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The Pillars of Success – Animal Health

Let’s start this off by saying that I am not a veterinarian; I have no formal education in “deer management” and I am pretty stubborn. Sound familiar?  Yep! That’s nearly every deer famer and rancher I know.

When I reflect on the journey that I know many have taken, one can’t help but wonder why we choose to reinvent the wheel when it comes to raising deer. People have propagated livestock for thousands of years and in today’s world, of limitless technology, you would think resources would be available for us to use on our path.

As I come into my 24th year of “deer (real) world education,” I would like to share what I feel are some of the “Pillars of Success” relating to general animal health. This is intended to be big picture stuff, not so much the nuanced detail of what separates the good from the great.  We can simply look to the cattle, sheep, goat and other livestock industries for the recipe. If we adapt these ideas and concepts to fit the deer operations we run, we can be successful.

Pillar 1 – “Pen Density”
Let’s face it… you probably have too many deer. Why must we feel the need to cram so many animals into a confined space? As time moves forward, I have come to realize that limiting the number of deer on any given pasture is the most important thing in maintaining healthy animals. Healthy animals are success! For the vast majority of us, creating fawns (the next generation) is the most profitable way to extract income from your farm.

What is a good starting point for answering the question, “How many deer is too many?” Well, mortality and morbidity rates are an easy and known calculation. The animals that express this the most are fawns.  Why? Because they are entering the world at birth with a naïve immune system and, generally speaking have the highest chance of getting sick or dying. As a rule, I like to see 4-6 adult does per acre, pre-fawning, on (if at all possible) fresh, winter-rested pastures or at least minimally impacted pasture. You can start with higher animal numbers, but my experience is that when I violate these rules I pay the price.

I could go on about this more, however, I want to explore another important topic…

Pillar 2 – “Vaccination Program”
I know… this coming from a guy who sells vaccines! Let me share the short version of my story with you and then you may draw your own conclusions. For the first 10 years of managing a whitetail herd I was quite “anti-vax.” I said things like, “These are deer; they live in the wild just fine.” And my favorite was, “My deer don’t really get sick much and, if they do, I just give them some meds.” As time went on, and I had more animals on the same piece of ground for years and years, my bacterial problems slowly grew along with my herd inventory. I decided to add some commercial cattle vaccines to my health program (which really was far from defined at that point in time) and I was less than satisfied with the results.

We wonder why these vaccines do not work! “Such and such farmer,” with way more experience than myself, uses them and he told me they work great. A simple review with my herd-vet about what coverage these vaccines provided simply did not match up with the bacteria found in our necropsy reports (sampling and diagnostics is a whole other can of beans). So what options are we left with knowing the commercial vaccines are not providing adequate coverage for the most common bacteria found? Enter the autogenous biologic. Autogenous biologics are custom vaccines, consisting of herd specific (homologous) antigens (i.e., these are made for cervid!).

The results of just adding this product showed tremendous improvement in the overall mortality rates we were experiencing, though morbidity (how many antibiotics we need to administer due to sick animals) remained above our threshold. Over the course of the next decade we culled, reduced imports of new animals, continued twice-per-year vaccine administration, and finally implemented strict “Pillar 1” adherence. The results have been outstanding! But we were fortunate to start with a great base prior to Pillar 1 and Pillar 2…

Pillar 3 – “Nutrition”
I am jaded, discussing nutrition as a topic, simply for the fact that my feed program has been unchanged for about 15 years and the quality of what we feed is top-grade and CONSISTENT. The whitetail deer is incredibly adaptive to many environments and feed types and are a true success story in and of themselves in North America with present populations of around 35 million animals when just 100 years ago they were few in number. The whitetail deer can and does have specific nutritional requirements to thrive, however, as Man involves himself he tends to think that more is better… like 20+ percent protein levels… or 12+ percent fat… and so on.

My suggestion about feed is really simple – keep it simple, balanced, and buy the best you can. As the largest input, not only on the balance sheet but physically into the animal, feed plays a key role in herd health. It is a foundational item and input that sets the stage for genetic expression and health.

In hindsight, I wish these pillars were implemented into my day-to-day operations long ago and all at the same time. But sharing them with you today gives me great optimism about what the future of the cervid industry has in store.

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