Deer (Venison) Ranching Profile

By Dan Burden, Program Coordinator, AgMRC, Iowa State University, djburden@iastate.edu.

Updated June 2012. 


The United States' share in the global market place continues to grow as more venison availability is stimulating more aggressive marketing. Some traditional crop and livestock producers are turning to deer farming as an excellent way to start a new enterprise that diversifies their existing operation in a lower-input and more environmentally sound manner. Deer farming also is an expandable enterprise that can be transitioned into with moderate land and capital investments, and species that fit individual interests and business aims.

Additionally, many deer farm businesses combine some sort of farming operation and a tourism component that may incorporate leisure activities or educational activities for school groups and other interested parties. This may include an educational outreach program for family, church or school groups; an associated trout pond for fishing or an aquaculture fish production system; bed and breakfast lodging; and in some cases, contract hunting of deer (cervids) or game birds in a preserve setting. As with all other agritourism operations, the emphasis is on a quality experience in a clean, well-organized environment. Venison, or deer meat, is the primary product produced by most deer farmer/ranchers. In the United States, the venison market currently is in a developmental stage.

The main market is "white-table-cloth restaurants" and processed sausage. Venison also is sold at supermarkets as well as at individual farm outlets. There are several large venison companies in the United States as well as numerous smaller companies.

Deer farming in the United States started in the early 1970s, when people began to look for alternative land uses. Today, it is a viable alternative livestock business. The farmed breeds exhibit strong herding instincts, are efficient converters of forage and adapt well to the farm environment. Also, the species used in farmed venison tend to be disease resistant and handle close association well. Some industry advocates consider deer as a livestock alternative that has the potential to boost a sagging agricultural economy without the use of subsidies or government incentives.

Deer farming or ranching operations tend to involve all or a few product areas. Farmers usually concentrate on a primary cost-effective production area and consider others a source of value-added co-products. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations divides deer farming products into two categories: those that are taken from live deer, for example, velvet, musk and milk; and those removed from the deer after slaughter, for example, venison, skins, tails, pizzles, sinews, glands, tusks, hearts, livers, tongues and kidneys. Many of these items (milk, gland, tongue) are far more important to European and Asian consumers than they are to the North American market.

A producer may have an operation that includes a breeding component, venison finishing and on-site velvet or meat processing; and may involve trophy hunting or agritourism activities. For the purposes of this article, preserve hunting will be considered only as part of a selective breeding program and ancillary to a deer farming operation. For individuals interested in preserve hunting, please consult the case study area of the AgMRC Game Bird page or the Hunting Lease page.

Most operations that emphasize a breeding function strive to develop exceptional genetic lines for meat, velvet production or sporting animals, and then sell the resulting stock to other farmer/ranchers or to hunting preserves. Usually in these operations, one-year-old hinds (does, cows) that are not selected for replacement breeding stock are finished for venison or sold at live sales. Other producers run operations with no breeding or herd development component. These are dedicated venison finishing operations. These operations purchase weaned stock and then sell finished stock for slaughter into the chilled venison trade, a market that peaks from October through January.

Velvet production involves selected stags from purchased or bred stock and center on the seasonal harvest of the soft velvet-stage immature antler. These animals are maintained as a velvet production herd. Usually in these operations, stags judged as poor potential producers and not selected for the velvet herd are culled, then finished following a velvet harvest. These animals usually are processed for meat sale; however, the timing of this cull and finish does not coincide with the chilled venison trade, so the animals may end up in another market, perhaps developed out of necessity by the producer, for example as value-added products (sausage, jerky) or smoke-cured special cuts for sale at farmers’ markets or through specialty food outlets.

The velvet antler, a traditional Asian medicinal and nutritional supplement, is increasingly viewed in North America as a nutraceutical. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture has noted that ever-increasing consumer demand for all types of health products and nutritional supplements are a primary driving force behind increased demand for velvet. This in turn has promoted increased, broader venison marketing efforts and greater consumer acceptance.

Many deer farming/ranching operations include related alternative livestock or agritourism components. Most deer farms also include, or started as, elk farms. The deer farm, especially if it is a breeding-oriented operation, may include a multi-species mix of some combination of elk, red, whitetail and fallow dear and may include reindeer (actually a long-domesticated dwarf caribou), sika, rusa or other exotic species. For example, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), Texas had the most farms in the United States, with 1,658 farms producing 126,133 deer in 2007.

Breeding operations geared to providing stock for hunting preserves tend to focus on whitetail deer and some include mule deer. Although the non-native species may be the best for meat production, the native species fetch some of the highest prices for stock-on-the-hoof and breeding material. Whitetail deer can be raised for hunting game genetic development and scent collection or for direct release as trophy stock. Producing whitetail deer or mule deer as breeding or preserve stock usually involves the reproductive technology, record-keeping and herd management systems that most traditional livestock farmers are familiar with and already employ.

The North American Deer Farming Association (NADeFA®) is the primary industry group that represents deer farmers and ranchers. NADeFA®'s demographics are a reflection of the industry and its agricultural value. The organization states that they represent the owners of over 75,000 cervid livestock, and NADeFA® members represent more than $111 million in livestock value. The organization’s ownership data shows the following species mix: axis, 9.2 percent; fallow, 23.7 percent; red stag (red deer), 30.4 percent; sika, 21.1 percent; whitetail, 26.9 percent; wapiti (elk), 4.6 percent and other species, 3 percent.

Business Development

Since deer naturally consume less fodder than cattle and feed in a manner that is less damaging to pastures, deer farming can be up to three times as profitable as traditional livestock production. Good pasture and quality hay or other supplemental feeds are important for successful deer farming. Corn and commercial deer pellets are often added to hay to provide energy in winter and to add weight to pre-butcher stags. Deer pellets can be used to ensure the animals are getting the proper nutritional elements required for good health and fitness. Deer have rapid maturation rates and can reproduce for up to 20 years. Feeding pellets or corn on a regular basis establishes a routine where the owner interacts with the animals. This may be quite important if the operation is centered around producing breeding stock or antler velvet tissue rather than meat production.

Several sources also demonstrate that deer farming/ranching can produce a quality herd on very little acreage, usually 20 to 60 acres of land. The acreage should be capable of producing good pasture that incorporates a handling area and an animal control area known as a “squeeze” chute or pen. In most states, the enclosure must be constructed with at least an 8-foot-high fence that meets all regulatory criteria. This usually constitutes a costly “up-front” investment in the business.

A management plan, basic knowledge of the business, and a disease prevention and monitoring program are essential. Owners of farm-raised deer may have to register with their state Department of Agriculture. Many states have strict regulations for raising deer and elk, and these are overseen by their respective Departments of Agriculture or Natural Resources, or perhaps a combination of the two if the operation involves sport hunting or native game species.

Farm-raised deer are a livestock operation, and this means that most, if not all, of the rules and regulations pertaining to livestock apply to deer or elk, including rules pertaining to handling, slaughter, product labeling and transportation. Usually, complete livestock origin-to-slaughter livestock records must be kept and made available for inspection when requested by the relevant authorities. Modeled after the federal UM&R on Tuberculosis (TB) in Cervidae, several states have cervid-tuberculosis-free certification programs. Many producers use their USDA inspections, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), TB and Brucellosis monitoring accreditations as positive, proactive marketing tools for promoting their products.

State agencies or local municipalities may regulate fencing requirements, which are outlined in guidelines and statutes, many of which are available on the Internet. The professional organizations also have pertinent information and links to relevant information on their Web sites. For example, in one state, regulations state that perimeter fencing must be at least 7 feet 10 inches high of woven, high-tensile wire, with the top 6 inches consisting of a single strand of smooth, high-tensile wire. If the fence is made with wood posts, the posts must be at least 12 feet long. Other states require woven wire for the entire enclosure. Publications with this type of information are essential when planning and estimating the cost of estimating the cost of an operation and for creating a business plan.

Many operations focus on more than one deer species, and many incorporate the North American elk and exotic species (sambar stag, rusa, Pere David), along with fallow or red (stag) deer central to a meat production operation. A mix of species also may be important to those operations that market the velvet antler and breeding stock, as well as venison.

Most operations pay particular attention to market and industry trends and issues, and have their farm operations designed with the aid of industry- and production-savvy consultants. Consultants or representatives of state trade associations can offer invaluable advice on the design of fencing and handling facilities, procurement and maintenance of quality breeding stock, access to distribution outlets, marketing plans and, if needed, advice on the design and management of on-site slaughter facilities. Most industry insiders suggest that anyone interested in this type of business attend state industry group meetings on a regular basis and visit several different farms to determine what type of operation is best suited to their particular interest.

State and national industry associations offer a wealth of information. Foremost is the North American Deer Farming Association. The group was founded in the United States in 1983 by Baron Josef von Kerckerinck. The group fosters connections and cooperation among people who raise deer for commercial purposes and is dedicated to the promotion of deer farming and ranching as an agricultural pursuit. It serves its members through educational programs, publications and by providing leadership in establishing and maintaining quality standards. It is the largest deer farming organization in the United States and Canada, and provides advisory and referral services.

Market and Market Development

Deer farming in the United States got a relatively late and slow start. Market and production data are difficult to obtain. The North American industry is behind those of Europe and Asia. Most meat production operations mainly consist of red and fallow deer. Almost 25,000 tons of red deer are produced annually on U.S. and Canadian farms. In 1997 Canada reported nearly 13,000 head of red deer and more than 28,000 head of fallow deer, and the United States imported nearly 1,000 tons of venison from New Zealand, which made up nearly 85 percent of the market. Today, commercial deer farming generates more than $100 million in annual income for major deer-producing countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain and Germany.

U.S. deer production is growing steadily due to increas­ing demand for deer products, minimal acreage require­ments for production and adaptability of deer to marginal pastures. The United States produces 20 percent of the venison need­ed to supply the domestic market, and this market has grown 25 to 30 percent annually. More than 269,000 red, fallow, axis, sika, elk and white-tailed deer are raised commercially on game preserves, farms and ranches. The total number of deer farms in the United States has increased since 2002, but the number of deer produced has decreased about 15,000 deer between 2002 and 2007. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), the top producing states are Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

In a report published in 2002 titled The Alternative Livestock Species in the State of Minnesota, a study commissioned by the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, the impact of international imports and limited domestic production within the United States was examined, particularly with respect to the distribution chain in Minnesota. This report cited New Zealand data that placed the United States fifth in fresh venison imports from New Zealand; with imports totalling 2.3 million pounds per year of Cervenna, a cross between North American elk and European red deer and considered the greatest competition for United States domestic elk and deer producers.

In the Minnesota study, two large Minnesota elk and deer producers and five food-service companies specializing in game products were interviewed. The food-service companies carried elk and venison products from the United States and New Zealand. They strongly preferred the New Zealand imports because of greater product consistency and lower prices. The New Zealand venison industry is currently the largest, most organized in the world.

At the time, these companies sold over 17,000 pounds of elk per month. This amount of boneless elk meat would be the equivalent of 85 elk. Four of the companies interviewed sell over 9,000 pounds of venison from both New Zealand and the United States and domestically grown red deer per month, or the equivalent of 115 deer per month. These reported volumes of sales would equal $1.25 million in annual wholesale value. All the elk and deer marketers were interested in additional suppliers. One Minnesota producer and marketer claimed that they could not meet the current demand. Most of the marketers required a sales relationship with their suppliers. At these rates, the report cited that in 2002, 2.3 million pounds of imported venison and elk was a viable possible target for producers of domestic elk and deer to displace. This would require processing a combination of 11,500 head of elk or 29,500 head of deer.

These products may be in the form of venison or more exotic high-value co-products. All deer possess facial glands situated in front of the eye that discharge a strong-smelling secretion used in mate selection. The facial gland musk, tarsal gland secretions and urine (from bucks or does) can be of very high value for hunting product scent-attractants or for human perfume products. In far northern Europe and Russia, reindeer are milked during the late summer and autumn. This milk is rich in protein, fat and vitamins, and in 2005 received national press attention in the United States as a beverage becoming a trendy choice for some affluent North American consumers.

The males of the various deer species have antlers with the exception of the musk deer. Only in reindeer do females have antlers. Antlers consist of true bone and are produced annually from two outgrowths from the frontal bone of the skull, known as pedicles. In most species, new antlers begin to grow as soon as the old ones are discarded. In young males, first-year antlers are always small and simple and usually consist of two button protrusions or single spikes. Second to third year and older bucks, stags or bulls can have massive yearly antler growth.

The antlers in the soft-tissue velvet stage are harvested, dried and marketed as medicinal products. They are in great demand in Asia, particularly Korea and Hong Kong. The Wisconsin Deer and Elk Farmers Association, for example, has helped to organize a cooperative purchasing and marketing pool for velvet antlers, following a model established by elk velvet producers in other states. Antler material in a hard stage can be sold into the craft market, where they can be used for decorative accents, light fixtures and similar products.

Three-quarters of the highest-priced venison cuts in the commercial trade come from the hind legs. The advantage of deer meat over other livestock meats is its low carcass fat. The highest-quality carcasses having the least fat content are produced from young red deer stags (bucks, bulls), usually young surplus animals, by slaughtering them at 15 to 16 months of age and from hinds at 18 months of age. Yearling red stag carcasses in New Zealand, a major international producer, weigh about 60 kg and have a 5 percent to 8 percent fat content (compared to sheep 25 percent and cattle 40 percent). Stag usually are taken off grass and out of the feedlots at 12, 18 and 27 months, and fully dress-out at 58 percent to 60 percent by carcass weight. The best cuts obtained from a lean, young red deer carcass are about 33 percent of its empty body weight; these are predominantly hind-quarter cuts. There is a considerable and increasing demand for farmed venison, particularly in Germany, Belgium, Spain and other parts of Europe. Some U.S. farms currently export all of their production to German distributors.

Most consumers who have a problem with the taste of venison usually only have been exposed to wild-shot male game animals harvested at or following the “rut” peak of reproductive activity. This is the height of their combative reproductive cycle. These animals may be several years of age, have elevated hormone content (lactic acid, testosterone, adrenalin) and may be in poor physical condition. This contributes to the pronounced “wild” taste of these animals. Stress has a detrimental effect on carcass quality and is minimized in commercial herds. Some wild herds are subsisting on tree and sage brush browse by the hunting season, and this is expressed in the taste and quality of the harvested meat. Additionally, the meat may not have been properly cooled (to/below 40 degrees F), handled, stored or processed by the hunting party. For these reasons, as well as species-specific “varietal” characteristics, farmed venison is a very different meat product and produces a uniquely different culinary experience.

Farmed/ranched venison cuts are quite similar to beef cuts. Mild and tender, domestic gourmet venison has less cholesterol than chicken, is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork and lamb. Gourmet chefs have prized this lean meat for centuries, and fallow deer venison is a European gourmet holiday favorite.

Of all farmed venison species, axis deer meat was judged best-tasting wild game meat by the Exotic Wildlife Association. Axis contains less than 1 percent fat and at this content level can be marketed as fat free. Red deer and fallow deer have 5 percent to 7 percent fat content (Axis deer paper compiled by Comanche Spring Ranch, Eden, Texas).

With respect to meat products, the NADeFA® suggest that producers buy a variety of cuts from an established breed/processor to get a first-hand idea what the most marketable cuts and products look like to the retailer or consumer and how they are packaged. They then suggest that the producer find a state or federal meat processing plant in the area that can process farm-raised deer and work with the processor on joint marketing strategies. Meat products may include ground venison, various cuts of steak, roasts, other specialty cuts and stew meat. These products may include venison Denver leg cuts, back loins, boneless loin filets, whole tenderloins, 10-rib racks, porterhouse steaks, medallions from non-loin muscle groups, boneless shoulder roasts, mince meat, pre-prepared ground-meat burger or sausage patties, hard sausage, snack stick and jerky products.

Producers and retailers can exploit the image of the product as a healthy alternative to other livestock meats, fish and poultry. Venison as a meat choice is a healthy way to stay below the American Heart Association's guidelines for fat, cholesterol and calories. Venison often is marketed as “pastured venison,” “the original red meat” and “gourmet venison” to appeal to health-conscious and upscale consumers. Some producers market special products, like shrink-wrapped, marinade-treated steaks or loins, and holiday gift packs by mail order or Internet sale.

When developing a marketing plan producers should consider developing a brand identity. This can be done by farm- or producer-group-specific labeling and may be done in cooperation with the processor. Develop a product list and a price list for the cuts that the processor can provide.

Visit local upscale restaurants, country clubs and resorts; talk to the chefs to see if they would be interested in local farm-raised venison on their menus. Explain the nutritional value, consistency and flavor, year-round availability and other benefits of the product. Perhaps consider samples of product and preparation suggestions. Always be sure to discuss with the chef or food-service manager the organization’s purchasing requirements, shipment regularity and how much lead time they will need if they wish to receive fresh, non-frozen product. The NADeFA®  Cervid Livestock Foundation can provide venison marketing brochures. These informational brochures have a place for a producer/contact stamp and can be included with orders.

A herd inventory and management plan can be used to see how many deer will be available for slaughter and when they can be harvested. Some farmer/ranchers focus on producing and selling live animals or bred does. These operations frequently build the majority of their business around developing outstanding blood lines for trophy-hunting operations. Producers with breeding stock operations usually focus on selling bred does sired by high-scoring-rack bucks and live immature bucks. They also sell deer and elk feed, urine and other products. Some also sell piebald and all-white (non-albino) deer for consumers interested in more exotic stock for personal pets, petting zoos and agritourism operations.

An overview of the species most likely to be encountered in North America includes several species that have been domesticated in some part of the world for hundreds of years, and others that are of primary interest as game animals for hunting preserves.

Red deer (red stag)
More red deer are kept on deer farms than any other species. New Zealand produces the largest number for export into international markets. These deer are also farmed in Russia, Australia, South Korea, People's Republic of China, Austria, United Kingdom and Germany. The red deer are originally from Europe where herds have been managed for centuries primarily for sport hunting on large estates. Red deer have been raised as farm animals in China for over 2,000 years. Within the later half of the last century, this species has seen intensive farming and introduction or reintroduction as a game species in Argentina, New Zealand, Great Britain and most recently, the United States. The antler in the velvet stage is marketed as a medicinal product, in great demand in Asia. Antlers in the hard stage are prized material for many hand-crafted products. Red deer are herd animals closely related to wapiti (North American elk) and are a little over one-half the size of wapiti (North American Elk). Red deer considerably vary in size due to genetic makeup and feed nutrient content. The red deer are capable of cross breeding with wapiti. The stags (males, bulls) average 450 to 500 pounds while the hinds (females, does) average 250 pounds. Breeding takes place in the fall (October to November) and results in usually a single calf born in the spring (May to June). Gestation is 233 days.

Much revered by European royalty and the international hunting community, the bucks have antlers similar to those of wapiti, except that they tend to be less elongated and have a terminal “crown” of tines. The meat is considered a gourmet-quality product. These domesticated red deer have a gentle nature and are easy to care for. As a livestock species, they efficiently convert pasture to protein, producing a high proportion of lean meat to live weight.

Most farms use an eight-foot-high tensile woven wire fence on cedar or treated wood posts spaced twenty feet apart. A handling facility is required for separating and handling animals for TB testing, medicating, vaccinating, worming and velveting (cutting of the antlers). The facility usually is a series of wood-sided pens with a narrow chute at the end. Larger farms may have a mechanical squeeze chute for easier animal handling, perhaps incorporating a scale for taking live-weight data.

Good pasture and quality hay are important requisites for successful deer farming. Corn and commercial deer pellets often are added to feed to provide winter energy or to put weight on stags that are soon to be marketed. Deer pellets can be used to ensure the deer are getting the proper nutritional balance for good health.

Wapiti (North American elk)
The North American equivalent of the European red stag, wapiti are farmed mainly in Russia, Mongolia, South Korea and People's Republic of China, and to a lesser extent, in North America. A subspecies, partly hybridized with red deer, is being farmed in New Zealand. Although larger in size than red deer, wapiti have meat, antler and velvet production as well as behavior similar to their close relatives, the red and Pere David deer.

Pere David deer
Similar to the red deer, Pere David deer are a rare species that originated from subtropical wet areas of China. In China, they have been extinct for nearly a century. However, they are a sedate and easy-to-maintain species. Compared to native wapiti, keepers in western Nebraska stress that Pere David deer actually do better than elk in that environment. Two North American breeders are a primary source for animals. McRoberts Game Farm, Gurley, Nebraska, and Grove Hill Elk and Deer Farm, Hampden, Maine, have this species for sale and offer some support services for beginning farmer/ranchers interested in these animals. Pere David deer have meat, antler and velvet production, and behavior similar to their close relatives, the red deer and wapiti.

Fallow deer
Fallow deer are a semi-domesticated animal and are very efficient grazers that produce a high-yielding carcass. Fallow deer have the ability to adapt to widely varying climates and are a hardy, disease-free and low-maintenance animal. Fallow deer have gained popularity as a livestock alternative due to their low aggressiveness, ease of handling and their natural immunity to many diseases. They have low labor requirements, need little feed compared to other livestock and can be successfully raised on a few acres of land. Fallow deer venison is recognized as an extra lean red meat with excellent taste and texture; it is considered by many traditionally trained chefs to be one of the finest meat products of any animal flesh available for preparation for the gourmet table.

The two subspecies of fallow deer are the European and the Mesopotamian fallow deer. The Mesopotamian fallow deer are approximately one-third larger animal than their European relative. The two subspecies can crossbreed and produce fertile offspring. Popular with trophy hunters, the bucks have distinctive well-developed palmated (flattened, similar to moose horn) antlers that usually have numerous points. The coat color of the fallow deer varies; there are four main color phases. These colors include white, menil (all brown, or brown with white spots), common (ginger, often with white spots) and black. Color has no bearing on the size of the animal or meat quality.

In Europe, this species has been farmed for almost 2,000 years. On a world-wide basis, fallow deer are the most numerous "farmed" breed for meat production, after free-range Scandinavian reindeer, and have been widely introduced throughout several countries due to their adaptability. Many nations on several continents and some American states now have wild sport hunted populations that originated from fallow deer introduced by way of farming/ranching operations.

Fallow deer are grazer/browsers and herd animals. The breeding season is October through November. The does can be productive for 20 years and have a gestation period of 233 days. Birthing difficulties are very rare. The stags are non-aggressive, even in the rut, making fallow deer a very safe species for the farm operator and staff to work around. The animals are very adaptable to varying climate conditions and facilities and need very little shelter; however, windbreak cover is recommended in areas with cold winters for necessary protection from inclement weather. Fallow deer should have a clean water source and should have access to shade.

These animals do well in various pasture combinations and are very adaptable. They are also easy on pastures and do not wallow. Unlike other livestock species, they do not pace fence lines, which causes soil erosion problems within enclosures. They are very cautious and tend to flee ahead of anything or anyone following them. This makes them easy to herd and to move from one enclosure to another. Once herded into a dimly lighted facility, they become very calm and are easily handled.

Reindeer
Along with red deer, on a world-wide basis, reindeer are one of the most commonly farmed deer species. In contrast to red deer, however, reindeer are not confined in their movements by boundary fences but are allowed to free-range in search of grazing fodder with herdsmen. Generally an arctic or subarctic activity, the herdsmen follow the movements of the herd throughout the year, or at least through part of the year. Reindeer are farmed in the Russia, North America (Alaska, Canada), Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Sika
Countries where sika deer are widely farmed include the People's Republic of China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. Small numbers are farmed in New Zealand. They are a popular hunting preserve exotic species in the southern United States.

Rusa deer
Rusa deer are farmed in Mauritius and Australia and are being experimentally farmed in Papua New Guinea. They are a popular hunting preserve exotic species in the southern United States.

Musk deer
Musk deer are intensively farmed in large numbers in People's Republic of China. They are also farmed in Russia and experimentally in the South Korea, Nepal and Bhutan. China is the world's leading producer. Scent products and non-meat products are co-products of importance with this species.

Whitetail and mule deer
These native North American species are popular on hunting preserves. Most breeders specialize in providing the best genetics for robust animals with wild characteristics. In many parts of the United States, whitetail and mule deer are being seen as a free-range alternative or adjunct to cattle-ranching operations in some southwestern states. Here, the harvest is by hunters, but herd and range management and improvement are vital components of a well-managed business.

Most operations that produce animals for breeding or herd improvement stock use lineages from recognized Boone & Crockett (North American trophy scoring system) recognized bloodlines. Many breeders employ artificial insemination to manage genetics from some of the most famous bucks, as is commonplace with other, more traditional livestock operations. Usually, buyers may choose from three-day-old fawns for bottle feeding up to and including mature does and breeder bucks. In some states, breeders can supply artificially inseminated does, as well as older bucks for hunting preserves or for ranchers wishing to supplement their own wild herd stock. Most operations have annual crop of only about 20 fawns or less, but these tend to be high-value animals. Some breeders offer whitetails in color phases that are rare in wild stock. These include brown, white, pibald and albino forms.

These operations usually have regular vaccination and de-worming programs to ensure that these high-value animals are in peak health. Usually, animals are purchased and transferred with veterinary and genetic certifications, and most breeders stand by to provide additional services to meet any other regulatory requirements. Two well-recognized North American genetic testing labs used by deer breeders include DNA Solutions, Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Wildlife Genetics International Inc., Nelson, British Columbia, Canada.

According to a recent study by the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University, the deer industry adds more than $650 million annually into the Texas economy and is a major contributor to the vitality of rural areas. While many traditional revenue sources have shifted away from the small communities, the deer breeding industry is now creating and supporting thousands of new jobs across the state. This was supported by the results of two March 2008 whitetail deer auctions held in north Texas where they earned $1.2 mllion in livestock sales. These were hosted by the Texas Deer Association (TDA) and the Texas Whitetail Directory. The TDA held the Superior Genetics Whitetail Deer Auction, while the Texas Whitetail Directory held the First Annual Premium Whitetail Deer Auction in conjunction with the TDA event. The two-day event showcased some of the industry’s most notable genetic pedigrees among Texas whitetail deer lines. The Superior Genetics auction alone generated more than $831,150, averaged $8,395 per lot and set a new auction record for the month of March. The auctions attracted hundreds of association members that included deer breeders and game and ranch managers from around the state. The TDA is a nonprofit organization solely committed to improving the quality of Texas deer herds through improved habitat practices, modern harvest strategies and use of superior deer to enhance the deer herds. As a part of its public education efforts, the TDA publishes a full-color bimonthly magazine, Tracks, which updates members on current legislative news, deer genetics and game management issues.

Other Considerations

Any specialized livestock operation should have complete records of purchase and sale, genetic testing, weight data, herd health program information and any contractual or service records provided by other suppliers or breeders. With the emergence of some diseases in some North American species of wild and farmed deer, disease monitoring and its associated record keeping is of paramount importance to any deer farming/ranching business.

Deer receive many of the same vaccinations as other ruminants (cattle, sheep). Vaccinations for clostridium and leptospirosis may be recommended by the local veterinarian if needed. Most deer farmers routinely deworm their animals with pour-on drench or injectible dewormers. Preventing deer access to open water such as ponds or streams may greatly reduce problems with worms. Commonly monitored disease and vaccination programs include: leptospirosis, vaccinate yearly; internal parasites (worms), vaccinate twice yearly; clostridia (a common soil-born bacteria, aka black leg tetanus), varies geographically, consult local veterinarian for a recommendation.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) affecting elk and deer in North America. This degenerative neurological illness has affected both farmed and wild cervids, and has strongly impacted the hunting and wildlife industries as well as domestic and international markets for farmed cervids and cervid products. In each state where CWD has been detected in wildlife, most state wildlife agencies have enacted response and/or management plans. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has provided assistance to state officials in diagnosing CWD and in monitoring international and interstate movements of animals to help prevent further spread of the disease.

Currently, many state animal health regulatory agencies have instituted CWD monitoring programs for both deer and farmed elk. All of these agencies are committed to limiting the distribution of the disease in free-ranging deer and elk to the current localized areas, as well as preventing its occurrence in other deer populations.

In 2002, Congress requested that USDA and the Department of Interior develop a plan to assist state wildlife management and agriculture agencies with CWD management. A CWD task force was formed to ensure that federal and state agencies cooperate in the development and implementation of an effective national CWD program. The task force delivered the Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing Chronic Wasting Disease in Wild and Captive Cervids to Congress that same year and then developed an implementation document for the plan. These documents address CWD diagnostics, communication, information dissemination, management, research and surveillance.

APHIS's response to this disease includes surveillance support for both farmed and wild populations and assistance to state agencies for quarantine of affected animals and premises, humane euthanasia and testing affected and exposed animals. In addition APHIS provides indemnity to animal owners for the value of positive and exposed animals euthanized in disease control efforts. A Herd Certification Program was recently developed by APHIS in coordination with several states, the farmed cervid industry groups and the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA). APHIS also has assisted, and continues to assist, states with CWD surveillance and management in wild cervid populations. Finally, APHIS is working with the U.S. Department of Interior, tribes, and states to implement an interagency, national plan to help manage CWD in captive and wild cervids. Detailed information on CWD and APHIS initiatives can be found at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/cwd/.

In June 2012, USDA and APHIS announced an interim final rule to establish a voluntary national chronic wasting disease herd certification program as well as minimum requirements for interstate movement of deer in the United States. The interim final rule amends the 2006 final rule that was never put into place. The rule is available at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/2012/06/cwd_program.shtml/.


Prepared January 2006 and revised June 2012.