Deer industry leaders paint rosy portrait as sector makes gradual comeback
Deer industry leaders say the sector is in recovery mode after a period of poor performance.
While deer numbers are down on their heyday in the early 2000s, hinds are being retained to rebuild herds and prices are at good levels and rising.
Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) chairman Andy McFarlane told the annual conference he saw a greater hunger from farmers to improve their skills and push the industry forward.
"We are the best deer farmers in the world, we need to keep up the momentum," he said.
The most recent Statistics NZ survey showed that at June 2016 deer numbers had fallen by 7.3 per cent to 835,000, a far cry from 2005 when there were 1.7 million. The great financial crisis and conversion of farms to dairy contributed to the reduction.
Last year farmers had begun to retain their hinds, which up to then were being slaughtered at unsustainable levels.
DINZ chief executive Dan Coup said while the retention was good for the industry, it would create some short term headaches.
"For venison processors, it's tough to fill plants, and keep workers gainfully employed. Over the last year or so, we've seen what I think is some really sensible restructuring of venison slaughter capacity.
"Mostly, that's meant closing small standalone venison plants and moving the gear into large multi-species sites where labour can be better utilised. The processing sector seems to have made some efficient changes, without actually reducing the ability to process deer when farmers need that done," Coup said.
Venison prices had risen by 10-15 per cent on the same time last year, partly because of product shortages because of a reduced kill, but also because of diversification.
Venison companies had created less seasonal demand, resulting in a "massive" growth in exports to North America, where the United States was now the single largest importer of New Zealand venison.
Over the last 10 years average slaughter weights had risen significantly, partly because of productivity improvements off the back of genetic research.
Deer velvet prices were down by $20 a tonne and volumes were up, although the higher volumes were not the reason for the price fall.
At the beginning of the season a tightening of Chinese food safety rules related to traditional medicine had caused uncertainty in the market, but as the season went on buyers had returned.
McFarlane said the past few seasons had been difficult. The industry had lost a significant part of the market premium it used to enjoy over lamb, it relied too much on a premium for "game venison" in the hunting season, it did not differentiate farmed venison from wild game in its main market, and had not committed to long term supply arrangements.
In the last year the industry had turned around by diversifying into other markets and improving productivity.
"The metrics show that we're actually achieving what we set out to – a reduced reliance on seasonal markets, a smoothing of the schedule, increasing chilled exports as a percentage of total."
It would take time to reverse the fall in deer numbers, McFarlane said.
"What is obvious though, is how farmers have increased their confidence to 'have a crack'. This had led to a demand lead culture rather than supply lead. This industry will succeed if we collectively maintain that culture."