Red deer farmers hunt for market niche

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published July 1, 1996  | July 1996 issue

The dairy farm is still ubiquitous across Wisconsin's countryside, but recent changes in the dairy industry have helped usher in a new agricultural industry—red deer farming.

Close to 3,000 red deer are grazing behind 90-inch fences on 29 Wisconsin farms, making red deer "the fastest growing meat processing business in Wisconsin," says Tony Rosecky, executive director, Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmers Association.

As farmers are getting out of the dairy business, at the rate of three per day in Wisconsin, deer farming offers several advantages as an agricultural alternative. The deer can feed all summer off grass, and the land can support larger herds. Generally, three red deer can be raised on the pasture required for one beef cow, or one acre can support three to five deer.

Also, today's health-conscious environment is conducive to marketing red deer, as the venison is healthy—lower in fat and calories than beef—and milder tasting than wild game deer, according to Rosecky.

The largest red deer farm in North America, Boyer Creek Ranch, is located in Barronett, about 75 miles northwest of Eau Claire. After reading about the large quantities of venison imported to the United States from New Zealand—1,000 tons in 1995—Boyer Creek owner and operator Norb Berg decided that deer farming was worth pursuing. So Berg bought a defunct dairy farm and over the years has built a herd of 500 to 1,000 deer. Berg's ranch was the first to import red deer from New Zealand.

Berg, a retired business executive, says deer farming is a good alternative for the older farmer, since it is not as labor intensive as dairy farming.

Deer farmers can expect to get about $3 per pound for the venison; deer are also sold for breeding stock. Boyer Creek Ranch has sold deer to farms across the Midwest, Berg says. In addition to raising deer for venison and breeding, the antlers are sold for approximately $50 per pound for use in various Oriental medicines.

Currently, there is no established marketing system for domestically produced venison; rather, farmers have formed smaller cooperatives. One such is Venison America, established by Boyer Creek Ranch and seven other deer farmers from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to tap the potential domestic market for venison.

Through Venison America the farmers sell venison snack sticks, jerky and bratwurst to convenience stores, while the prime cuts of meat are marketed to "white tablecloth restaurants" in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Texas.

Diane Wells