Scientists and a cheese maker from Oamaru have produced what they believe may be the world's first cheese made from the milk of farmed red deer.
What's more, laboratory tests have identified unique bioactive compounds in red deer milk that they say could improve the immune system of humans.
If that is the case, red deer milk could be worth as much as $100 a litre on niche health food markets and a single red deer hind could potentially produce up to $20,000 worth of milk in a single lactation, according to Dr Alaa El-Din A Bekhit, a senior lecturer in the University of Otago's Food Science Department.
Bekhit said the idea of producing cheese from red deer milk came from a report he saw on the internet, where cheese from donkey milk sold for about $1800 a kilogram.
Donkey milk does have some bioactive properties, he said. But they believe milk from red deer may have properties that are even more beneficial.
Bekhit, a specialist in identifying and developing value from agricultural by-products, is working with fellow Otago researchers biochemist Dr Alan Carne and immunologist Dr Michelle McConnell to study bioactive compounds in milk collected from red deer and sheep.
Laboratory tests compared these results with bioactive compounds found in sheep and cow's milk and found good results which warrant further studies.
"We found indications of components that can help build the immune system of humans," he said.
"If red deer milk is anything like donkey milk in terms of its ability to produce and carry bioactives and health-promoting compounds, that would be wonderful."
If researchers could confirm it had the unique benefits observed in the laboratory, then it would offer better properties than other commercial cheeses available and had the potential for higher returns.
In previous meat quality research work, Bekhit found venison had some unique antimicrobial properties that extended its shelf life two to three times longer than other red meats.
And, of course, the bioactive compounds of deer velvet were well known to practitioners of traditional Asian medicine.
"The first step is to confirm what we found in the test tube in animal models and that will give assurances and confidence for the industry to go forward," he said.
Even at a conservative estimate of $100 a litre, compared to $300 a litre for donkey milk, Bekhit said a red deer hind produced about 200 litres of milk during a season's lactation, so a single hind could generate potential income of $20,000 a year.
"The wonderful thing about deer is that they have at least twice the amount of milk solids found in cow's milk," he said. New Zealand deer farmers produced about half of the world's farmed red deer production so would be unlikely to experience any competition from China or Korea or emerging agricultural producers like Argentina and Chile, he said.
However, farmers had experienced volatile returns for venison on export markets in recent years, which had resulted in a decline in numbers of deer farmed here.
Bekhit said if researchers could find a viable alternative income stream to venison production, it could offer them another string to their bow in terms of sustainability.
The biggest restraint to milking red deer commercially was likely to be the difficulty of handling deer in the close confines of a milking shed, but Bekhit said that was a challenge for specialists in animal behaviour and production to solve.
The red deer milk used in the Otago trial was sourced from Dr Sue Mason and Dr Nelum Vithana, of Lincoln University, who had considerable expertise in handling red deer and had developed a good system for milking them.
The cheese was made by Oamaru's Whitestone Cheese and the first sample blocks are expected to be auctioned to raise funds for the Cancer Society when they have aged for six months.
- Straight Furrow