Mid Canterbury’s Mike Salvesen sang the praises of the national stag performance recording database, Deer Select, during this year’s industry conference in Timaru. Andrew Swallow caught up with him on his farm near Mt Somers.

“If you’re not buying sires on BV [breeding value], then how do you know what you’ve got?”

That was the question Mid Canterbury farmer Mike Salvesen put to delegates at the Deer Industry Conference in Timaru during the winter. At home on Wakare, he’s been using sires selected on BV since 2010 and is confident he’s getting value for money, with weaners finished earlier and heavier.

What’s more, the gains accumulate year on year as positive stag traits are transferred to the herd in replacement hinds.

His 1000 hinds are a mix of English and Eastern genetics, bred using stags from Peel Forest, Deer Improvement, and LandCorp. Of the seven BVs available in Deer Select, he particularly looks at weaning weight, weight at 12 months, and eye muscle area (EMA).

“That’s quite important. It’s quite closely related to kill-out percentage and meat yield.”

The herd’s been increased from 350 in 2010 following a strategic decision to go out of sheep, other than occasional lamb finishing, and focus on venison and beef production.

“We do have 50 velveting stags but those are bought in.”

Building up the hind herd using top stags means the genetics are now among the best in the country for venison production and each new stag with better BVs for weaning weight or EMA for example, nudges performance forward again.

‘We don’t have enough flat to run the hinds with fawns at rut so we use the smaller hill blocks to put the weaners on.’

“We’re finding we’re getting absolutely repeatable results,” he told the Deer Industry Conference, adding that for those with herds that are industry average, or worse, buying high performing genetics for the first time will deliver a leap in performance, so arguably the stags are even more valuable.

He breeds replacements from younger hinds using Eastern Red stags from Deer Improvement to maximise the rate of genetic gain with about 400 older hinds put to Peel Forest’s specialist hybrid terminal sires, B11s.

Feeding focus: better nutrition at key times is part of Mike Salvesen’s strategy to capitalise on high performance genetics.

Overall stag-to-hind ratio is 1:40 with the B11s at a slightly lower ratio (ie: fewer hinds per stag) and the reds at a slightly higher ratio. In-fawn rate for mixed-age hinds is 97% and 90% for R2s, and improving. Overall fawning percentage is 95%.

Weaning is pre-rut with weaners put back on hill blocks while hinds are put with stags on flatter front country.

“We don’t have enough flat to run the hinds with fawns at rut so we use the smaller hill blocks to put the weaners on.”

Weaning weights have gone from an average 48kg in 2011 to 58kg today. In five years Salvesen’s target is to get that up to 65kg, using genetics and better feeding at critical times.

After the rut weaners a brought in, weighed, the best put on fodder beet for the winter and the rest on grass and baleage. They’re put over the scales again in August for drenching and drafting into weight and breed lines, and again in October when a first draft is taken at 105kg liveweight. About 20% typically go in that first draft.

In most years – last year was an exception – he reckons it’s impossible to put enough weight on weaners after that first draft to beat the weekly drops in schedule so his strategy is to hold off until just before Christmas to take a second draft, going down to 95kg LWT.

That clears at least another 30% with the proportion taken at that second draft increasing year on year, leaving fewer going into the summer with its challenges of feed quality and possible drought.

Those left after the second draft are cleared over summer and early autumn to achieve an average kill date of January 1 at a carcaseweight of 55kg.

“We try to avoid any second winters. They achieve most of their growth potential in that first spring and then that’s it.”

Despite the genetics, Salvesen says his deer unit is not yet “hugely high performance.”

“We know what we need to improve: management capability!”

As president of Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers he currently counts himself as half a labour unit on the farm, which employs two others, but this year, due to the demands of Mycoplasma bovis, he’s been onfarm even less than that.

“My son says I’m only a part-timer!”

Greater attention to detail in a range of areas, particularly critical feed times for both hinds and fawns, is where there’s an opportunity to do better, he believes. For example, plantain and clover pastures, the first of which were established last year, should improve summer feed quality and quantity when grass growth drops off.

Venison and beef focus paying dividends

Mike and Nicky Salvesen bought Wakare in 2008 having farmed near Mt Somers village prior to that after arriving from the borders of Scotland in 2003.

Initially they ran sheep, cattle and deer, carrying on an extensive development programme subdividing blocks and paddocks and fencing off watercourses which had been started by previous owners Richie and Felicity Morrow.

“Good infrastructure’s crucial: it’s just as important on a farm as it is in a city. It saves you time and money,” Mike says.

The property is 1460 hectares including 400ha of flat-to-gently sloping paddocks and 1000ha of downs and hill rising to 850m above sea-level. The homestead, in the northeast corner of the property, is at 500m.

In 2010 they decided to drop sheep, the proceeds from the sale of 2000 Perendale ewes helping fund further deer fencing with a view to expanding the deer herd to 1000. The other core stock are breeding cows, about 500 of them, mostly Angus with a smaller mob of Herefords.

“We generally keep them separate.”

Cows are calved on the hill and heifers on lower country. All heifers must get in-calf to calve at two or they’re gone. Over the average lifetime of a cow, that makes them twice as productive as those first calved at three, points out Salvesen.

“The life expectancy of a beef cow is not as great as some people think. You drop some every year for various reasons and by the time they are six there are only half of them left.”

Taking six years as the average age of leaving the herd, that means a cow calved as a two-year-old will produce four calves, to a three-year-old first calvers’ three.

Factor in the extra cost of feeding a large, empty heifer for another year and the returns are “simple maths,” says Salvesen, who questions why anyone would use genetics from a stud herd that doesn’t calve two-year-olds.

Half of the yearling bulls from the Angus herd are sold to the dairy industry in October with the balance sold for slaughter at 300kg Cwt, with an average kill date pre-winter for bulls. Some steers are taken through a second winter and finished at slightly heavier weights, while heifers surplus to replacement requirements are finished at about 260kgCwt.

As with stags, Salvesen’s strategy is to seek the best genetics in bought-in sires, buying from “the top index herds in the North and South Island.”

Austin’s Ultrasound is used to scan all young stock for eye-muscle area and intramuscular fat to check on the performance of bulls, and help pick replacement heifers and the best bulls as weight alone can be a misleading measure of carcase value, he’s found.

Growth rates of all stock are checked with regular, EID facilitated weigh-ins.

Developments in Deer Select

A new BV available for breeders to use this year is a score for stags’ immune response to gastro-intestinal parasites, as measured by the CARLA saliva test, DINZ’s Deer Select manager Sharon McIntyre says.

However, she stresses it is a “research” BV at this stage because AgResearch’s work to confirm the impact of CARLA on parasitism in deer is ongoing. Nine studs have been submitting data on it but stag buyers will need to make their own enquiries as to whether a stud breeder has used this service and if so, what results are, as it will not appear in the EBVs listed online at deernz.org/deerhub. Coming into this year’s sale season, 25 studs had stags listed on the Deer Select area of deerhub.

Besides the seven EBVs for each sire available online, two $-value indices are displayed: terminal and replacement hind/early-kill venison. The indices combine multiple trait scores for a stag, weighted according to the objective, and converted into a $-value using an AgResearch farm model. The model uses 2009 costings and prices so will be updated next year.

A couple of longer-term developments are a meat module and a new across breed growth module which will improve the accuracy of current EBVs and make across breed comparisons valid. A new maternal breeding value for fertility is also being investigated.

Achieving across herd and breed evaluation is technically difficult, time consuming and costly requiring extensive use of AI to establish genetic links between red and wapiti herds so that herd and breed effects can be distinguished, points out McIntyre.

It’s even more challenging and time consuming with maternal and reproductive traits as good numbers of daughters per sire have to be retained and their reproductive performance recorded.

“The advantage is all [resulting] breeding values and indexes are comparable regardless of breed making it easier for commercial deer farmers.”

Farm facts

1460ha split 400ha front country, 1000ha hill.

450-850m altitude near Mt Somers, Canterbury.

Deer: 1000 Eastern/English hinds; 50 velvet stags; 25 breeding and terminal stags. All weaners finished on farm Oct-March.

Cattle: 500 Angus & Hereford cows; progeny finished or sold for dairy mating.

Beet & kale wintering; plantain & clover summer finishing.