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Boosting velvet production in drought

Planting new dryland pasture forages to extend the growing season and cutting one tonne of velvet antler a year are two of the goals for Hawke’s Bay deer farmer, Miles Hellberg. He’s looking to lift profitability for his velvetting operation, currently in drought.
Miles Hellberg bought ‘Matahiwi’, a 139 hectare (ha) property near Waipawa in 2013. He was new to deer farming, entering the industry from a full-time career as a construction specialist in high specification membrane buildings for quarantine and harvest.  He had worked out that deer was the most profitable by far of all the species and that velvetting, in particular, “smokes the rest” in a dryland environment. 
Now a passionate convert, Matahiwi now runs 600 deer – raised mainly for velvet and 200 for venison – 180 cattle and 116 sheep over 19 paddocks. His target is for the farming operation to consistently achieve over $1,000 plus effective farm surplus per hectare (ha), rising from its current $849/ha. A difficult target after two “brutally dry” years – last autumn was the region’s driest for 30 years. 
Miles is chair and one of nine members of the Hawke’s Bay Progressives Advance Party (AP), one of three APs in the region. The group has quite a few velvetting operations which adds a different dynamic, he says, but has been very positive for them. 
With his co-members, he sat down with the AP’s facilitator, vet Anyika Scotland, at the start of the process in 2015. Together, they decided the way for Matahiwi to achieve his profitability targets was two-fold: firstly, to cut 1,000 kgs of velvet a year within four years and, secondly, by planting more dryland forage pasture. Though the latter has been revised to a five to six-year plan, with the last two very dry years.
A special feature of an AP’s worth to a farming enterprise is the opportunity to “nut problems out” with a group of similarly-focused experienced farmers, Miles has found. Over 10 meetings in 2016, he has gained very good advice, feedback and ideas, he says.  
In 2015, when the programme started, Matahiwi harvested a total of 166 kg of velvet from 133 stags – spikers, three year olds (R3s) and five year olds (R5s). In a bid to boost the kilograms of velvet cut per season, the velvetting plan is now for a maximum 250 stags on the property, stocked “not too highly”. Miles’ focus is also on better genetics to boost genetic gain more rapidly – and so velvet weights.
The plan is to add fifty spikers to the herd every year, thirty bred at Matahiwi and the other 20 bought in, along with 20 mixed age (MA) stags. One of those last year was a good R3 stag, Pampus Heights son of Sir Tristram, who cut 5.4kg of velvet as an R2.
“Some spikers with Pampus genetics are coming through now and are looking good,” he says.
Miles’ 70 MA hinds currently in fawn already have good genetics – Furzeland and Warnham – but the group suggested he needs to select the weaner hinds for heavier weights and early especially with the drought. 
Improving velvet genetic gain using a ‘parked up’ stag from a farm with proven genetics and also embryo transfer rather than semen were among other suggestions from the group. They also advised rather than buying in MA stags with uncertain temperament, for Miles to buy in cull R2 stags from a good velvetting herd instead. It’s thought this will help increase velvet weight quicker plus means that good younger animals will be in the herd longer.
Body condition and antler growth can also be improved by feeding the herd with good nutritional fodder at optimum times.  
Currently, there are 20ha of forage pastures at Matahiwi – plantain/chicory, annual clover/sub clover/Relish red clovers. With the dry, Hellberg brought in feed for hinds from February onwards and stags from July-September, up to 200 bales of baleage from April to September and two tonnes of kibbled maize. 
He’s keen to move to more nutritious forage pasture crops suited to dryland farming.
“That’s our passion, high quality food,” he says.
The group’s support gave him confidence to follow through on an idea to winter the stags on kale, which he had seen on a field day with the neighbouring Hawke’s Bay Originals AP. By last December – the end of the first full year for the AP – Hellberg planted six ha ‘Sovereign Kale’ for the first time, as a winter crop. 
“The crop struck quite nicely but we haven’t had much rain since,” he says. 
He’s also trying rocket plus sorghum sudan grass over three ha to see if it will handle the dry summer. 
Another suggested crop for Matahiwi’s dry conditions is lucerne – ideal for hinds in the summer, fawns in January and post-weaning condition boosts plus it can be baled and saved for dry periods and/or sale. Last year was too dry to get it established, but he’s keen to return to it this year and is planning to plant four ha. Other forage crops in use are arrowleaf clover-annual clover, Persian clover-annual clover and plantain/clover mix and seven ha of Choice chicory.
“The 2017 season is looking a whole lot better,” says Miles, who is confident the winter feeding and stocking model will lift the average kg of velvet cut. 
Safeguarding against future droughts, Miles has applied for 20 ha to be irrigated from the Ruataniwha dam and is thinking of planting red clover/plaintain pastures under it. Matahiwi, like others in the AP, falls within the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s Tukituki River Catchment Plan Change Six, which seeks to address specific water allocation and water quality issues in the area. The farm has been chosen as a Ballance Agri-Nutrients pilot farm for its ‘Mitigator’ nutrients plan, which at the time of writing was 99 percent finished.
Miles is keen to scrutinise his velvetting figures at the end of this season and is also looking forward to analysing the economic benefit of dryland forages, a project developed by the group.
The deer sector’s Passion2Profit programme, co-funded by industry and the Ministry for Primary Industries, aims to lift profitability for deer farmers. The Advance Party initiative is supported with funding from Deer Industry New Zealand and MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund.