Deer farmers hone in on right genetics to feed lucrative export market

Deer farmers hone in on right genetics to feed lucrative export market

China can’t get enough velvet from Australian deer.

Key points:

  • Velvet has remained lucrative despite low venison meat prices
  • Demand for venison has started to bounce back since the start of the pandemic
  • There is room for growth in the Australian deer industry

That is, according to the president of the Deer Industry Association of Australia and deer farmer, Andrew McKinnon.

China uses antler velvet as a traditional medicine and increasingly as a health food, with the majority of Australia’s velvet exported there.

Mr McKinnon said his family’s Ardno Deer Park, near the South Australia-Victorian border, was the second largest deer operation in the country.

He said the farm harvested about 3,300 kilograms of soft antler velvet from stags each year.

Andrew McKinnon has been in the deer business since 1990.(ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

Mr McKinnon said he also bought the majority of velvet produced in Australia on behalf of a New Zealand export business.

He said demand had remained strong over the past five years.

“Whatever we can buy in Australia, we can sell in China,” he said.

“We were told Australian velvet was considered very high quality.”

Increasing velvet output

Mr McKinnon said each stag on his farm produced 5.4kg of velvet a year, about $540 worth.

He said he hoped that would increase with some changes in genetics at the farm.

The velvet is sliced thinly, with the most expensive part the tip of the antlers. (Supplied: Ardno Deer Park)

“We’ve bought deer from a lot of the studs in New Zealand, and we have been collecting the embryos out of New Zealand and bringing them back here and implanting them into our deer,” he said.

“So we have got the first lot on the ground this year, and they are nearly nine months old at the moment.”

An expensive process, it required a vet to fly over with the embryos from New Zealand to insert them with the help of multiple local veterinary nurses.

Mr McKinnon said he hoped the gamble would pay off, but it would take time over the 12-year life cycle of the stags.

“If you can turn that [average velvet harvest] into six kilos on average across your herd and you have 1,000 stags, it works out to a lot of money per year,” he said.

“Fingers crossed it will just get a bit bigger and better velvet coming through.”

Mr McKinnon says he has stock ready to be distributed in China. (Supplied: Ardno Deer Park)

With China such a vital market, the industry is concerned that velvet could get caught up in future bans or tariffs imposed by the country.

“We are a bit worried all the time because of tensions between the Australian government and Chinese government, because all our product either goes there or Korea,” Mr McKinnon said.

“You do not want to upset the hand that feeds you.”

Venison prices bounce back

Some of the stags are almost ready to have their antlers harvested. (ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

Mr McKinnon said venison was a by-product of their operation.

He said it had been underperforming through the pandemic, but there had been positive signs in recent months.

“The restaurants all shut down so they were not wanting to buy a lot of meat, so it’s been a pretty hard slog for a while,” he said.

“But in the last three to four months we are starting to kill a good number of deer again for the venison market.”

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