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Episode 7: Noble Deer


Noble Deer

Canterbury high country farmer Donald Whyte has loved deer since he was a child.

When he was young he hunted them, then moved into live helicopter capture and is now one of New Zealand's biggest deer farmers.

The industry has been through tough times over the past few years.  Returns for both venison and velvet have fallen so low that many have quit the industry altogether.

But Donald and his wife Leigh, who farm at Edendale Station in mid-Canterbury, have been determined to stick with deer and have found innovative ways to farm and market their product.
 
They farm 4500 deer for venison and velvet as well as supplying stags to game hunting parks. 

Sick of being subject to volatile venison prices, the Whytes take an active role from breeding through to distribution.

Donald has hooked up with specialist venison marketer John Sadler of Mountain River Venison to supply a niche market in the US - restaurants in ski resorts. 

This market provides a price premium and fits in well with Donald's production pattern.  His large wapiti cross deer mature later than red deer and are not quite ready for slaughter in time for the European Christmas market - but a month or so later, they are in prime condition to supply the North American trade.

Starting in mid September, Donald supplies a 100 yearling deer a fortnight to Mountain River, all with a minimum carcase weight of 70 kilos. 

Having a regular supply of animals at consistent weights is important to Mountain River Venison because it enhances their reputation with chefs who want to be able to offer venison - or elk, as it's called in the US - to diners every night.

To help ensure he can keep up a consistent supply, Donald has another property at Alford Forest, on the Canterbury plain, where the climate is more benign and grass growth more reliable than in the high country.  He sends young animals there from Edendale Station after they're weaned, so they can grow to prime weight.

The other big part of the operation is deer velvet, mainly supplying the traditional Korean medicinal market. 

Stags grow velvet every spring - the first stage of their new antlers.  It grows very quickly - a bit like asparagus, says Donald - and in the early stages, before hardening into antler, it's quite soft.  When it has reached what is judged to maximum size before starting to harden, it's sawn off and later sent to Korea.

Like venison, velvet prices have been low but have risen significantly in the last few months.

While Donald concentrates on deer, Leigh has built a second business supplying beef from Scottish Highland cattle grown on the station.

She came back from a trip to Scotland fascinated by the breed, so Donald bought her a Highland heifer.  Now Leigh has 300 Highland cattle and runs both a commercial herd and a stud.

In everything they do, the Whytes say they strive to be the best, maximising production and being active in every step of the chain, from the high country all the way to the marketplace.

Other sites to view:

* For information about Glenange Highland Cattle go to http://www.beef.org.nz/breeders/index.asp 
* For enquiries about buying the Whytes' Highland Cattle beef, go to www.rarefare.co.nz
* To e-mail Donald and Leigh Whyte, dwhyte@clear.net.nz


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