niche market compared with dairy you get to know people right through the chain and we feel a real part of the industry from the ground up.”
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