If you search for information on red deer farming on the Internet, one of the first websites to pop up will be Shakaree Red Deer Farm in New Limerick, Maine. With a herd of 1,000 animals on 500 acres of pasture in southern Aroostook County, Shakaree is the largest and oldest red deer operation in the country, according to farm manager Mark Drew.
Red deer stags are known for their huge antlers that are not only trophies for hunters, but also are valued for the velvet used in producing a nutritional supplement rich in glucosamine and chondroitin, compounds known for promoting joint mobility and muscle strength. While red deer velvet can enhance the performance of human athletes, Drew says most of the velvet harvested from Shakaree Farm is sold as an additive for animal feed, especially for race horses.
The Shakaree herd has grown since 1990 when Gary Dwyer of New Limerick purchased 100 females and five stags from a farm in New Brunswick. The deer had been flown to Canada from New Zealand, the center for the world’s red deer industry.
Deer farms were not legal in the United States until shortly before Dwyer founded Shakaree, according to Drew. There were only three other red deer farms in the country at the time and they no longer exist, he added, which makes Shakaree the oldest such farm in the U.S.
Dwyer began improving the herd in 1994 after he traveled to New Zealand and learned about quality bloodlines originating in England, the former Yugoslavia and Germany. Since then, he has developed a strong breeding program through selective breeding on the farm and artificial insemination using semen and embryos from the English and European bloodlines. Shakaree has been a “closed farm” since 1997, meaning no live animals are introduced from outside.
“Our first market is breeding stock,” Drew said, explaining he sells between 250 and 300 animals a year, primarily bred females (called hinds), with stags as the second-largest market. Females start at $1,500, males at $2,500. The hinds are bred in October, pregnancy tests are conducted in December and most animals are sold in late December and January. Texas is the prime destination for red deer, but Shakaree deer go to many states, including Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Louisiana. They travel in livestock trucks, some carrying more than 50 animals, with enough feed to sustain them for the trip.
“We couldn’t keep up with the demand for stags, so buyers have been forced to buy females so they can raise their own,” Drew said.
When Drew met me in the dooryard of the farm in mid-February, he knew I would be disappointed that he couldn’t show me deer with antlers.
“I either cut the stags in velvet in the spring or cut the antlers off the stags in September once they have hardened, but before they start to fight each other for the breeding,” he explained. “It is very rare that I let one grow out their hard antlers throughout the winter and shed them.”
He did have a variety of antlers on hand, however, so I could see the traits by which they are distinguished. Hunters prefer antlers with record numbers of points. Buyers seeking velvet prefer thicker antlers with more mass.
Antlers of trophy stags are ranked by a scoring system of the Safari Club International, which totals measurements of all parts of the antler — beam, tine, mass and width. The world record is held by an 11-year-old stag in New Zealand named Odysseus who scored more than 700 inches. A 3-year-old descendant of Odysseus at Shakaree named Colt scored over 450 inches, the same score Odysseus had at that age. The record for the New Limerick farm, where animals are usually sold by age 5, is 521 inches.
Drew selected from his assortment one of the few sets of antlers that had been shed naturally in the winter from a stag bred for mass. “This stag has nearly 25 points, which is about average at the farm, but these antlers weigh over 30 pounds, which is huge for a 5-year-old stag.”
Every spring, the antlers of 2-, 3- and 4-year old stags are removed for their velvet. Darrell “Butch” Tobin, owner of Tobin Farms, formerly of Mapleton, now of Wiscasset, processes the velvet for sale by Maine Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Shakaree Red Deer Farm. The antlers are dried for 14-15 weeks in a freeze-dryer with a capacity for 1,200 pounds of antlers. The hair is scraped from the antler and the remaining honey-combed membrane is ground into a powder and encapsulated by a machine that can fill 28,000 capsules in an hour.
“Velvet is the fastest-growing tissue that is not cancerous,” Drew said, showing me a velvety antler that had regenerated in 60 days. The farm’s website says the antlers are “compassionately harvested,” causing no stress to the deer, and because they grow back, “red deer velvet is a renewable resource.”
Drew allows the antlers of a few stags from each bloodline to grow in order to see their characteristics and inform decisions about matches for future breeding. And while he says “hunting is not in our business plan” a few stags are released for hunters to pursue in a hunt park on the farm. Hunters stay in a lodge on the site, and Dwyer said sometimes they never find the deer.
June is a busy month at Shakaree. While stags are giving up their antlers for velvet, the females are giving birth. With a 90 percent success rate in the fall breeding, as many as 20 fawns a day may be added to the herd in the spring, replacing the 250-300 deer sold during the winter.
“It’s a thrill to see them multiply,” said Dwyer, expressing satisfaction with the growth in size and value of the deer. “The business has grown, the demand has grown. It is a tremendous opportunity, far beyond what I thought it could be.”
For more information, visit www.shakareedeerfarm.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.