What’s best for deer in winter?

What’s best for deer in winter?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Image: Wapiti-Elk looking good on crop in a Southland winter

Ensuring deer do well in the cold, wet months of winter is a priority for the deer industry.

“Deer farmers are motivated by the need to ensure their animals are well-fed and healthy, while protecting the environment. They are also mindful that wintering practices for all livestock are in the public spotlight,” says NZ Deer Farmers Association (NZDFA) chair John Somerville.

He says deer farmers are fortunate in that deer are browsers rather than gorgers. “If they are given a break of winter crop, deer are likely to eat what they need and then move to an area in the paddock or associated run-off where they can ruminate and rest,” he says.

“Overall, when it comes to winter crops, deer have less impact on the environment and there is less risk of animal welfare issues than there is with other classes of stock. However, when the weather goes pear-shaped the environment and animal welfare are still at risk.”

Somerville says farm planning and winter crop management are put to the test in winter storms.

“In recent years the industry hasn’t heard of any cases of bad wintering practice, but there have been a couple of public complaints. On investigation, healthy deer were found to be grazing well-managed winter crops. Sure, there was exposed bare soil, but nothing a farmer would blink an eye at or any indication that waterways or animal health could be impacted,” he says.

“But these complaints remind us that when we are establishing a winter crop, we need to think carefully where it is located – not only for the welfare of our animals and potential impact on the environment, but also how it might be perceived by the general public if they happened to look over the fence in mid-winter.”

Somerville says the public is increasingly sensitive about the ways farmed animals are treated.

“This trend is not about to go away. While it can be annoying for farmers when members of the public sound off about farming practices they don’t understand, as farmers we also need to look at what we are doing and ask ourselves, are we doing the best we can? It’s human nature not to question things that you and your neighbours see as the norm.”

He says television and social media images of cows up to their knees in mud, unable to lie down and rest, and calving in those conditions, caused a public uproar. This prompted agriculture minister Damien O’Connor to set up a Winter Grazing Taskforce that reported on 25 November. The full report can be downloaded from the MPI website, here >>

“Deer Industry NZ (DINZ) and the NZDFA broadly support the report’s 11 recommendations and we will be participating in the pan-sector action group that is being set-up to implement those recommendations.”

Somerville says a winter grazing management workshop was convened by DINZ in August, and the topic was discussed at the NZDFA branch chairs’ annual meeting in October. Some good management principles were identified, including:

  • Plan crops and winter grazing well before winter.
  • Keep it simple. Match animal feed demands to pasture growth curves.
  • Provide shelter or an ‘escape route’ to shelter in a storm.
  • Ensure there is a hilltop, rocky knoll or other free-draining area where the deer can rest when they’re not grazing. This might be in a run-off or a nearby pine block.
  • Leave a buffer between the crop and waterways or swales – the steeper the land, the wider the buffer.
  • Consider indoor wintering of adult stags on farms with long winters and heavy soils. This will improve animal welfare, while reducing environmental risks and the amount of crop needed. 

DINZ environmental policy manager Lindsay Fung says winter grazing carries environmental and animal welfare risks. The challenge is to ensure all farmers are aware of these risks and have the knowledge and confidence to manage them.

To this end, DINZ and the NZDFA are developing guidelines for the intensive grazing of deer during winter. He says these will be provided to Environment Southland and Environment Canterbury for inclusion in winter grazing monitoring activities in those regions.

“We want to ensure that regulators understand that deer are not sheep or cattle. Wintering practices designed for deer result in good animal welfare and environmental outcomes,” Fung says.

“We are also working with a couple of groups of local farmers to work out how to provide good advice for deer farmers who are looking for guidance on winter grazing.”