Milking the potential of deer

Milking the potential of deer

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Peter and Sharon McIntyre are among the country’s leading farm innovators, developing a system for efficiently milking red deer on Benio, their family farm in Southland.  

The hard work and commitment of the McIntyres is matched by their partners, Pamu – the former Landcorp – which is developing markets for the milk. Their shared enterprise been recognised at the 2018 NZ Food Awards, with Pamu Deer Milk taking out the prize for the most novel product. Earlier this year they won the Grassroots Innovation award at the National Fieldays. 

Peter says the family has been working in partnership with Pamu for three of the four years they have been milking deer.

“Developing a new product and taking it to market is complicated. Pamu have really added value and skills there. We provide the on-farm expertise, work with the deer and have been deeply involved in the development of the milking plant. The partnership is working very well … we both bring skills to the table.”

The McIntyres are not the first to milk deer in New Zealand. Central Otago elk breeder John Falconer gave it a try before them. But the McIntyres have gone to the next step, developing an efficient walk-through milking shed and plant designed especially for red deer, which have much smaller teats than sheep and goats.

“Every aspect of it was new for us when we started four years ago. We probably wouldn’t have done it if John hadn’t first proved it was possible. We didn’t know how, when or how often they should be milked, how much milk they would produce, how they would respond to machine milking and so on,” Peter says.

“You’d be surprised how many deer farmers don’t know that there are four milking teats on a hind.” 

Chris McIntyre and the family’s Benio deer milking herd: The hinds may have just spent the winter on crop, but they are clearly keen to get up close and personal with family members

This season they will be machine milking up to 90 hinds twice a day from November to March. They have now reached the point where, if there is a proven economic market for deer milk, Peter says they could scale the operation up.

Sharon manages DeerSelect and Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL), a full-time job.  

“We got approached by Graham Shaw, who had worked with John Falconer on the elk milking, to see if we were interested. We discussed it with our children, Rhiannon and Chris. They were both very keen. We wouldn’t have done it without them. They have played a big part in getting the milking system working,” she says.

Rhiannon finished university last year and is now working in aquaculture. She has been the lead fawn rearer for the past three years, so she will be missed this season. Chris works at the Cardrona snow farm during the winter, grooming the tracks for car testing, but he clearly gets a kick out of working with the deer in the warmer months.

Getting the family’s commitment to deer milking was essential. Peter and Sharon don’t say what they have invested in the milking operation over the last four years but it won’t be a small sum.

The only time they mention money is to say the operation has yet to make any. So the milking shed and plant is off-limits for photographs – it’s the intellectual property of the McIntyres and their partner Pamu.

“Deer milk is light and fresh, which sounds odd because it is very high in solids – fats and proteins – but low in lactose,” Chris says. “Everyone who has tried it says they like it.”

He explains that the milk is lighter at the start of the season, probably because fawns need to be well hydrated during the summer months. In the autumn it becomes creamier, which would provide fawns with the fat reserves they would need in the wild to get through winter.

Pamu has been working with the Massey University food hub on product development and market testing, earning some rave reviews from chefs who have tried Pamu deer milk in ice-creams, panacottas and yoghurt. Some have even developed deer milk cocktails.

The award-winning Pamu deer milk

Massey is also doing research into the nutritional profile of the milk and its potential use as a specialised nutritional product. Among its other attributes it contains proteins that assist brain development.

The hinds produce up to 6000 litres of milk in each 4-5 month milking season. This averages out at about 1 litre a day, with individual hinds varying greatly in their production.

“It would be great if deer milking one day becomes more mainstream, but I suspect it will always be a specialised high-cost product. There are high costs involved in producing a relatively small amount of milk. It also takes a love of deer and a lot of attention to detail,” Peter says.

Given Sharon’s deep involvement in deer and genetic improvement it is not a surprise to learn that the family is actively selecting for better milking hinds. “SIL is developing a sheep milk module, so I might add the deer to it,” she says.

That may enable them to identify the stags and hinds with BVs for high milk production.

The milking of deer has not been without its critics, but Peter says it takes only two or three days for the hinds to be comfortable with being milked.

“We really enjoy our deer and one of the benefits of milking is getting to know the deer on an individual basis. It is quite remarkable to see their individual personalities and behaviours emerge.”

Indeed, when DINZ visited Benio in late September the milking hinds – which had just come off a winter crop – mobbed us. Interestingly, none of the hinds had been hand-reared.

“They have strong personalities and some of them are very cheeky. Others are affectionate,” says Chris. Watching him with the hinds in the paddock you get a sense that there is a real connection between Chris and the deer.

As for the fawns, once they have adapted to bottle-rearing they grow as fast as fawns reared on their mothers and at weaning you can’t tell the difference between them. That said, it may take several hours and a lot of patience to train a fawn to feed from a bottle.

They need to be fed up to five times a day and in the first few days they have to be ‘pooped’. The rearers wipe the anus of the young fawns with wet-wipes to simulate the licking of young fawns by their mothers.

In all, to milk the 90 hinds and rear their fawns requires five staff at the peak of the season.

There is also the well-known down-side of hand-rearing stag fawns: they lose their fear of humans, making them extra-dangerous during the roar. Peter says that if the deer milking proves to be viable they will explore using sex-selected semen to reduce the proportion of stag fawns born.

For the Interesting Facts About Deer department, Peter says they have discovered that deer appear to have much stronger responses than dairy cows to challenges to their immune systems.

“We do regular somatic cell counts of the deer milk, as is done with dairy. The difference is that deer have amazingly low cell counts, compared with cows or sheep. Also it appears they may be able to self-correct when a cell count spike occurs. We had one hind last year that went from a count in the thousands to the hundreds of thousands and back again in a matter of days. We didn’t need to intervene.”

In an industry which has a heritage of innovation, it is wonderful to see that the pioneering spirit – and the willingness of families to make big investments in something that holds great promise – is alive and well today at Benio farm.

Listen to an interview with Sharon McIntyre on RNZ Nine to Noon >>


Story and deer photo by Trevor Walton. Deer milk photo: Pamu