Murray Heays, Te Rangi station

September 2007
The 960ha Te Rangi station has been owned by the Heays family since 1917, which is now 90 years. Murray Heays was born in 1931 and has lived all his life on the property. It always ran Romney sheep and Angus cattle, but Murray has changed the cattle to Herefords and brought in Red deer.

The station was associated with the iconic Tutira station of Herbert Guthrie-Smith, who wrote a famous book called Tutira, The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station. That book has been an inspiration to conservationists and landowners around the world, as it describes the ecology of the region and its modification by farming, and the attempts of Guthrie-Smith to restore balance and sustainability to pastoral farming. He was there from 1882 to his death in 1940, after Tutira had been greatly reduced in size. His daughter gifted the remaining 800ha to the nation in a trust. Murray is on the Tutira Trust and recently participated in a film made about the life and work of Guthrie-Smith.

A feature of the farm is four huge cliffs (up to 300m in height) which have associated gorges, in which it is possible to box up deer. They can also be used to funnel stock up to the upland paddocks. The property is carrying 1100 deer, 130 cows, 1860 ewes and replacements.

Because of the large numbers of feral deer in the Maungaharuru Range and the Mohaka Forest, behind Te Rangi, Murray was a pioneer of deer capture in the early 1970s. He had the third licence issued to farm deer in Hawkes Bay, which was granted in 1978. He had captured deer from the wild for seven years before applying for the licence, building yards and selling deer.

The capture method involves jump-ins about 2 to 2.5 metres down into deer fenced enclosures, which the deer cant jump back out of. However Murray remembers that his first 500 captured deer, 60% stags, when yarded were capable of clearing walls 2m high. The circular yards were built to hold an on-farm sale, which continued every year until the mid-1980s, when the removal of investment incentives killed the live deer market.

Deer both within and without the fences are fed regularly with supplements and then the feeding stops outside the fence, so that hungry deer will use the jump-in. Murray also calls the deer, so that they get used to being fed after a call.

Te Rangi has managed to capture up to 130 at one time even without using the jump-in, by just running them through a cut gap in the deer fence, mended again afterwards. Capture is still going on, with an expectation of about 50 this year. It helps relieve the hunger of wild deer when the numbers build up, and takes the pressure off native plant grazing.

Te Rangi now has 440ha behind deer fencing, including 67ha of native bush.

It also has two deer yards, a pioneering circular yards built in 1978 and a newer yards designed by Murray which is well apart from the first yards, to make deer movements easier. This deer fenced area will be the main focus for filming. Murray is going to confine deer in smaller paddocks so that they can be filmed.

Murray was a pioneer of NZ velvet drying and freezing also, teaming up with other East Coast farmers to deal with Koreans and import machinery. That was around 1980, when velvet prices were at $200/kg.

He also went to the UK and Europe and purchased stags, as well as staying for several months teaching the NZ methods of farming deer.

Murray now has 270 Red hinds, 500 velveting stags and a balance of weaners which brings the total number up to 1100, although weaners should be sold shortly.

He has purchased stags from three different UK properties, and also from Denmark, to boost the velvet production, but not to increase the body size. He aims to produce 1000kg or more of velvet annually. By the time a stag is three years old it must be producing 2kg of velvet, or it will be culled.

Velveting takes place over three months from the middle of October.

The hinds are single-sire mated around the middle of March, which is the roar. Fawning takes place in November. Hinds are mated at 18 months and then culled on performance between two and three years old. The aim is to get rid of the poor performers and any fractious ones, whose numbers are noted. The fawning percentage is usually around 90%, having originally been below 80%. However, last year Murray had a stag failure and the fawning dropped back down to 80%.

Murray has been through several price cycles in the deer industry, and is now welcoming a return to better prices for velvet and venison. During the latest downturn he cut back hind numbers from 400 down to 270, but now he will expand again by keeping about 50 weaner hinds. He will also retain about 60 weaner stages, with the best velveting potential. With lamb and wool prices so low, deer again looks like a good diversification for Te Rangi. The worst of the downturn was venison prices under $3/kg and velvet price under $40/kg. Deer farmers need $5-$6/kg to be viable long-term. The most recent sale of rising 2yo stags with average 48kg CW netted $240/head, or $5/kg. Murray is now dealing with Progressive Meats, after the takeover of Richmond by PPCS, the biggest venison processor in NZ.

Last seasons total velvet income was $89,000, compared with $34,000 the year before, on much the same quantity. So the Korean market has certainly recovered, especially given the strength of the NZD.

I have always had faith in the deer industry, that prices would recover, Murray said.