Deer aren’t usually the animals that come to mind when we think about farms and farming. Yet agriculture in the United States and around the world extends beyond the usual cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep. Deer farming has become more prevalent, and that’s what we’re going to learn about here.
Deer are naturally skittish, and farmers had to find ways of yarding and handling them to minimise stress. Deer like to run in circles and the best access from paddocks to the yards is through a curved raceway leading to the entrance. The animals feel more comfortable if they can avoid eye contact with humans when they enter yards. The raceway should lead into a large yard with high, solid walls, which leads to yards that hold 15–20 deer.
Most deer graze on ryegrass and clover pasture, but some specialist pastures such as chicory are also used. Supplementary feeds in winter may include silage, hay, grain or forage crops. No hormones or growth stimulants are used in farming deer.
Deer mate in autumn. If calves are weaned before mating, at three to four months old, there are only a few weeks for hinds to recover some of the body weight lost during lactation before they mate again.
Calves are born from mid-November until Christmas, and growth depends mainly on the hind’s milk production. The first half of lactation is at a time when pasture quality is high, and calf growth rates reflect this. Through January and February feed conditions vary between seasons and districts. Young deer potentially grow more in spring and summer, and less in winter. They can be weaned before the rut, at three to four months of age, or in early winter after the rut.
Velvet antler production
Male deer grow antlers each year. Deer antler growth in temperate regions is seasonal, with the hard antlers naturally cast off in late winter. A mature stag grows a head of antler through the stages of brow (first), bez (second) and trez (third) tynes to a royal top. The antler takes about 90 days to grow and harden.
Early antler growth (velvet antler) is soft, cartilaginous tissue, well supplied with blood vessels and nerves, which can grow more than 2 centimetres a day. After about 60 days, the antler begins to calcify from the base upwards. The velvet is harvested between the 45th and 60th days, under anaesthetic by a veterinarian or a trained. Their technique and welfare and care of animals are assessed annually.
Velvet antler is frozen after harvesting, then dried by controlling temperature and humidity over an extended period.
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