Plenty of room for venison producers
A FIVEFOLD rise in farmed venison production is needed just to match current demand, according to Russell Marchant, vice-principal of the Barony College, Dumfries.
"We need both new deer farmers and expanded production from the 300 already in the business in Britain," says Mr Marchant.
He points out that although only a quarter of current home venison consumption is from deer farms, it is the farmed product which supermarkets want. It offers better standards of hygiene, consistency and traceability.
More than 60 farmers attended a recent conference and demonstration at Barony Colleges own deer farm. At least half of them were non-deer farmers interested in the potential of such an enterprise.
Mr Marchant told them Scottish farmers were particularly well placed to diversify into venison production because 50% grants, – up to a £25,000 maximum – would be available from January to fund such a venture in those areas of Scotland qualifying for 5b EU regional aid. At present there are 60 deer farmers in Scotland.
Mr Marchant is well qualified to give advice because he admits the college did it all wrong when it started deer farming eight years ago.
"We bought young breeding stock instead of old, in-calf hinds. And we put up top grade fencing throughout, instead of lowering the specification for interior fences," he admits. "But at least other can learn from our mistakes."
The college has its own slaughter facility and farm shop. But Mr Marchant advises others to use a local abattoir and to market through a co-operative group.
He says he uses real figures when quoting margins, but emphasises that returns are market led and not dependent on any subsidies. The figures he gives are gross margins of £460/ha (£184/acre) on good grassland for breeder/feeders, £214 (£85/acre) on poorer ground for store producers, and £392/ha (£157/acre) for finishers.
Mr Marchants figures were based on an average price of £1.30/lb carcass weight. The current rate is about £1.60.
"Weaning %, carcass weight and price are the three things which will have the biggest positive effect on margins. A relatively small increase in carcass weight has a dramatic effect, whereas doubling the concentrate input of calves has only half the effect on gross margins," says Mr Marchant.
On fixed costs, he says top quality perimeter fencing costs £4/m (£1.20/ft). But costs should be reduced for interior fences. "Sheep netting with three electric wires on top will do fine for the interior fences."
Existing buildings can easily be adapted for deer and although special handling facilities are needed they need not be too expensive, according to Mr Marchant.
On general husbandry he claims there would be a very gentle learning curve for existing livestock farmers but warns that farmed deer like good grazing land and also need shelter. *
Will Howat, stockman at Barony College, Dumfries, shows farmers that deer demand the same skills required for other farm stock.