White Rock Station - Rangitata

November 2008
Since 2002, Ross and Sally Stevens have farmed White Rock station in an equity partnership with American couple Bob and Mary Sierra. For the previous three years they had managed the property for a New Zealand syndicate. At that time it ran 3600 half-bred ewes and 120 Hereford cows. Now it runs predominantly deer including 1000 breeding hinds.

The Sierras own the land and the Stevens a proportion of stock and plant, in a business arrangement suggested by Ashburton farm consulting company, Macfarlane and Associates.

Ross had always been keen to run deer, believing that their feed demand would be a perfect fit with pasture growth at the high country station.

White Rock Station is a 1340 hectare property in South Canterburys Rangitata Gorge, ranging from close to 500 metres above sea level at the homestead to 880 metres. Summers are dry autumns extremely unreliable; weve had one good autumn in nine years.

Winters are long and hard, typically lasting for 120-130 days and snowfalls can be expected right through until December. But spring growth - which doesn't start until mid-October - is explosive and continues through until December.

The property is unusual for its ability to finish all its weaners at around 55kg with the majority gone before Christmas when most high country properties sell them store.

The Rangitata River provides one boundary of the property, which has been subdivided to seven around 80ha hill blocks, four smaller blocks and 24 paddocks. All hill blocks have natural water.

White Rock Station runs 7000 stock units comprising deer, sheep and cattle.

The Stevens were able to build up their deer herd on a low market, at a time when venison prices were falling. In the first year, 600 hinds were purchased from six sources. Numbers have now been built up to 1000 hinds.

Roughly half the hinds go to a wapiti bull and the rest to a red stag. Reproductive performance is exceptional, with a 91% drop from mixed aged hinds this season compared to an industry average of less than 80%.

A fair bit of management goes into these results, says Ross. This includes scanning the hinds and removing all empties from the property, getting stocking rates right and providing supplementary feed (grain baleage plus winter brassica crops) when they are in light condition over autumn.

Last year the wapiti cross stag fawns averaged 64kg at weaning, at the beginning of March and the hind fawns 60kg, straight off the hill. Weaning is at the end of February/early March, just before the roar. The hinds are then brought off the hill onto better feed, so they can build condition before mating.

Good feeding as well as breeding plays a part in these results, says Ross. From June, weaners are break-fed on brassica crops with a bit of pea vinings or baleage thrown in. The wapiti cross animals also get grain on the shoulders of the season.

For the first time last season, Goliath rape was grown as a feed for Wapiti cross weaners, which put on just under 200g/day on this brassica which will be sown again this season.

Herd sires only are run, with no velveting done on the farm as Ross wanted to avoid the scenario of velveting stags competing with 800 weaner deer for feed in spring.

Ross attributes his success at finishing weaners partly to getting the stocking rate right on the hill. Once the animals are set-stocked, they arent approached until weaning.

It is imperative that deer go into winter in good condition, as once autumns over they virtually shut down physically. Wapiti cross weaners might put on an average 100g/day but pure reds growth rates will be virtually nil.

Ross loves working with deer, which he finds intelligent, with a lot of dignity. This breeder of quarter-horses describes deer as similarly spatial. If you are quiet, calm and confident they will respond.

Around 1100 Romney Texel and Perendale ewes are run, but sheep are on their way out.

Two hundred and ninety breeding cows complete the picture, first calving as two-year-olds.

At weaning, fawns are vaccinated against Yersinniosis, drenched, and given a copper bullet. The incidence of Johnes disease has been low, but Ross recognises that this is a real threat for all deer farms and could strike at any time. This wasting disease is one strand of the DIFF programme.

Pastures in paddock areas have all been replaced with AR1 ryegrass.

Around 40 hectares of brassicas are direct-drilled in early spring, for weaners and lambs

Grain and baleage is fed out to weaners in autumn, when Ross describes the property as an outdoor feedlot.

We have to target autumn growth rate in the weaners, before they physically shut down over winter, he explains.

All crops and grasses are established by direct drilling, for moisture and soil conservation. Paddocks are first double-sprayed with glyphosate in early October with a follow-up six weeks later, the second spray also including chemical to kill broad-leafed weeds and insecticide.

They key is to get seed in by mid November, when we still have moisture.

Fencelines run straight up the hill, with electric wires on outriggers used to keep deer off fences.

The venison market is currently very strong, says Ross, seemingly going through another boom cycle due to demand outstripping supply. The last weaners killed returned $9.30/kg; double the values reached when White Rock Station first went into deer farming six years ago.

Ross has nothing but praise for Alliance, which kills all their deer through its Sockburn plant. When they first ran deer, with returns falling there was extreme pressure for killing space and animals were being turned away for slaughter. However, it was never a problem finding space for the White Rock weaners.

Downlands Deer also gets a bouquet, for its nationwide specialised deer transport service. The specialised trucks include purpose-built crates designed by the company, to minimise stress on animals during transport.

Weaners tend to be sold in lots of 40-60 or more, starting with wapiti cross animals with pure reds following on. This years first consignment of weaners was off the property in June a record, with sales going through until June but with most off the property by Christmas before the feed pinch sets in.

As weaner growth performance has improved, their finishing time has reduced.

White Rock Station is one of four Deer Industry Focus Farms established this year, in a programme modelled on Meat & Wool NZs monitor farm programme. This follows on the success of a Sustainable Farming Fund supported project which trialled the DIFF concept on two farms, in Southland and

Deer Industry New Zealand has set aside up to $60,000 for the project through DEEResearchs budget, to be spread on a dollar for dollar basis across the four farms. Local Deer Farming Association branches will spearhead funding drives and support the programme.

Profitability per hectare is the DIFF bottom line. Strategies include producing more weaned deer for venison or breeding, which reach good weights for slaughter in a reduced time. This will create management flexibility and increase supply options.

White Rock station entered the DIFF project with pretty impressive performance figures. Ross doesnt expect sweeping changes on the focus farm but says there is room for improvement. The focus will be on a number of management issues which include;

Building an on-farm feed buffer. Ongoing conversion of Canterbury down country to dairying is making it increasingly difficult to obtain supplements which have also become very expensive, so an alternative is needed. This year the Stevens are growing barley to make whole crop silage.

Developing a better wintering system, enabling more spring feed to be bankable in dollar terms.

Fencing. This year an extra 280ha of warm country has been deer-fenced, allowing more hinds to be run which will increase profitability. This is part of the wintering strategy for hinds.