While deer farming has been pushed off most of Canterbury Plain and into the hills by dairy farming, it is now the most profitable form of dry stock farming, says Deer Industry New Zealand chairman Andy Macfarlane.
"There was one farm I worked at, this is the 2012-13 results, last week the deer returned $125 per stock unit, the sheep $100 and the cattle returned $75," Macfarlane said.
"Generally they are well ahead but I think it would be fair to say, like all dry stock classes at the moment, farmers are looking for a confidence booster because clearly the milk price has responded to the world demand for protein quicker than the meat price."
The number of deer on the plains has fallen as dairy farming has squeezed out competing land uses and more are being farmed in the hill country. Overall there has been a slight fall in numbers.
"I can think of a couple of people at the moment who're investing half a million dollars in deer fencing to increase their capability because the real potential for deer is as an integrated stock option with other classes of livestock, whether they be dairy heifers, bulls or sheep."
Macfarlane said deer complement other stock because they eat different feed at different times of the year
"Their feed demand curve on a lot of South Island hill country fits because they fawn later so the supply curve fits. On some of the high country places they'll eat weeds that other animals don't eat, the likes of briar rose, for example.
"If you get the fit right with the yearlings going out for slaughter prior to Christmas, you're killing them just as the next lot of calves are coming in if you're farming bulls or heifers. The deer demand drops just as the demand for the cattle increases, so they're very complementary there."
The key to the future for deer farming, Macfarlane said, was to maintain premium pricing and with that in mind, DINZ had bid for more than $7 million in Primary Growth Partnership funding for an integrated market programme called Passion to Profit.
It will be along similar lines to the Cervena programme operating in the United States and Australasia and the aim is to generate an extra $1.27 EBIT per kilogram of venison from on-farm gains and 73 cents off-farm, for a total gain of $2/kg.
"It's a slightly different approach but basically Cervena will be an industry standard so it will allow all the individual companies to market their own brand. It'll be First Light Cervena or Silver Fern Farms Cervena or Pure South Cervena or Duncan Cervena. They'll all have their own names so it's not strictly an appellation but there'll be some strict criteria that means it will be a premium meat to attract a premium price," said Macfarlane.
"It'll be underpinned by an industry-agreed standard for the whole value chain. It's an industry-agreed programme inside the farmgate and then you've got transport quality assurance, processing quality assurance and marketplace presentation.
"The exciting thing is we have all five of the major exporters all working together on it collaboratively."
DINZ has been working on the project for two years and is now "at the sharp end of launching it".
"It's taken us a little bit of time to get all our ducks in a row to make sure we don't fall over and get a bloody nose. The companies are working through the business plan at the moment. They've agreed in principle and are working through the business plan to make sure it works in practice."
The project is aimed at high- GDP non-German markets, potentially Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. In the established German market the push is for more chilled product, a project called Premium by Nature.
"This doesn't happen overnight, this is a two- or three-year programme. Our big challenge is to make sure deer farmers have confidence to stay in deer farming while we add this market initiative into the profitability.
"It is the most profitable system, but that doesn't necessarily mean that farmers perceive it to be the most profitable."
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