24 March 2020
Opportunities exist for farming deer in Wales but one livestock farmer contemplating venison production says high set up costs and plateauing demand must not be overlooked.
Keith Williams has been investigating the pros and cons of introducing deer as a third enterprise on his sheep and beef farm.
He farms 800 ewes and 20 suckler cows at Hendy, a 400-acre upland farm at Hundred House near Llandrindod Wells.
Keith was persuaded to consider deer farming by his youngest daughter. “With the current political situation and uncertainty about the future, we felt it would be good to reduce our exposure to the sheep market,’’ he says.
Deer farming, he says, could fit well around the busier times of beef and sheep farming.
Keith was awarded funding from the Farming Connect Management Exchange Programme to visit existing deer farms, abattoirs and buyers in Scotland and in other parts of the UK.
During his research, he discovered that options for marketing venison are currently quite limited.
Waitrose is the dominant buyer, paying in the region of £5/kg of carcass weight.
Producers also sell direct to their customers or through farmers markets.
While direct sales offer higher prices the added cost of processing the meat, delivery or attendance at farmers’ markets need to be factored in.
Set-up costs are high in deer farming because specialist fencing and handling equipment is needed.
At £10/metre, Keith discovered that the biggest cost in setting up a deer farm is fencing.
Investment in stock ranges from £450-£500 for a breeding hind bought at 18-24 months to be bred for the first time.
A hind will live for between 14-16 years, potentially producing 12-14 calves.
“A two-year-old stag could cost from £1,800 to £3,000, depending on genetics, health status and antlers and has a working life of approximately 10 years,’’ says Keith.
There are some major benefits for farming deer, including low labour requirements, minimum handling and few birthing problems.
And, as deer are only a few generations removed from the wild, they experience very few health issues due to natural selection.
Also, the market for venison has been growing 10% year on year thanks to customers choosing it as a leaner option to other meats.
But, in addition to the high initial outlay, there are other downsides to deer farming.
“The current market, although rising at 10% annually, does seem to have plateaued with a waiting list to supply the major customer,’’ says Keith.
“If a new customer was to come in to the market it would have a huge effect.’’
Supply could also increase due to national deer numbers leveling and more female calves coming into the meat supply chain.
Another consideration is veterinary support - if health issues occur there are few vets with extensive knowledge of deer.
Since his study, Keith is still considering his options.
“As one deer farmer told me, returns are similar to a good year on sheep, therefore, considerable thought should be given before investing on borrowed money,’’ he says.