Velvet success for Rupert family
Words by Fritha Tagg Images by Stu Jackson
The success of a velvet producing deer farm is all down to great deer genetics and a family working together.
Rupert Red Deer, in the foothills of Peel Forest, is the result of Dutch immigrants Martin and Rikie Rupert’s lifelong search for better opportunities.
In 1977 Martin and Rikie, decided to leave their home in the Netherlands. They were both from large families with farming backgrounds although the farms were small scale. Martin was a farm consultant in the pig industry and Rikie worked in a bank.
They looked at several countries. The USA was highest on their list, but a change of president made them look at other options, and New Zealand was chosen. They knew others who had moved to New Zealand, so armed with plenty of enthusiasm and a couple of farming contacts, they immigrated to New Zealand, working on farms in the Waikato, learning the basics of dairy farming before going contract milking and then share milking. This was followed by 10 years on the West Coast of the South Island where they had purchased a small dairy farm.
The couple and their three-year-old daughter Kassandra, then moved to Thailand and spent two years with Volunteer Service Abroad where Martin taught farming skills to students. Their daughter Kiri was born in Thailand. After returning to New Zealand they sold the farm in Hari Hari and bought a farm in the Waikato.
After 10 years of dairy farming in the Waikato the family sold their farm and invested the money in a dairy conversion in Canterbury. They retained a small runoff in the Waikato where they thought they might build a house. The land was deer fenced and their neighbour’s farmed deer, so they decided to give deer farming a go.
Kiri says it was purely luck that the first deer were bought from Peter Fraser, a well-known deer breeder in the Waikato, and so the hinds had good velvet genetics.
During their visits to the dairy farm in the South Island they fell in love with the Peel Forest area, so they sold the run-off block and moved to Canterbury. Six months later they bought a 218ha deer farm and moved their original 100 hinds, which were already grazing in the South Island, on to their new home farm. These became the nucleus of their breeding stock.
“In the beginning,” says Kiri, it was more about ‘now we have these deer, what will we do?’
“The late Brian Wellington [Te Awamutu Station] was our neighbour in the Waikato. Brian was well-known in the deer-farming circles. Mum and Dad learnt a lot from him. He was a velvet producing deer farmer and he sort of showed them the way. There was a friendly rivalry with Te Awamutu Station as our farm developed and even today we trade deer semen with them.”
Kiri says the family has had plenty of help and support in becoming established in the deer industry. It was a steep learning curve when they first purchased Leamington. “Mum and Dad got right into it and the deer became more of an obsession. They started getting into competitions, wanting to produce great velvet. That has happened because they worked hard improving the genetics of the deer stock,” Kiri says.
They looked for the best velvet genetics and used solid hardy English Red sires to improve their herd. They were determined to produce well-built stags with heavy traditional style velvet, which would in turn improve the genetics of their herd and improve velvet production. All deer are bred to produce correct velvet with a good temperament. The deer bred at Rupert Red Deer are all English Red Deer, bred for their velvet producing capabilities. There are 650 mixed age stags and 550 mixed age hinds.
The velvet is cut from the rising-one-yearold stags/spikers in their first winter, and they usually get two and sometimes three cuts off the spikers. All stags are kept until they have cut their two year old velvet, at which point they are assessed for their velvet weight, style and temperament and either kept in the herd or sold.
In 2009, Kiri went to Lincoln University to study for a Bachelor of Agriculture. During this time the neighbours property came up for sale and the family went through the process to buy it, but the sale fell through. “But we had done the homework. We knew we needed to expand and we were much more prepared in 2012 when we bought ‘Scotland’. Buying ‘Scotland’ almost doubled the size of our farm.”
At this point they decided to send all the hinds to Scotland (153ha) and keep the stags on the home farm at Leamington. This provided many benefits in terms of ease of management and reducing competition between mobs, but the most important advantage was it enabled them to more than double their hind herd. Compared to the stag herd, there is a large proportion of hinds, which enables a great degree of selection pressure in both males and females (a third of the hind herd is sold/turned over each year). Kiri says the resulting lift in velvet production has been remarkable.
“Our production increased considerably, and we were able to selectively breed for larger velvet and the velvet produced was better.”
After completing her degree, Kiri, like many Kiwi students, went on her OE. She met up with husband Josh during her travels around Europe and South America, and the pair returned to the farm about 15 months later.
“When we returned home Josh and I were living in a house in Geraldine. He was working in town as an engineer and I was working on the farm. As my involvement increased, my parents decided to build a house on the bare Scotland block for them and we moved into the home farm house at Leamington.”
“When we moved and started our family, Josh gave up his engineering job and started fulltime on the farm—and he has really enjoyed it. He’s thriving. He won’t go back to working in town, he’s really taken to it.”
Kiri and Josh are taking on more of the farm’s responsibility. They have bought the livestock and plant, and will work closely with Martin and Rikie to develop the next stages of the Rupert Red Deer brand.
“From very early on, my parents became involved in the local deer velvet competition and over the years they began to win more prizes. As a result of that, they were able to sell breeding stock privately, and as the genetics improved these sales became more and more important. When Josh and I took on the stock, we thought we should make the most of their reputation, and started actively marketing the deer under the name Rupert Red Deer.”
“At our inaugural sale in January 2018 we had about 200 people present. We offered 19 three-year-old sire stags for sale, all sold bar two with an average price of $11,000 and the top stag fetching $28k. These prices were very comparable to how other studs went that year.”
“We want to focus on providing what the market wants rather than just velvet production. Many of our clients are also in the venison industry and they value information regarding body weights and growth rates. Velvet will always come first, but body weight and a sound conformation are also very important,” Kiri says.
She says it is really easy to farm deer in the South Island where the cold winter kills off a lot of the parasites, and there is no facial eczema because of the colder climate. Kiri readily admits there are challenges with farming deer. She says it is important to understand the particular nature and foibles of deer.
“Learning how to handle them in the correct way is vital. They need much more patience than say cows or sheep and understanding their requirements helps make all farm work easier.” “When shifting a mob—the shortest way might not be the quickest way. You need to be able to anticipate what they might do and how they will react. It all comes down to experience and how you act around them as well.”
“In the shed gentle and quiet is the best way. But in the paddock, we use dogs especially with the stags who need to know who is the boss and who is in charge.”
As they improve the breed and breed out the ‘wild’ stags and with the use of DNA progeny testing, there is an automatic flow on effect on the increase in velvet quality and quantity. Breeding out the wild element has also improved the ease of handling and safety of farm owners and workers.
“My mum and dad used to go into the shed with helmets, shin pads and a shield and now we have to literally push the deer out of the way. It is all very relaxed and once you are used to farming deer and understand the animal and behaviour, I think it would be hard to go back to cattle,” she says.
This year Rupert Red Deer has plans to improve their first season fawning success, and part of that will be to buy another block of land suitable for them to fawn on, and the following year their plan is to increase stag numbers. To do this they will cut the number of cattle they run. The cattle are part of the pasture management programme. Kiri says deer are better on the land as far as nitrogen levels go and so this will improve their environmental footprint.
“We have just finished fencing off all the waterways and the next job will be to plant them. We want to enter the Ballance Farm Environment Awards later this year to help focus our environmental direction and to get feedback about what else we can do to improve our land use.”
Rupert Red Deer will hold another public auction stag sale next year, which will give a better indication on how the improved genetics are going and hopefully the stags on offer will be what the market wants. “Velvet genetics are heritable, so you can make big gains by good breeding. You see the result quite quickly. In two years you can see the result of breeding a good stag with a good hind. The resulting velvet is rewarding.”
“The good prices currently on offer for velvet looks to be sustainable now that there are more markets in mainstream health products in South Korea and China,” Kiri says. In the past the velvet market was largely the traditional oriental medicine industry, with a few big players controlling much of the supply chain.
Source of origin is very important to velvet buyers and the New Zealand market is strict when it comes to velvet identity. All animals at the Rupert operation are recorded. Kiri says good record keeping is vital.
“It is a big job to identify parentage. In the earlier days Mum and Dad used binoculars to identify which offspring belonged to which hind. Deer like to fawn alone with little interference, and they are not like cattle or sheep whose young stay firmly by their side. Therefore, there are no simple ways of working out which fawn belongs to which hind.”
“But now we have DNA progeny testing and we use a Gallagher TSI system. The ear tags in the stags are read and recorded before the velvet is removed and the velvet is given a DINZ cable tie tag to ensure the serial number corresponds to the stag which has produced the velvet.”
“All velvet sold has to have source of origin to ensure the buyer has confidence in knowing where it has come from.”
The biggest improvement in the deer industry is in the marketing area where the new fully transparent sale of velvet to respected health food markets in Asia has meant there is more certainty for velvet producers in New Zealand.
There is only a small New Zealand market for deer velvet. Now New Zealand has Provelco—a marketing co-operative, which acts as an intermediary between velvet producers and the often tricky and predominantly Asian market. Provelco collects velvet from deer farmers. The velvet is pooled, graded and sold on the world market. Deer farmers get a percent when the velvet leaves the farm and another portion when the velvet is sold.
In the past, price fluctuation of velvet could be testing but in the past years there have been advances with marketing—both velvet and venison. Provelco is making good inroads along with independent companies and large corporates. Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) have done a lot of work in terms of market access overseas, but mainly it has been due to an increase in young wealthy professionals in Asia who want the traditional benefits of taking velvet, but they want to consume it in a modern way that meets all food safety standards.
“It is a very pro-active, tight-knit industry. After years of fluctuating market prices, it feels like the deer farmers that are left today are there because they are passionate, dedicated and very good business people. DINZ is a big part of that too, there are often field days and conferences to help upskill the members of the New Zealand deer industry. We can confidentially phone DINZ for information or help with any deer related issue,” Kiri says.