Grant and Sally Charteris breed deer and grow crops on their Class 6 hill country Forest Road Farm at Tikokino. Their focus is on investing in genetics, to breed deer for velvet and trophy. They are also one of the advance parties in the Deer Industry Productivity Improvement Programme. In 2016 they won the title of Silver Fern Farms Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year.
The deer industry recognised some time ago that there was a need to improve its profitability and maximize returns on investment across the sector. They initiated the Productivity Improvement Programme (or PIP) to identify opportunities within the industry that would increase production, and prioritise them.
Since 2012 they have developed a series of programmes covering the entire value chain and started looking at opportunities to make improvements.
The programme identified that a lot of the progress that had been made came from gains in the market but not from improved production efficiency. As a result, they developed a mantra for the industry : more deer, heavier, earlier and better.
A programme known as Passion to Profit (or P2P) involves collaboration between five venison marketing companies, the NZ Deer Farmers Association, and Deer Industry NZ. The project is co-funded by the government’s Primary Growth Partnership. The projected total cost of the project is $16m over seven years.
P2P aims to improve returns to NZ deer farmers through increasing the chilled market, including a collaborative marketing campaign. P2P also is working on developing solutions for deer farmers around feed, genetics and animal health.
Grant and Sally Charteris’ Forest Road Farm backs on to the Gwavas Forest, which runs up to the Ruahine Ranges, 10km north of Tikokino in Central Hawke’s Bay.
Grant’s grandmother, Penny, developed Forest Road Farm. She bought the property in 1956, and Grant’s father Bruce carried on Penny’s work until he died (tragically in an accident on the farm) in 2013.
The 327ha property is relatively summer safe, due to its proximity to the ranges. The farm runs from 549m across three elongated gullies, with little flat land available. The elevation means cold winters with minimal grass growth and the occasional snowfall.
The couple run 500 breeding hinds, 400 velvet stags, 220 R1 hinds and a similar number of R1 stags.
About 230 females are taken through to 15 months old and mated in two lines – a keeper line and a sale line. They are pregnancy scanned in June, with the keepers remaining and the sale line hinds sold for their velvet genetics.
Grant gets good conception rates with his yearling hinds. He says the results come down to feeding and sociability; he introduces stags to the hinds early on, and says good feed is key.
“There used to be a common misconception that deer live on the smell of an oily rag and they’re low maintenance, that you can stick them out on that southerly face for the winter and they’ll look after themselves. But if you want good production and good results and to farm them in a profitable manner, you can’t treat them like a second-rate citizen.”
When Grant came home to the farm it had a small velvet herd. His father Bruce had retired into town and given Grant “enough rope” to do what he wanted as well as acting as his sounding board. “My passion reignited his passion,” Grant says.
Grant says the nature of velvet makes it easy to track improvement and improvement comes quickly. “Because it’s so visual and you get such a quick return on your investment with velvet, it became infectious.”.
These days average velvet weights per head are around 8-12kg for sire stags, and mixed aged around 6.1kg (first cut). Research into velvet has led Grant to change the cutting dates. He selects stags on their velvet, style and weight. When stags get to eight years old he grows them out (around 10 to 12 each year) as trophy animals.
Grant says New Zealand has an advantage in the velvet markets. Both health food companies and those newer generation velvet marketers that focus on the traditional channels are proudly promoting the New Zealand provenance of their velvet products. The key advantages are that New Zealand velvet is less exposed to other diseases prevalent in many competing countries and is perceived as being clean, green and free range. There’s also recognition that the New Zealand product has integrity – that we are considered trustworthy and honest to deal with.
An annual sale is held in which Grant’s velvet stags are for sale by private treaty.
In 2016 Forest Road Farm hosted an open day for the first time, to show off the stags and the velvet they’ve harvested.
Keeping with Grant’s desire to feed his animals well, he grows a plantain and clover mix to lift bodyweights prior to mating. Winter crops maintain body weights of stags post “roar”. He says the key to growing good velvet is to stop them from losing too much internal bodyfat over the roar and then keep them well fed over the winter.
Grant says he is driven by the gains to be made in deer farming. He says the industry is nowhere near its potential. He says he is keen to make his own farm a success and for the industry as a whole to develop much further.