Collapse bottom bar
Deer Hunting Culture National Story NAW+ News

Deer Farms: Hunting’s Ticking Time Bomb

by David Hart   |  July 27th, 2014 8
Illustration by Mike O'Brien

Illustration by Mike O’Brien

They have names like X-Factor, Rambo, Powerpoint, and Stonecold. They bear freakishly large, even grotesquely shaped, antlers, and they walk as if they might tip over from the weight of that bone. They aren’t just deer, they are genetically engineered, farm-raised, super-freak whitetails. They are also the center of a growing controversy.

For Quality Deer Management Association Director of Education & Outreach Kip Adams, they are nothing but the biggest threat to wild whitetails and the deer hunting culture. The deer-farming industry smears ethical, fair-chase hunters, he says, and is likely the vector for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

“Our main concern is the unregulated transport of farm-raised deer across state lines. The potential for disease transmission is incredibly high, and it poses a very real threat to wild deer,” says Adams. “Chronic wasting disease is already found in one-quarter of all wild whitetail bucks in parts of Wisconsin. That’s up substantially from just a few years ago. We [biologists] don’t want to see similar rates in other states.”

So far, there is no proof that CWD has spread from captive deer and elk farms to wild animals. The circumstantial evidence, however, is compelling. At least 10 wild Missouri whitetails tested positive for CWD. All were within a 29-square-mile area surrounding two captive herds that tested positive for the disease.

“Almost every state that has CWD in wild cervids also has captive deer farms. There are many, many examples of the disease showing up in wild deer near infected pens,” says Adams. “It may be impossible to prove a link, but we know that captive deer escape on a regular basis, and we know that CWD has been found at a number of farms that were thought to be disease-free.”

North American Deer Farmers Association Executive Director Shawn Schafer disputes the disease link. He also says virtually every deer that escapes is recaptured.

“We established a certification program where we test our animals for various diseases. Our deer have not one but two unique identification numbers. Not one time has a diseased animal been moved by a captive breeder,” he says. “We monitor our herds, and we test animals when they die. We also have strict fencing guidelines to prevent deer from escaping, although it does happen occasionally, mostly through human error.”

The testing is largely voluntary, though, and a report by the Missouri Department of Conservation found that just 131 of 300 state breeders monitor their animals for disease.

Despite the growing controversy that surrounds it, the captive deer industry is booming. Schafer says it generated an economic impact of $4 billion in 2013, up from $3 billion in 2006. There are an estimated 10,000 deer and elk farms throughout the United States and Canada, although many states prohibit these types of facilities. Minnesota has over 700 deer farms, and Pennsylvania and Texas each have around 1,000.

Schafer says deer farmers are no different than those who raise cattle, chickens, or hogs. The animals are their livelihoods, and they strive to keep them healthy if for nothing else than to protect their bottom line. Whitetails, bucks in particular, are bred through a selection process much the same way cattle breeders create near-perfect specimens through genetic engineering.

The goal is to produce freakishly large antlers, larger than anything ever produced in the wild. Maxbo, a buck raised on a Missouri farm, scored 180 inches under the Boone & Crockett scoring system the first year he bore antlers and 358 inches the following year. The antlers of another buck named Dream On scored 262 inches as a yearling. Individual does sell for as much as $7,500.

The animals are raised for a variety of reasons, although a large part of the market appears to be breeders selling semen and does to other farmers, who then engineer their own enormous bucks so they can sell the semen to other farmers. Semen “straws,” which contain enough fluid to impregnate two or three does, can sell for thousands of dollars.

Schafer says there is a growing market for meat, which is typically sold to high-end restaurants as well as jerky manufacturers. Most farm-raised venison destined for butcher shops and restaurants is still imported from New Zealand, but that’s gradually changing.

“The demand for urine is huge. Where do you think all those bottles of Tink’s and Code Blue come from?” says Schafer. “There is also a growing demand for hard antlers for things like chandeliers and even dog chews. The soft antler market is growing pretty quick, too. Deer farmers are clearly fulfilling a demand.”

Many of the bucks, however, are raised just for the high-fence hunting industry where hunters often pay fees based entirely on antler size. Prices can run more than $20,000 for the largest bucks. In some cases, hunters can select individual animals from a website as if they were choosing from an a la carte menu. Schafer, however, says those giant bucks are the exception in the captive deer hunting industry.

“The bread-and-butter of most of these ranches are the 150-, 160-inch deer, which is what many hunters expect when they hunt free-range deer in places like Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa,” he says. “Our members provide a service for hunters who may not have the time necessary to have a successful hunt or access to quality land. These ranches offer a quality hunt, which is what everyone wants, isn’t it?”

If the animals are raised and bred through a process that parallels the livestock industry but then released in pens to be shot by hunters, who should regulate the industry? Are these deer wild animals or livestock? It’s a question that is working its way through the legislative process in many states. The deer-farm lobby has attempted and failed at least twice to pass legislation classifying their industry as agricultural. Adams, however, says they should be treated and regulated as wildlife. Schafer argues they are livestock and thus should not be regulated by state wildlife agencies, even if they are shot under the guise of hunting.

The issue may be nothing more than a matter of semantics, but the notion of shooting a buck nurtured by human hands and then released into a small enclosure raises serious ethical questions. Adams says these “canned” hunts, which can be widely publicized because of the controversy, are how many non-hunters judge all hunting. They don’t know the difference. Although 79 percent of all Americans support sport hunting in general, just 20 percent support hunting inside high fences, according to a survey conducted by research firm Responsive Management.

The QDMA is not opposed to high-fence hunts, but Adams says operations that release genetically engineered deer into small enclosures that are in no way natural or offer a chance of escape are a stain on the entire hunting community.

“Hunters make up just 6 percent of the country’s population. We can’t afford to risk our reputation on what takes place on these deer farms,” says Adams.

He admits they are likely here to stay, even with all the issues that surround them. Despite growing calls for tighter regulations or even an outright ban on captive deer operations by the QDMA and other conservation groups, the industry is actually lobbying for and winning relaxed rules or expanded opportunities for deer farming. Idaho recently reduced mandatory CWD testing for all farmed elk that die to just 10 percent of those that die from all other causes. Other states are poised to ease disease testing requirements or restrictions on the size of hunting enclosures.

That’s a step in the wrong direction, says Adams. Deer farming is little more than a ticking time bomb that could spell disaster for wild deer everywhere. Despite assurances from the captive deer industry, the disease threat is real and one that can not be dismissed. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, deer hunters spent more than $18 billion in 2011 and had an economic impact of nearly $40 billion.

“Chronic wasting disease is now found in nearly one-quarter of all wild whitetail bucks 2½ years old and older in parts of Wisconsin. That’s up from a 7 or 8 percent infection rate in 2002. We [biologists] don’t want to see similar rates in other states,” says Adams. “It was recently discovered in wild whitetails in Iowa for the first time, also. Is it worth the risk?”

  • Johnny

    One of the most feared sentence in the USA today…
    “growing calls for tighter regulations or even an outright ban”
    I can see all the empty heads all nodding now…..with some dumba** politician declaring “we must do something” and erosion of more rights decided by non-sportsmen, heck, maybe they can create a whole new Department -Off-?, hire hundreds of anti-hunters, Vegans, PETA types.. what will be there next big unlegislated solution.

    How about the local jurisdictions getting some of that money for hunting licenses and fix as a local issue. This article seems to be written by someone who things Big-gov is not big and intrusive enough, and regulation can somehow improve something.. gees look around.

    • Grady

      We had game farms here in Montana until CWD was discovered in a Deer Farm. Then the PEOPLE voted on an initiative to outlaw them. Before that one of the Elk Ranchers bragged in an article about how his people would drive a hunter around in a few hundred acres for several hours before going to where they knew the elk would be so they could have a “quality” hunt. Yeah right. And I remember an incident over in Idaho a few years ago when a bear tore a hole in a double fence and a bunch of pen raised elk escaped. The owner was complaining that the Fish and Game allowed hunters to go in the area to kill any elk they saw even though he admitted he did not know if he had recaptured all of them or not. The game ranchers are only after the money and will say anything they have to to justify their business, just the same as the ranchers who charge people to hunt on their land for game that belongs to the people to start with. It is all about the money……

  • Hunter

    If the animals are in a contained area as cattle and hogs are then a are privately owned. Are these deer which are being sold as livestock to be killed in a confined area under any state or federal regulation. Does anyone really know how many are killed for how much profit. Are these deer farmers taxes as the cattle and hog farmers are . I doubt it.
    In many of the fenced killing farms a shooter does not even need to own a firearm , one will be provided for them. This killer does not even need a liciense in some states. The only person gaining from the killing of the animal is the person who owns the animal. They are purely killers not hunters. As far as what the farmers are doing to produce the large antlers , you mess with mother nature long enough she will bite you in the ass for the long run .

    • Outdoorsman70

      Injecting drugs and not paying taxes… YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU”RE TALKING ABOUT! The fact that you have no problem spewing nonsense that you CLEARLY are not educated on tells me all I need to know about you. Your credibility rating = ZERO. Congratulations!

  • farmer

    Does David Hart know what genetic engineering is? If he is referring to a large antlered buck being crossed with a doe from unrelated stock that has bloodlines that contribute some of the same characteristics – THAT IS NOT GENETIC ENGINEERING. That is what farmers and ranchers have been doing since time immemorial – crossing two unrelated animals to improve the desirable traits in their herd. Why should deer farmers not do the same? If Mr. Hart has examples of REAL genetic manipulation other than standard breeding practices in deer herds he should explain what they are – not just recklessly throw bombshell terms around to elicit an emotional response from readers. To do so is giving antis ammunition and is giving those who practice the noble vocation of animal husbandry a black eye. If Mr. Hart thinks deer ranches should be shut down, shame on him. He is no better than those who would take our guns.

  • hunter

    To Mr Farmer
    Cattle farmers did it to develop a stronger healthy animal. They did it to help offset disease and may other concerns the cattle have. Yes in the long run they did have a better animal which paid more at the market . They also did this to feed the world not to sell a animal which looks deformed to a person calling themselves a hunter to kill in a pin. Deer farmers either inject or feed the animal with drugs causing the horn to grow more in 1 year the a wild animal ever would. The bodies of most of your pen raised animals a very small . You alter the growth for horn and horn only.
    I ask you this question . Are you deer fit for human consumption.

  • farmer

    What you are describing is a far cry from genetic manipulation that Mr. Hart proclaimed was going on. If they are feeding or injecting the animals with hormones, I don’t think that is a putting a heritable trait in an animal that Hart claims will destroy the integrity of the wild herd in this country. It merely allows the individual animal to express its full genetic potential to grow bone. All individual animals have “hidden” traits that can be expressed especially if they are not subjected to the rigors of foraging on their own in the wild. How do you know that the relatively stress free life that penned animals have compared to wild individuals is not largely responsible for extra horn development?

    In addition, I thought that we lived in a country where people could be free to capitalize on demands in the marketplace. Obviously, there is a demand in the marketplace or deer farms would disappear. Deer hunters with a holier than thou attitude about deer farms amuse me. They complain about someone trying to make an honest living while they plant food plots, feed corn and minerals to wild deer, and proclaim the gospel of QDMA. What’s the difference? Would you rather have this guy be an anti just because he doesn’t follow the rules you and writers like Hart say must be followed? This is the enlightened crowd that has made deer hunting a rich mans sport. If you aren’t rich or the employee of a sporting goods company you can’t afford to hunt on prime ground – it is all under lease. I’m not complaining – that is a part of our free enterprise society. I don’t want anyone messing with my opportunity to make a living, so I’ll not follow Hart’s example and throw someone under the bus rather than try to understand his way of life

  • Keyser Söze

    Sadly, the commercialization of hunting has darn near driven up prices to the point where hunting is simply out of reach for the ordinary middle-class American.

back to top