Top genetic selection produces biggest antlers

TOP BUY: South Canterbury deer farmer Chris Petersen holds Sovereign II's award-winning 62-point antler.
TOP BUY: South Canterbury deer farmer Chris Petersen holds Sovereign II's award-winning 62-point antler.

Producing deer with some of the biggest antlers in New Zealand takes careful genetic selection and a dollop of luck, says South Canterbury deer farmer Chris Petersen.

Just as others follow the breeding lines of thoroughbred racehorses, Petersen does the same for deer.

"I know all the top stags and hinds in New Zealand. I study them."

Farming Highden Deer Park with his wife Debra at Sutherlands near Pleasant Point, his stags are highly regarded for their antlers, both for trophies and velvet. The 130 hectare rolling downlands farm carries 364 spikers and mixed-age stags, 122 mixed-age hinds and 55 18-month hinds, as well as this season's progeny. Most stags are grown out to seven years old for the trophy market, with 27 out of 30 sold last year.

New Zealand game estates are a popular destination for foreign hunters. Wealthy Americans and oil-rich Arabs are happy to spend thousands of dollars to shoot a stag, keeping the animal's head and antlers as a trophy. Otherwise velvet antler, which grows on stags each spring, is removed humanely by accredited farmers like Petersen before it hardens into bone.

Previously farming near Te Anau until two years ago, Petersen said he brought 130 fewer stags and 50 fewer spikers up to South Canterbury, but cut almost the same amount of velvet - 1.7 tonnes. "This was 1.5kg more velvet per stag. My velvet buyer couldn't believe the difference in the better, thicker velvet.

"If I didn't do trophies, velvet weights would be miles better. I have had stags cutting up to 10kg velvet, plus regrowth. The reason for more velvet is new grasses, warmer drier weather and shorter winters in South Canterbury. Flatter paddocks means I can check up on stags more often and it is easy to get them into the deer shed."

One of his top sire stags is Sovereign II, which won the 2013 national hard antler competition with a 62-point set of antlers weighing 30kg when cut. Reacting to painkillers when velveted, Sovereign II was too sick to grow antlers last year, but has since recovered.

Sovereign II was bought as an embryo from top English Warnham genetics. Another impressive stag is from his own breeding. Kallis - named after South African cricketing all- rounder Jacques Kallis - cut a 28kg antler at four years.

Petersen buys in three to four top hinds each year from Foveran Deer Park, Kurow and Clive Jermy's Stanfield's Stud, Darfield. He now breeds his own sire stags. "I can't afford to buy a $50,000 sire stag. It's my hobby, but my living."

Petersen said he tended not to wean fawns until the following spring. More conventional practice is to wean fawns in mid-February to improve hind condition before mating.

During the breeding season hinds were put into mixed age mobs, achieving a 95 per cent fawning at Te Anau.

He feeds his deer palm kernel, after a long adjustment period to get them to eat it. Petersen's contribution to deer farming was recognised when he was named winner of the deer industry's 2014 Matuschka Award.

The award, which acknowledges an outstanding behind-the-scenes contribution to the industry, was presented by its founder, Murray Matuschka, at the annual deer conference at Methven in May.

Petersen was chairman of the Deer Farmers' Association Fiordland branch for 13 years (until 2011), leading the group with humour and a focus on building community spirit among southern deer farmers. He established a velvet competition and set up a fund- raising scheme for the branch, buying and selling weaner deer and grazing them on members' farms.

He was brought up near the Kaimai Ranges on a rundown farm.

"After my mother died we went bush, wagging school to hunt deer and pigs as teenagers. I was so fit in those days walking the hills trapping 300 possums for skins a week. I loved my hunting."

He then spent 20 years crayfishing in Fiordland before buying a 240-hectare farm near Lake Manapouri.

After about three years he was asked to take on the role of branch chairman.

"I initially said no as I was so quiet, I never said much and would find it hard running meetings. I had spent most of my life in the bush and at sea and was so shy and a loner. It's hard to believe now.

"While feeding out silage the next day I thought 'the deer industry is in good shape so now is the time to be chairman with a $10 venison schedule and good velvet prices'. Not long after, venison prices crashed and nobody could get deer killed.

"Johne's disease was popping up and deer association branches were asked to put money into it. Our branch was low in funds so we started fattening weaners, about 60 a year and raised $20,000."

"Being the Fiordland chairman brought me out of my shell."

The Press