Velvet comes indoors

Wintering velvet stags indoors reduces the risks of winter grazing on a Southland farm. By Lynda Gray.

In Business7 Minutes
Bruce Allan inside the 760m2 Redpath wintering shed.

Wintering velvet stags indoors reduces the risks of winter grazing on a Southland farm. By Lynda Gray.

T he Allan family are gearing up for a third indoor wintering shed for velvet stags. It will cost more than $100,000, but Bruce Allan says it will be money well spent.

“We could grow a lot of winter crop for that money, but I view it as a long-term asset, and it mitigates some of the environmental/animal welfare risks around intensive winter grazing.”

Keeping the stags dry and off soggy paddocks to prevent pugging and pasture damage are the main reasons for the move indoors, which started in 2019 with construction of a three-pen 760sq m clear panel roofed and enclosed Redpath shed. It was built on the footprint of a former weaner wintering pad and cost about $80,000 to build plus fitout.

The second shed, a 160m2 kitset Alpine was built during the 2020 lockdown. It’s a single pen that’s enclosed on the south side and has a Colorsteel and clearlight panel roof.

In both sheds the ground is covered with a mix of post peelings and sawdust, with the top layer scraped out at the end of winter.

The new build, another Alpine kitset covering 360m2 will be constructed in March on the east side of the other shed, and ready for winter 2022. The three sheds will have capacity for at least 350 stags.

Last winter (2021) 250 stags were indoors from mid-May until the third week of August. That was earlier than the previous year because of low pasture covers in late autumn.

“I wanted to keep them on grass until the start of June but started earlier because we had spare silage to feed them,” Bruce says.

The older stags were separated into three age-group pens in the Redpath shed, and all the R3s were wintered in the Alpine shed.

Silage is fed daily from a silage wagon on ground along one side of the sheds. The fine chop cereal silage is easily accessed by stags through the exposed 30cm-high gap running along the side of one wall.

In the first year balage was fed but stags tended to drag it back into the shed and waste it, that’s less of a problem with the silage.

Bruce is very pleased with the sheds, particularly the natural light and air flow which helps keep the ground surface dry.

The stags adapt very quickly to the indoor routine and have plenty of space to move and lie down.

The only change made was the replacement of 30mm timber with 50mm timber where stags reach through to feed – the lighter timber didn’t withstand the occasional pushing and shoving from some of the stags.

The $250,000-plus investment in wintering sheds over the last three years and the add-on cost of making conserved feed is a huge commitment but it fits with the Allans’ overall goal of better pasture management and soil protection.

“We’re growing more grass at key times because we’re keeping the deer off the paddocks when they cause the most damage and it gets us off to a good start feeding-wise in spring.”

This year’s spring pasture cover was about 25% up on an average year after good winter growth but having stags off the paddocks in late autumn and early spring definitely helped.

Feeding the stags indoor has reduced by half the area of fodder beet grown. It’s changed the pasture renewal programme, with a cereal silage crop following the winter crop.

“We’ve slowed down regrassing now that we’re doing just 4-5ha of winter crop a year. All paddocks will get turned over eventually and where needed we’ll stitch in a hybrid ryegrass.”

Sub-par results with sub-clover

In 2018 (Country-Wide April 2018) Bruce Allan was in the second year of growing a sub-clover pasture to provide quality feed for deer over spring and autumn.

He liked the concept of sub clover because it was likely to grow through the cooler months and reseed every year. He was also encouraged by the success that South Otago farmers Peter and Joy Wilson (Country-Wide, April 2016) were having with the hairy-leaved clover in a cold wet climate.

A Monti and Denmark sub clover mix was established in 2016, and another similar mix the following year. It wasn’t cheap to grow at $475/ha, but the initial results were encouraging – the highest ever weaning weights of fawns which Bruce attributed in part to the high quality feed.

He was also hopeful about its nitrogen fixing ability, which legume expert Derrick Moot has estimated in the past to be worth about 30kg per tonne of drymatter grown into perennially nitrogen deficient pastures.

However, the stumbling block was the failure of the legume to re-seed and spread which has switched him off sub-clover and on to high-performing ryegrass, red and white clover mixes.

“I had the confidence to try it but in hindsight it wasn’t a good fit for our grazing system.”