Fallow deer farming pays healthy dividend
The sleek, lithe animals hurtle around the paddock in ballet-like precision.
There must be 30 fallow bucks in the herd, but they act as one, wheeling, surging into a quick trot, bounding away, then suddenly stopping - ears pricked, eyes swivelling for danger signs - before leaping into action again to follow one another in a fluid line across the hillside to the far corner of the field.
Lex McKenzie has been in awe of these graceful creatures since buying his first does 26 years ago. "Aren't they wonderful," he exclaims. "So . . . " and here he struggles to find the right word "antelopey, no - gazelle-like."
Minutes later, as he attempts the nigh on impossible task of manoeuvring them into position for a photograph, he has other words for them - "Little buggers!" - as they dart away.
But there's respect as he talks of some of his early, more spirited fallows leaping, almost vertically, to the top of his 2.5-metre yard walls to scramble over to freedom.
He originally bred them for their meat, said to be tastier and more tender than venison from the more common red deer, but these days it is their antlers that earn the big money. He's not saying how much, but admits to making "more than a good living".
The shovel-shaped antlers are unusual. The only similar shape is on the much bigger moose - and fallow heads are sought after by trophy hunters.
His bucks are kept till they are fully grown at 5 years old and sold to game parks in the wilder parts of the North Island. Tourists, mainly Americans, come to hunt them and take the heads home to hang on their den walls.
The does don't grow antlers and are sent to slaughter at 40 kilograms liveweight. Their meat is sold without distinguishing it from other venison, a source of contention for fallow breeders.
Patience is the key to handling them, McKenzie says.
"Getting them to go through a gate can be maddening. Some days they will go straight through, then one day they will decide they won't. Which way the wind is blowing seems to have a lot to do with it. You have to move your dogs up carefully and if the deer make a break, you just have to accept it."
With such flighty animals it could be a hair-tearing, frustrating job sure to raise the blood pressure of any farmer, but he shows no signs of being unable to cope.
He smiles a lot as he talks about the deer, and the shelter belts he has put in to protect them, as well as conservation planting - and at 61 he still has all his hair.
"They're a joy to watch at play," he says. "At dusk, you see the fawns skipping around, and then the herd will suddenly mob up and tear around and around at a hundred miles an hour. It's their way of showing contentment."
He farms at Apiti in Northern Manawatu, on land bought by his father Charlie in the 1930s. It started as a 40-hectare dairy farm, but has been expanded to 210ha and changed to sheep and beef before the deer were added.
At 22, his father gave him a run-down 80ha block to manage. He cut manuka, replanted the pastures and stocked with sheep and cattle he bought from shearing earnings. They farmed in partnership, dividing the income between them, but his father largely left him to his own devices. "He always said 'You'll learn better if you learn from your own mistakes'."
The Apiti hills are volcanic ash soils and free-draining. For much of the past century they were considered summer safe, but that has changed recently with dry summers becoming more frequent.
At 26, he took over the whole farm and the following year the Government introduced the supplementary minimum prices scheme, which subsidised farmers to produce more sheepmeat, wool and beef.
"Suddenly everything flattened out," he says. "Instead of getting $12 for ewes one year and $4 the next, we were getting $9-$10 every year."
The value of farm land rose and so did their equity. "I said to Dad, 'we've got this money, why don't we buy more land'. He said, 'don't rush in, I've seen this happen before'. He had been through the Great Depression."
When subsidies were removed in 1985 they were able to cope better than many others.
"We didn't have money to spare for maintenance for a while, but I kept up essentials like fertiliser," he says.
When the next lift in farm values occurred he recalled the 1980s and invested in a bach at Taupo, commercial buildings in Feilding and a house in Palmerston North.
"I remembered reading a book by Bob Jones in which he advised, tongue in cheek: 'Don't ever buy hotels or motels, because farmers will buy them and they are used to working long hours for next to nothing.' It summed up what I was thinking."
In 1987, he and wife Shelly, who have two daughters and a son, decided to add deer to their sheep and cattle mix. In the post- subsidies era farmers were being told to diversify to protect their incomes. While a neighbour bought goats and lived to regret it, he took on fallow deer.
"I started with 50 and that was going to be it," he says. "People told me they would be too hard to handle, but that just made me more determined. They were tricky at first, but I started to breed for easy temperament and built up a type I could handle."
Now he has 200 does and more than 250 bucks, as well as 1100 romney ewes, 350 hoggets and 70 steers.
The idea behind diversification has proved to be a good one. "When sheep prices fell a few years back, venison was making a comeback and I had a good deal for my 3-year-old bucks, so I wasn't as badly off as I could have been."
He began planting shelter belts for the deer in the late 1980s and hasn't stopped. Lines of western red cedar, flax, douglas fir, pines, lemonwoods, the native broadleaf griselinia and Chatham Island ake ake have gone in.
Lone survivors of the bush that once covered the hills are prominent in many paddocks - totara, hinau, maire and northern rata trees - and in a swampy area he has planted pittosporums, kahikatea, rimu, rata, rewarewa, miro, kauri, pukatea, celery pines and golden totara, among others.
"Someone once told me: 'You can't rely on farming, it has too many variables. You don't know what you going to get for your products, the weather is unpredictable and so are exchange rates'.
"But I couldn't stop now. I just love it. You're your own boss, you're working amongst nature, doing physical work with animals in the fresh air. It's wonderful."
The Dominion Post