More to Mt Hutt than just snow

Iconic is an overused word these days, but occasionally it is justified - as in the case of Mt Hutt Station and not just because it covers the lower slopes of the Mid-Canterbury plains' most visible landmark.

Its status - both nationally and internationally - is in no small part because of Mt Hutt Station's owners, the Hood family. Because of the Hoods, Mt Hutt Station is now indelibly linked with large-scale deer farming.

For more than 35 years the property has been developed and farmed by the Hood family after Keith and his late brother Doug purchased the station in 1978. By the early 1990s, the station that had once run up to 14,000 ewes, was virtually totally deer. The station is now farmed by Keith and his wife Dennise, along with their son Bruce and daughter-in- law Becky.

With the 2014 deer industry conference held last week at Methven, it was inevitable that nearby Mt Hutt Station would host a field day. Typically a blustery northwesterly wind was blowing through the adjacent Rakaia Gorge and venison was on the barbecue for lunch.

Bruce said he had grown up with deer.

"There's no one expert in the deer industry. That's why I love it, you're always learning."

The current deer herd consists of 2500 breeding hinds and 2000 velveting stags and their replacements. About eight tonnes of deer velvet is produced in total, including spiker and regrowth velvet. New Zealand is the world's largest producer of deer velvet antler, about 400 tonnes, mainly used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine. The station also carries 170 mixed age beef cows and 60 rising-one-year cattle.

The Hoods, an unassuming, hard working and enterprising family not only enjoy farming deer, but also have a lifetime's experience using big earthmoving machinery.

Working for his brother's contracting business, Doug Hood Ltd, Keith bulldozed the access road to the Mt Hutt skifield, known as the Hood Highway. At the time he did not realise they would later farm its lower slopes.

Son Bruce said his first two words were bulldozer and Caterpillar, because he saw them every day growing up. They had just entered a new development stage at the station, splitting up some 20ha and 50ha blocks. "I'm having trouble turning around in the yard as Keith is revisiting his younger years and a D6 and Cat grader have arrived."

Bruce said not to expect him to quote technical production figures for the station. "I don't measure the grass. We shift feed breaks based on how much the stock eat."

He doesn't carry a mobile phone and internet is slow. "We haven't weighed a deer in 30 years, but have just put in a new deer weighing system and crush."

The Hoods use a combination of visual appraisal of stock and breeding technologies such as artificial insemination and DNA testing.

Of the station's total 2940 hectares, about 1800ha is able to be farmed. The land rises in altitude from 460m to 1900m, with most of the fenced area below 800m.

Rainfall ranges from 750mm to 1500mm on the productive areas, with the Hoods hoping to develop 50ha of irrigation. "There's so many types of land; its heavier there, stony there and drier out there."

Mt Hutt Station has a long history, being farmed from as early as 1857, initially running sheep. The homestead was established in the 1880s and by 1990 the property was carrying 14,000 sheep, berkshire and tamworth pigs, draught horses and hacks.

By the early 1900s more than 500 cows were being milked, reputedly the largest herd in the South Island at the time.

The property has a long association with deer. In 1898, deer were introduced to the Rakaia River flats from Stoke Park, England. These deer established within the area and became known as Rakaia Red.

When the Hoods purchased the property it was running 7000 sheep and more than 500 cattle, but their intention was always deer farming, then a fledgling industry. As well as purchasing 36 weaner hinds from Erewhon Station at the head of the Rangitata River, they bought a Hughes 500D helicopter for live recovery of feral deer, predominantly Rakaia Reds from the local catchment.

Since then the initial Rakaia Red herd has been culled heavily and selected for velvet production, good body weights and temperament. European and other English genetics were also introduced.

A large focus on velvet production, with 2000 stags two years and older, is balanced with a focus on an efficient hind and meat production. The Rakaia Red hind base now has a significant European influence. The Hoods consider that the deer are currently slightly too big and are mating back to the English types to produce a more moderate- sized animal.

"We want a hardier animal for the hill country."

Keith and Bruce do the deer work, with two single young men carrying out tractor work and maintenance.

"There is a perception of farmed deer that they are a wild animal and will bowl you over. You've got to learn to read them," said Bruce.

The Hoods have started DNA testing of their yearling hinds, 1500 in the first year and 1000 in following years, to help select replacement breeding hinds.

"It's still by eye, but you can't keep them all."

Almost all yearling hinds are mated and achieve a scanning of between 85 and 90 per cent. The Hoods keep 400 yearling hinds, with the surplus in-calf hinds sold to a ready market.

Spiker deer have their spikes cut off, to gauge their potential for the velvet mob. About 500 is the maximum that can be taken through.

"This gives us room for a reasonable cull as two-year olds, but some don't mature early enough."

Velvet weights have lifted from an average 3kg a head three years ago, to 4kg now. Culling decisions are based not just on the main cut of velvet antler, but also regrowth.

"So it's not so much weight, as total value."

Winter greenfeed crops were vital to carry stock through the cooler months, with about 100ha grown in swedes and kale. "We are shifting 21 breaks in a day. The legs feel it."

The station also grows 50ha of short rotation pastures with 90 to 100 tonnes of grain fed, mainly to stags and weaners.

Mt Hutt Station is home to New Zealand's only herd of pure pere david's deer. About 100 were imported to New Zealand in 1984-85, but numbers dwindled and when they arrived at Mt Hutt Station only 12 remained, including at one stage just one stag.

"Numbers have taken off and we are now up to about 50. We have taken them out the far end and they are doing well.

"They were in one mob, but last year the skifield was blasting snow, causing an avalanche which destroyed several fences. So they are now in three different mobs in three different paddocks," said Bruce.

The Press