New water quality regulations may have unintended consequences on a deer farm that has already improved its environmental footprint, as Anne Hardie reports.

Waterways entering Tony and Sarah Peacock’s deer farm at Maruia from the neighbouring bush-clad conservation land have more sediment and hence higher phosphate levels than when they leave the other side of the farm.
It’s just one of the findings in the early stages of an AgResearch project on water quality on their farm. The Peacocks put their hand up to be part of the five-year survey, which is being carried out on hill-country deer farms, because they wanted to know what was happening on the farm environmentally and, if there were problems, to deal with them specifically with the best solution.
“If I am creating a problem I will fix it but I don’t see the necessity of spending thousands of dollars fencing areas off if I’m not the problem,” Tony says.
“If I can build wetlands at the bottom of those streams, am I improving the water more than fencing those streams?”
By gathering actual data he hopes they will end up with better water outcomes and save money. Low-lying wet areas on the valley floor make up some of 40ha identified by the local council as significant wetlands on the farm, and the Peacocks have already fenced several of those areas. Fencing protects them from stock damage, but Tony says it also filters runoff from paddocks on the river terraces and slopes rising up to Victoria Forest Park that surrounds the deer farm. He’s hoping the water testing will prove those fenced wetlands will negate the need to fence 22km of side streams and ditches on the hills.
The couple farms three separate blocks near Maruia, between Murchison and Lewis Pass; a secluded location across the river where the family has farmed for three generations. For 10 years Tony continued the family dairy farm, milking 120 cows and running beef cattle until the late 90s when the high returns and lifestyle being enjoyed in the deer industry convinced him to hang up the cups in the dairy for the last time. He admits he misses the cows but not the tie of milking twice a day as it was back then.
They farmed in partnership with his parents, Judy and his late father Mike, transforming the home dairy farm, nearby runoff on the river terrace, plus a developing hill block up a neighbouring valley, Glengarry, into a diverse deer operation. Today they run about 820 Red hinds on Glengarry with all the progeny sold as weaners. On the more productive former dairy farm and runoff is a mob of 35 English Red hinds for velvet progeny plus a mob of 23 Elk hinds to breed the stags for the Red hinds on Glengarry. Alongside the hinds on these blocks are 60 mixed-age Red stags for velvet and 60 mixed-age Elk stags. To add more diversity into the business they buy in about 60 weaned bull calves each year, which are a mix of Hereford and Jersey that can be sold to dairy farmers as two year olds, some as yearlings, and any left over to the works. A few beef cattle to finish are thrown into the mix for pasture management as well as another income stream, plus about 80 Wiltshire ewes that were originally added to clean up laneways but now also prove worthwhile for weed control on the grass wetlands at Glengarry.
The block sits at the end of the shingle road where it has about 250ha deer fenced, with a mix of reasonable river terraces and slopes, rough gullies, and a valley floor dissected by water courses. Tony is still working out how to farm the valley floor under the planned rules and regulations as it has less than 10 degrees in slope, which means every stream and ditch will need to be fenced. It may make it too challenging to farm, which will remove a large area of the farming operation. The irony of that scenario, he says, is that the entire block is lightly stocked because it is still being developed yet may end up being farmed more intensely above the valley floor to remain profitable, which will then put more pressure on the environment.
“There’s no point being environmentally proactive and then thrashing what we have left.”
In their bid to be environmentally sustainable and remain profitable the Peacocks are just finalising the finer details of a Land and Environment Plan (LEP), working with the Tasman District Council, NZ Landcare Trust, and Ravensdown. From that they have a nutrient budget, whole farm soil tests, critical source areas such as stock crossing points, and a detailed map that includes every grass wetland on the farm.
Apart from providing a clearer picture of the farm, including the good practices they already have in place and the areas that still need improvement, it has given them a living document that tracks their progress. Long before the plan or any proposed legislation, the environment has been a key aspect of the family farming business. Groves of native trees have remained for three generations in paddocks including 30ha of native bush on good flat land. Every year now they are fencing off more bush areas or wetlands on Glengarry in a bid to stay ahead of the game and avoid legislation wielding a big stick at them. Tony describes it as a balancing act that has yet to be fully understood by those governing legislation.

Water quality data gap

While the LEP has proved a valuable tool it also raised more questions such as the lack of data about the water quality. The research being carried out by AgResearch is aimed at providing that much-needed data for the Peacocks and other hill-country deer farmers, hopefully to guide environmental work.
Most of the projects’ deer farms are in the high country whereas the Peacocks is low-lying and bush-bound with a 2m rainfall. They are just entering their third year with the five-year survey of water quality in creeks and streams and it will take the full five years to see trends and a true picture of the impact of deer farming. Every creek, waterway, and wetland has been mapped and rated for biodiversity and damage. Then every six months an AgResearch team spends time on the farm collecting water samples from 14 sites along the length of streams to measure where nutrients increase or decrease along its course.
The condition of stream banks is also monitored. As well as AgResearch taking water samples, Tony takes monthly samples from the main stream where it leaves the farm. All samples are tested for suspended sediments, phosphorus, and nitrogen as well as E coli.
On Glengarry, streams begin in beech forest above the farm and flow down rough gullies and into the main stream through the valley floor. Those rough gullies with the remnants of bush are places deer like to camp, which AgResearch project leader Bryan Thompson says leads to sediment, E coli, and nitrates ending up in streams. Farmers could fence them off but he says it’s not as simple as that. Farmers would then need to ensure stock had adequate shade and shelter on other land, plus it could lead to higher intensity on the remaining land, which could create other problems.
Because the Peacocks stock lightly on Glengarry nitrates aren’t a problem in the streams, and sampling to date shows phosphorus isn’t either as there is more in the streams entering the farm from the bush than there is leaving the farm. That is because the grassland area through the farm filters it, he says.

Weaner policy suits

Terminal sires are run with the Red hinds on Glengarry and the progeny are sold as weaners with replacement hinds bought in. It’s a policy that suits the Peacock’s management structure and means they don’t have to carry 400 weaners through lean winters or run a separate herd.
“Winter is our hard time for stocking rate, and if I kept 400 fawns I’d have to get rid of the same number of stock units somewhere else.”
About 26 Elk stags are put with the hinds each year at a ratio of 1:30, with fawning usually about 90%. Tony scans the pregnant hinds every second year as the other year is TB testing and he prefers to get them into the yards as little as possible.
The first draft of weaners off mum in early March is usually between 400 and 500, which get magnesium in their drench before they are on a truck to a regular buyer near Rakaia. One millilitre of magnesium per 10kg means they are relaxed when they get to their new home rather than pacing fences. Another 200 are weaned in May, drenched, and on the truck to Rakaia. That leaves 40 to 50 fawns that either missed the muster or are too small and will be sent to the works the following February.
In the past three years Tony’s Red hind replacements have been Eastern Red genetics from Jonny Harwood in Golden Bay, which he buys as weaners. Last year’s fawns were the first with the new genetics so it is early days to judge them yet but he’s hoping they will result in a better fawn on the ground and faster growth rates.
“They’re a bigger deer that are supposed to cycle earlier and fawn earlier but until I try it I don’t know.”
He knows what the Eastern Red genetics can achieve on other properties, but they will have to prove themselves on Glengarry. The first draft of weaners in March averaged about 65kg and the second draft in May 68kg.
For the past four years the Peacocks have been growing raphno brassica to put some weight on before weaning. Between eight and 12ha are sown each year on the easier slopes of Glengarry, and the hinds with their fawns move into those paddocks in February. They’re out at the beginning of March, which gives the paddocks time to grow for winter when bull calves are break fed on the crops. Stock are given good-sized breaks on the crop and are not on for long to minimise pugging. In early summer those paddocks are resown with a deer mix that includes two types of grasses, two to three clovers, chicory, and plantain.
Regenerative agriculture is the next thing Tony wants to explore. Instead of two paddocks of raphno he plans to plant one crop of raphno and another multi species so that one crop can benefit the other. The problem, though, is that regenerative agriculture is still an unknown on different farms, so Tony is expecting it to be a case of trial and error to see if it is worthwhile.
As well as reassessing his cropping regime, he is also looking at changing his fertiliser use to better suit the environment. To date the farm has received autumn applications of superphosphate and he is now considering lime-based fertilisers.
“There’s a time and a place for all fertilisers. I’ve used liquid before and biological fertilisers on crops rather than chemical based and had good results. And some fish-based fertilisers for bug control because they don’t like the fish oil as much. I’m open to testing fertilisers.”
On the home block he grows 4ha of fodder beet for the stags and bulls and he has had good results using brassica fertilisers on those crops. He lifts part of the crop daily through winter and feeds it out from a silage wagon to the stags, which enables him to achieve about 90% utilisation. The young bulls are break fed their portion of the crop. This season the crop went in the ground in December rather than November because of wet weather, but a good autumn kicked it off and in June it measured 24t/ha.
In the Elk mob, any beast that shows aggression or is flighty is noted and if it is noted a second time it’s culled.
“It’s an ongoing thing because every time you change your stag, the potential for one X chromosome and one Y chromosome to not get on is there. Or it could be one interaction with an animal and they remember it. They’re a smart animal.”
He buys in one or two new Elk stags each year to run with up to 25 Elk hinds, and breeds his own Elk stags for the Glengarry Red hinds.
Meanwhile there is the velveting mob of stags that are culled on weight and temperament each year. The entire mob of mixed-age Red stags averaged 6.2kg for the first cut.


  • Farming 430ha in three blocks at Maruia
  • Winter 1100 deer, 120 mixed-age cattle, 80 sheep
  • Terminal sires over Red deer with replacement hinds bought in
  • 40ha significant wetlands
  • Part of a project on water quality.