DALLASTOWN, Pa. — Whitetail deer are a familiar pest to many farmers, eating from fields and rubbing on young trees.
But on some farms, deer are fenced in, not out. Highbourne Deer Farms is one of those places, and its 138 deer are no whitetails.
John and Nancy Behrmann started Highbourne Deer Farm in 1990 on their 79-acre farm. Raising exotic or nontraditional livestock was in vogue back then, and deer farms were springing up all over, along with bison, emu and ostrich farms.
John Behrmann was thinking of starting a horse farm, but his father suggested deer, and particularly red deer, to create more of a market niche.
Red deer are native to Europe and are close cousins of the American elk. They are twice the size of whitetails and a little smaller than elk.
Red deer lack the long appendage that gives whitetails their name and have darker underbellies than the North American native.
Highbourne started with imported red deer from New Zealand, where they are an introduced species, and has since added genetics from Scottish and German deer.
These days, “there’s actually not many red deer operations left” in Pennsylvania, Trent Hutchison, the farm manager for the past 10 years, said. Hutchison’s wife, Connie, is also a caretaker and helps with sales at the farm.
“I’ve been around large livestock all my life,” Trent Hutchison said, but raising red deer is “really nothing like raising cattle.”
Deer do not respond obediently to herding like cattle do. “You round them up differently. You deal with them differently,” he said.
While hunting enthusiasts might dream of captive stags growing hulking racks, the stags’ elegance must yield to practicality and safety.
Hutchison and the staff cut the antlers off every year so the stags do not injure or kill each other or the workers. Cutting the antlers makes stags less aggressive, though they still attempt to clash with their stumps.
Even with this precaution, deer are less predictable than domesticated livestock.
“Cows aren’t tame, but deer are wild,” Hutchison said.
Deer prefer to run from danger and are wary of strange people. Stags particularly prefer solitude. By now, though, the deer know Hutchison’s smell, and the females will approach him, at least when they see him bringing their dinner.
One of the females, Bambi, is the rare deer that does not fear people. Her son is the same way. Hutchison said that is an undesirable trait in a male because that greater comfort makes them more likely to injure people.
Keeping the deer from going into flight mode is also important.
“You have to be quiet around them. If you get them wound up, you can’t do anything with them,” he said.
When the deer are in the barn, Hutchison and the other workers try to get them out again efficiently because the deer go into a shocklike state.
“It really freaks them out,” he said. “If they can’t run, then they can get ugly.”
For example, one spooked stag knocked a John Deere Gator sideways.
Stags typically grow to 600 pounds, while females reach 300 to 350 pounds.
The deer are generally kept in pens with 8 1/2-foot fences. The deer could still jump out into the woods if they wanted to, but Hutchison said he is not concerned about that. Highbourne’s deer know they will get food where they are, he said.
The fence’s greater purpose is keeping the wild deer out, he said.
The Highbourne deer graze rotationally and are fed hay in the morning and grain in the afternoon. The deer also have about 30 acres of pasture on the 79-acre farm.
The pasture is “usually not a problem unless it’s a dry year. Then we irrigate,” Hutchison said.
The deer are currently in rutting season, an important time of year because the great majority of Highbourne’s breeding is natural.
“It’s very hard to do AI in deer” because the success rate is not high, Hutchison said. They have brought in a Canadian veterinarian and samples from around the world, but they have had more success with their two natural breeding groups, each with one stag.
“Inbreeding is such a major problem in any type” of exotic operation, Hutchison said.
He keeps detailed records on all of the animals and tries to cross-breed animals from the two breeding groups to ensure stronger genetics.
The males and females are kept separate most of the year, but the breeding stags are put in with the females from September to December.
After the stags are segregated again, the two female breeding groups are allowed to run together for the rest of the winter.
At the spring roundup, Hutchison and the other workers weigh and worm all the deer. The breed groups are then separated for the birthing season. Some mothers stay away from their offspring, making it impossible to tell who the fawn’s mother is, but the breeding group separation allows him to at least tell who the father is.
The deer are weighed and wormed again in the fall, and also inoculated. The animals do not receive antibiotics.
The farm primarily sells to restaurants in a 200- to 300-mile radius. To legally resell the meat, the farm uses a processor that is USDA certified for exotic animals. The meat is shipped second-day FedEx in foam boxes that act as small coolers.
“Mainly we get rid of young stags,” Hutchison said. The slaughtered females are typically older or have had trouble conceiving.
The deer can be sent to the butcher at 1 1/2 years old, but Hutchison tries to keep them 2 to 2 1/2 years “for body size,” he said.
The farm has shipped as far as Alaska and Hawaii through its Internet site, which serves regular people who want to buy deer meat.
The farm occasionally sells live animals to hunting preserves as well. Highbourne recently sent six stags to a preserve in New York.
Including the Hutchisons, the farm employs one part-time and three full-time employees year-round. It also has one full-time and one part-time employee who work nine months of the year.