Depressed weaner prices and a shortage of slaughter space was a double whammy that hit hard Southland deer farmers Jesse and Tracey Saunders.

The Covid-induced market disruptors struck at the worst possible time for the couple who were in the midst of trying to negotiate a sale price for their 400 store weaners, as well as get processing space for 100 cull hinds.

Usually about 400 weaners are sold for finishing. However, only 157 went this year at a price about 50 to 60% down on last year.

“We had offers that we didn’t accept. We put a lot of work into getting them to where they are and decided we’ll take the risk and finish them ourselves,” Tracey says.

The unsold weaners are grazing in a lease arrangement on Jesse’s parents farm with the goal of having them to finished weights before Christmas. Some will be wintered inside in a newly adapted shed on Jesse and Tracey’s farm.

Despite the rocky autumn the Saunders are optimistic about their future with deer.

“We’ll stick with our five year plan. Hopefully, we’ve hit rock bottom with prices, and they’ll pick up again,” Jesse says.

The plan is geared for the breeding and feeding of a dual purpose venison and velvet herd, in which most of the progeny is finished to prime weight. The Saunders are using technology including Deer select, a Gallagher TW-5 Weigh Scale and Reader, and Animal Performance software (APS) to help achieve their deer farming goals.

The Gallagher system, bought two years ago, is used to record all deer information such as liveweight, velvet weight, eye muscle scanning, animal health treatments and anything special or notable about an individual animal. The recorded data is sent on to Look West, an animal data specialist company, who produces for the Saunders customised reports. As yet they have limited data on which to base selection decisions, but already the information has highlighted some interesting trends.

“We’re finding that the biggest animal isn’t always the best in terms of growth efficiency.”

That finding was further validated by the eye muscle scanning of 70 replacements replacement hinds last year.

“We were keen to see where our hinds were sitting but it was hard to compare because not a lot of other commercial farmers are scanning for eye muscle, but what we found out was that the heaviest didn’t necessarily have the highest eye muscle to weight ratio.”

Genetic-based selection and complementary weighing, monitoring, and scanning technology will continue to play a big part in their deer farming system. Although in the early stages of data gathering, they are looking forward to drawing on the information in future years to guide selection and buying decisions.

The Saunders bought their first deer in 2010, before they had the land to run them on. The first 200 hinds followed by another 250 were leased to Jesse’s parents Trevor and Fiona who at the time were farming at South Hillend in Central Southland.

In 2012 the couple along with Trevor and Fiona bought the Tuatapere farm and farmed in partnership. Jesse and Tracey took over ownership in 2015. The farm was fully developed but there’s been a lot of time and money spent on improving fences, developing new laneways, and fencing off environmentally vulnerable areas.

The rolling and steep farm is ideal deer country with lots of natural shelter and plenty of summer growth for hinds and fawns. They’ve maximized pasture production on the limited area of flatter country with Italian ryegrass and clover which yields two cuts of balage as well as winter grazing.

“Dad has been very helpful. He’s helped with a lot of the fencing and has a lot of experience of working with deer.”

The wet winters on steep country are challenging and the Saunders keep management and feeding over this time as simple as possible. The hinds get kale and supplements of hay and balage.


The Saunders are pleased with their $30,000 deer shed alterations. The starting point was a large unused space in the existing deer shed. Jesse had his own ideas on the design of the space but also took on several useful tips and suggestions from members of the Southland Elk and Wapiti Advance Party he belongs to.

“The overall idea was to design a shed where it was easy to get deer in and out off, as well as separate ourselves easily from the deer if need be.”

Jesse cut costs by doing a lot of the steel construction work and building all of the doors.

Special features include gates that can easily be adjusted to swing from each side, depending on which direction the deer are being moved. Another feature is the steel mesh top third of gates giving the deer clear vision of who’s coming and going to reduce the likelihood of them being spooked. There’s also a side entry gate leading to the scales which is easier to move deer into than from a gate directly at the back of the race.

Off-farm income

Jesse is a qualified automotive mechanic. He owns and operates Saunders Automotive in Winton as well as the farm. It’s a juggle at times but good time management and supportive staff at his workshop business make it possible.

Tracey, a hairdresser, was raised on a sheep and beef farm at Browns near Winton, and got interested in deer when she met Jesse. She’s taken charge of the TW-5 in the deer yards, and the admin-related recording work. She has enjoyed learning about and using Deer Select to guide sire stag selection.

“The genetics side of things is exciting for us and something Jesse and I work on together.”

They’re now confident at interpreting breed value information and spend time studying catalogue information before sales. They pay particular attention to weight at 12 months (W12 BV); eye muscle area (EMAc BV); and the Terminal Index.

“We go to sales with a plan and know how much we’re prepared to pay. We’re also prepared to miss out on a stag if we think that the price doesn’t reflect the true value of the animal.”

They’re particularly pleased with their 2020 purchase, ‘Legend’ from Tikana Wapiti.

“He’s highly ranked and we’re looking forward to seeing his progeny.”

The planning is a big leap forward from their first sire stag purchases four years ago.

“We judged what we bought totally on how they looked. We didn’t understand Deer Select, but we started asking questions,” Tracey said.

They are grateful to mentors such as Dave Lawrence, Murray Hagen and the late Jim Cameron who have taken an interest and offered practical suggestions and help.


  • Jesse and Tracey Saunders, children Ryan (11) and Sienna (9)
  • Happy Valley, Tuatapere,Western Southland
  • 243ha includes 182ha of deer fencing.
  • Deer breeding and finishing plus heifer wintering and beef finishing.

Stock wintered:

  • 650 MA Wapiti hinds
  • 100 R2 replacement hinds
  • 50 MA sire and velvet stags
  • 20 R1 beef steers
  • 70 R1 heifers