Glen Whyte often jokes that when it comes to farming deer there’s a right way of doing things and there’s a ‘Whyte-way’ of doing things. He’s not wrong. Utilising three generations of deer farming knowledge, Glen runs a slick finishing unit on 400 hectares near Alford Forest, Canterbury, producing top quality venison for the domestic and international market.
Glen undoubtedly inherited his love for deer from his father, Donald Whyte. For more than 40 years, Donald has been farming at Mt Possession in the Ashburton Gorge, after following his father, John, south from farming on the East Coast and Hawke’s Bay.
Having hunted deer as a child, Donald later got involved in live capture. Together, he and his father, started one of the earliest deer farms made up of deer caught in the wild in the North Island.
Donald worked as an employee at Mt Possession initially, before he and his wife, Leigh, bought 940-hectares next door, Edendale, in 1986. With help from his father, he set about transforming Edendale from a high country sheep farm to a highly productive deer unit, moving his deer off Mt Possession. John ran his deer at Mt Possession for a time, until he became ill, and Donald took over the management of both properties. By that stage, Mt Possession had been reduced to 24,000 hectares. The additional sale of the Hakatere Run in the early 2000s allowed Donald to buy a down-country property at Alford Forest, giving them more flexibility due to its reliable rainfall.
Today, Ryan Hussey manages the day-to-day sheep and cattle operations on Mt Possession, while Donald still maintains an interest in the deer. Glen has recently moved back to Mt Possession to help out. Jarrod Beatie, ably assisted by Matthew Collins, manages the finishing block, Edenview, at Alford Forest. Glen’s sister, Angela, is also involved in the industry. She and her husband, Regan Blair, run their own deer operation at Parkhurst, near Geraldine. While the three businesses are all separate entities, they all fall under the larger Whyte Farming Limited umbrella.
Each year, Glen purchases 1100 hybrid weaner Elk/red deer cross from Mt Possession to finish at Edenview. Located in the shadows of Mt Alford, near Alford Forest, Edenview sits at 400 metres above sea level. Blessed with rain from all directions, its annual rainfall tops 1400mm, and it also escapes the Norwest wind.
The 400-hectare property itself comprises of two halves, with 200-hectares re-fenced and set up as a specialist deer unit with lanes and a deer shed. A further 200 hectares were added later and have since been partly deer fenced.
Mt Possession essentially runs a closed deer unit, breeding specifically with the chill trade in mind. It selects their top growth rate stags from their finishing deer, using the weights from weaning until the start of the chill trade. They sort through these, use the top 20 as spikers and again at two years old, before selling the best in an on-farm Elk and Wapiti terminal sire sale. “We do buy in occasional genetics, but mainly we don’t need to,” says Glen.
The hinds give birth on the hills of Mt Possession each December. The fawns are weaned in March/April and sent down to Edenview. “They come down in March with a live weight in the mid 60kgs. We take them through to the end of September, early October, to 140kg live weight, or about 80kg on the hook,” explains Glen.
“When they come down off the hill, they all run as a group initially. Deer are not domesticated like sheep or cattle. Elk have only been farmed for 30 to 40 years, so they are still very much wild animals. We try to let them display their natural behaviour as possible.”
Alongside the deer, Glen also puts 850 composite ewes to Southdown/Poll Dorset rams each year with the resulting lambs (usually) going before Christmas. He also rears 400 R2 Angus Angus/Hereford cross steers through to 630-650kg live-weight for ANZCO purchased from Mt Possession. A further 450 calves will also arrive this month (June). They also grow about 20 hectares of barley annually for their own use, selling any excess.
The sheep and cattle are an integral part of the finishing operation, helping with parasite management as young deer are notoriously susceptible to parasites. Glen works on a 28-day grazing rotation for the weaners.
“Deer are browsers more than grazers, eating and bit of this and a bit of that. To keep the quality up, they get to pick the eyes out of the pasture, then we bring in a mob of cattle or sheep behind them to tidy it up and keep the residuals up. As deer and cattle have the same parasites, the sheep help to clean the paddocks of these,” explains Glen.
Years of experience have also taught Glen to stick with mixed pastures, cross drilling paddocks in two directions with a mix of long rotation and short rotation regresses, red and white clover, and chicory. They also put in 70-hectares of winter feed crops, usually a range of kale, swedes, and fodder beet.
“We will pick the beat initially and feed it to the weaners on the grass, supplementing it with baleage so they have that ability to choose what they want to eat, and are not being forced to eat just one thing.”
With deer, it’s the little things that make all the difference, he says. “As an industry, we have had to be innovative all the way through. You must stay one step ahead as it’s hard to make up ground. It is all about prevention rather than cure. As a rule, to be able to finish them and to get the potential out of them, you have to be on your game. You need an eye for detail to see what’s going on and be on the case seven days a week.”
For both Glen and Jarrod, it’s not about the paycheck though. “We are getting out of bed in the morning because we like to go out and farm. There is nothing better than putting quality animals on the truck and having people really appreciate what we are producing at the end of the day. We have been with them the whole way through. We know the effort that has gone into getting them there. Quality on the farm translates to quality on the plate,” says Jarrod.
Glen understands first-hand that their finishing business is just one part of the chain from pasture to plate. In 2019, he was fortunate to go to the United States with Mountain River Venison to help promote New Zealand farm-raised venison, discussing the environment, sustainability, and welfare with Michelin star chefs from New York to Denver.
“It was great to be able to share our story. They get to see where the venison comes from. The fawns that come down here are born on the hill, with the wild ones living across the fence. It is as close to wild as they can be. We are putting in all this effort here and to be able to see it used in some of the top restaurants was a huge privilege.”
Jointly, Whyte Farming are one of the largest suppliers to Mountain River Venison, supplying more than 2000 deer annually. Founded by Doug Hood in 1994 aiming to make the industry more integrated from farm to market, Mountain River Venison has worked tirelessly throughout industry fluctuations over the past 28 years to connect deer farming with chefs’ tables both here and abroad. It now has more than 100 suppliers nationwide, processing on average 30,000 deer a year.
The Whyte’s have a long history with Mountain River Venison. It’s a successful relationship based on a shared passion for the industry. “We have stuck with them because of the relationships and the effort they put into it. We are not into commodity trading. We want to see our venison go into niche markets,” says Glen.
Though Covid-19 has had a big impact on venison prices over the past two years, the foodservice market around the world has largely recovered, says John Sadler, Mountain River Venison Marketing Manager. While it’s hard to predict what the future will be with Covid still around and a new set of challenges with rising freight costs and inflation, the industry is looking positive.
Covid hadn’t been all negative though, says Glen. Local uptake of farm-raised venison is on the rise, with businesses such as Christchurch-based Merchant of Venison, which sells predominantly venison processed through Mountain River Venison, reporting an increase in sales as Kiwis get a taste for the healthier red meat option and its sustainable farming story. It is fast becoming the protein of choice for health-conscious consumers.
Merchant of Venison started out targeting the foodservice and hospitality trade more than 25 years ago, but in recent years owner James Petrie has been trying to push it to the masses, getting it into supermarkets and launching his own sales website. He’s also been educating chefs about its endless possibilities, constantly looking for new ways to use venison.
“My aim is to get people thinking of farmed venison as a weekly protein. It’s very different to wild venison. It’s like talking about rugby union and rugby league. New Zealand is the only country with a farmed venison industry, it is totally unique. It’s about changing people’s perception on how it can be used.”
James is in awe over just how far the industry has come in such a short time. ‘“It is a real credit to those farmers that produce the product. I feel very honoured to be able to sell it. It has been a slow burn but it’s definitely on the rise.”
Like James, Glen hopes more and more people will soon realise what they have been missing out on. “It has taken time but it’s starting to take off. We have a great product here. New Zealanders should be taking advantage of it,” he says.
Branching into bison
As a sideline to their deer and beef finishing enterprise, Glen is breeding a herd of bison with the goal of one-day producing enough for meat production. Bison is currently the fastest-growing meat market in the United States. For health-conscious consumers, it is red meat providing more protein but significantly fewer calories and less fat than beef. It is also seen as a more natural and sustainable food source and is highly popular with paleo diet followers.
Glen first had the opportunity to work with bison on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the early 2000s. “I just loved them,” he says.
A native of North America, about 150 years ago 30 million bison roamed the Great Plains, spanning from Canada to Mexico, but by the turn of the 20th century, they neared extinction due to rampant hunting. A small herd of 24 wild bison was found in the Yellowstone National Park, and together with those held on private ranches, numbers were slowly built back up to well over 1 million today.
There are two subspecies of bison in North America – Wood and Plains, with some differences between the two. Bison are also incorrectly referred to as buffalo but are not to be confused with water buffalo, indigenous to South Asia, and Cape buffalo, native to Africa.
Bison stand at some five to six feet and tip the scales at around 1000kg. They might be big, but they are quick. They can run up to 60km per hour. Plus, they are extremely agile for their size, able to pivot on a sixpence and clamber over high fences if they want to. Unlike sheep and cattle, they don’t follow each other or go in single file, they move as wide as they can. “If there’s 300 in a herd, they’ll run 100-wide and three deep,” explains Glen.
When Glen returned to New Zealand, he had further experience working with bison, but numbers were limited to small herds on lifestyle blocks or in zoos. Just when bison arrived in New Zealand is up for debate. There are some rumours that eight were gifted to New Zealand by Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s about the same time as the moose, but that’s never been confirmed, says Glen. Records show Auckland Zoo received its first bison in 1924 from Elk Island National Park in Canada; just two cows, after the bull sent died in transit. Two years later, a bull and cow arrived. Later that year, a bull and cow were also sent to Wellington Zoo. Small shipments of bison continued until the 1950s. Two bulls were later imported from Australia in 1980. But essentially all those in New Zealand descend from those original imports.
Glen purchased his first bison in 2010 after being in the right place at the right time, starting his NZ Bison business. He started with two bulls and three cows and embarked on building up his herd from there, buying anything he could get his hands on. His herd now tops 120. It’s largely been through line-breeding though, as bringing in any new genetics is virtually impossible.
“It’s basically a no-go,” says Glen. It is not that artificial insemination isn’t possible (research has had mixed results), there are good logistical reasons to let bison do it naturally; they’re big, they can be aggressive and because they are not technically domesticated, they don’t usually do well with confinement and human contact.
Farming bison comes with a host of challenges though, not least finding someone that can kill and process the meat, says Glen. “As long as you handle them right, they are fine. They are a lot like deer in that respect. They have the same kind of personality. If you’re going to get it wrong, you will get it really wrong. They are herd animals, and you can’t have one by themselves. There is no way you could leave them in the yards. People are killed by bison in North America every year.”
They are also highly susceptible to Malignant catarrhal fever (MCF), an infectious viral disease caused by a group of herpes viruses, carried by sheep and goats. Although cattle are resistant to MCF, it is usually fatal in bison and deer.
But despite the barriers, Glen is determined to make a go of it. “We have finally got to a point where we have the numbers, they are going to have to start earning their keep. Until now, they’ve been nothing more than a very expensive hobby.”
He has already had interest from restaurants and chefs keen to get Kiwi bison on the menu. Glen’s next step is to invest in a better set of yards to handle them. In the future, he hopes to supply a niche market with a couple of beasts a fortnight. “It’s very much a work in progress.”
Words Annie Studholme, images Annie Studholme & supplied