Getting more out of deer at Mararoa Station

Red deer stag fawns on Mararoa Station. Deer production has become a priority at the station.
BRITTANY PICKETT/FAIRFAX NZ

Red deer stag fawns on Mararoa Station. Deer production has become a priority at the station.

For Mararoa Station manager Matt Canton farming is all about doing the basics well.

The 5500 hectare station in the Te Anau basin runs deer, cattle and sheep with 700ha of the Landcorp-owned farm  retired for environmental and forestry land.

Being a corporately owned farm, Canton thinks there is some misconceptions about day-to-day life on the farm. He says they are fair and essentially the farm is run as just that - a farm.

Mararoa Station manager Matt Canton.
BRITTANY PICKETT/FAIRFAX NZ

Mararoa Station manager Matt Canton.

"I think there is a misunderstanding of what goes on. We are actually farming, we're not just driving around wearing hi-vis all the time, and that's fair. But I think we add a lot of value to what we do."

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The farm varies from flat to rolling and steep tussock country. The tussock tops are perfect for deer, giving them shelter and are akin to their natural environment.

Deer production has become a focus at Mararoa, and with the stewardship of Canton and deer stock manager Troy Griffiths there has been a turnaround in red deer's production on the station.

The farm runs about 11,000 red deer, split into 3200 mixed aged hinds, 700 yearling hinds, 1500 weaner hinds, 1500 weaner stags, and 120 mixed aged stags.

"We believe it's just a change of focus for us. We identified areas we really needed to improve on.

"Part of that was myself coming into this role, it's a big place from where I've come from … it's taken a wee bit to find my feet here, but I've also managed to surround myself with like-minded people and getting the whole farm to work as a team."

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Initially the sheep and beef and deer operations were somewhat divided, and they struggled to get staff working with the deer. The station has about 10 workers when it is fully-staffed.

"People were scared of them. They didn't want to get bashed around."

Griffiths says people's perceptions of deer still held the stigma of the wild animals introduced to Southland, but in the past 12 years he has been working with them, their natures have changed.

"It's about getting people exposed to them and getting them into the shed. It's not a terrible place, and bad things don't happen. The deer are actually pretty quiet."

Canton and Griffiths have worked on changing their team to working as one group.

"The key to the deer operation, for us, was getting things done on time and done well and understanding what we needed people doing," Canton says.

Griffiths says a lot of people don't understand the importance of getting things done on time because there is a small window of opportunity to grow deer well. It starts when fawns are on mum and goes through until weaning in April.

"You can achieve 600 grams a day, which we have in a few mobs this year," he says.

"If they're not ready to go into the chilled market, if they're not ready by the end of April you're shot because you're not going to do it in winter and you're not going to do it in spring."

They have found if the deer operation runs smoothly then that can make a massive difference with the rest of the farm. Canton says the effects of screwing up with the deer can carry on for a long time. They are one animal which will "crucify you" if you've messed up, he says.

That carries on to the rest of the farm, with feed from the deer section of the farm needed for finishing lambs.

The cyclic nature of farming is important to the operation at Mararoa.

Post-weaning Griffiths had already started on a set-stocking map eight months in advance to ensure they knew where the operation will be heading in the coming season.

"That is critical to us to make sure we can feed them post-calving time. That is feed that for a long time I looked at and thought we're probably better putting that into a ewe and a lamb," Canton says.

That was the easy way because they understood sheep so much easier than deer, and believed they did so much better, he says.

Their number one goal is ensuring that they get their hinds in calf, with a high calving percentage. They consistently have a scanning rate of 95-96 per cent, which they admit isn't very high, but Canton says they are working on lifting it through feeding.

The hinds also need to be in good order to get through the winter.

"We're starting to understand what we can achieve."

By the start of June this year their weights were six kilograms heavier than last year, with the hybrids sitting at about 84kg.

Through the winter they aim to put on 80 to 100 grams, even up to 120 grams, which over 70 to 90 days adds up to 9kg. The deer start being killed at the beginning of September and 1600 deer will go off the farm by the end of October, about 80 per cent of Mararoa's deer kill.

They average about 50kg carcass weight.

One aspect they are looking into is how to get their weights up through the processing season. The first deer to be processed are the heaviest, with some averaging 75kg of carcass weight. But Canton says they are killing deer before they reach their full potential of growth.

"The deer have got to work for us to make the whole farm work."

While some of the hinds are sent to a wapiti bull, all commercial hinds are sent to red stags.

Griffiths says they don't want wapiti in their herd, so any hybrid influence in the hinds is immediately stamped out.

By the start of November, the ewes and lambs or dry hoggets can go into the deer unit, giving the station good land to grow lambs.

The station runs 25,800 sheep split into 10,300 mixed aged ewes, 5200 two-tooths, 5400 hoggets and 190 rams.

Lambs are weaned at 106 days average, with an average of 35kg lambs.

"We know that those lambs can grow close to 300 grams a day if we open them up and we feed them well."

About 8500 lambs went off Mararoa for processing off their ewes, which is about 60 per cent of the station's lambs.

But there are some issues still facing the station. Canton says they do have trouble growing ewe lambs, with some of their ewe lambs still under 40kg by the start of May.

The final element of the farm system is the cattle. The station runs angus cattle split into 835 mixed aged cows, 190 rising two-year old heifers, 250 yearling heifers, and 30 yearling steers.

"For cows our main goal is to have a calf, have a live calf and get her back in calf and then grow a calf to at least 220-plus kilograms a year."

Canton says they generally don't do anything fancy with the calves, but last year with good prices, they stored more lambs and put more work into the calves.

Excess cattle are sent to Lynmore Station, another Landcorp-owned farm.

In the end, the farm's production has lifted with a simple fix: "we've lifted the bottom line by feeding them better."

For Canton, the biggest challenge is being consistent. In the last 17 years Mararoa has had some massive highs but also had some pretty big lows.

"Farming is not about one year, it's about a lot of years. We're just doing some basic stuff quite well."

 - Stuff

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