Simon Wakefield left Ireland in February 2013 to embark on a six-month working holiday with friends from his agricultural business course in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
Almost eight years later, he is still in New Zealand, but working on a very different project to what he originally planned.
“It was part of our course to do six months’ work experience in a business, so we went to a large scale dairy farm in Maniototo Otago, South Island,” he tells the Irish Farmers Journal. The farm consisted of 1,600 cows on a low input system across two farms.
After six months, Simon’s friends headed for home but he stayed on for another six months, taking a job as a tractor driver for a local contractor.
That morphed into a three-year spell working throughout the Otago region for a large scale direct drilling contractor and a couple of farms.
For the past five years, Simon has worked for the Lindale Farming Company, based in Mount Somers, mid-Canterbury.
The company is an equity partnership formed between Simon’s boss Mark Faulks and his business partner Graeme Carr. Simon’s job description is rather comrehensive.
“In the winter months I help with the management of the run off block, wintering 600 cows and the replacement stock,” he explains.
“In late-winter, and for most of the spring I do the cultivation and drilling of grass and the following year’s winter crops, except for any precision planting on all the Lindale farming properties.”
But it’s his job for the summer months that is most unusual – managing the day-to-day running of Deer Milking New Zealand, one of the only commercial deer milking farms in the world.
“To be part of such a new and pioneering industry really is an opportunity of a lifetime,” says Simon.
“I was brought up on a small dairy farm based on the Offaly/north Tipperary border, so farming was always in my blood, whether it’s machinery or animals. When the opportunity arose to work with deer I was keen to see what it was all about.”
The deer milking enterprise has much in common with dairy cows, but with some serious modifications to the parlour equipment. They are designed with the smaller size, notable athleticism and nervous temperament of deer in mind, and include thickly padded stalls and barriers between milker and deer.
“Working with deer is definitely a different skillset than milking cows, however having dairy farm experience is more of an advantage than having deer experience,” according to Simon.
The fawns are left with their dams for longer than calves and their mothers.
“We leave the fawns with their mothers until they are a suitable weight to be weaned off mum and that’s when we start milking the hinds,” Simon explains.
“This year, however, we're trying a few different things and we've brought our season forward by four weeks and are milking the hinds while the fawns are still with them.”
The season is short, with milking commencing in early-January and finishing in late-April.
“At the moment we're currently milking some hinds every second day and gaining a bit more knowledge on how we can expand our season and learning a lot about the milk so early in the lactation as well,” he says.
Deer milk contains over double the milk solids of cows’ milk and is high in fat and protein. The deer produce on average 700ml per hind per day, although it can range from as little as 200ml to over 1l for the best milkers.
The extremely creamy milk is made into cheese.
While it takes 10l of cow’s milk to make 1 kg of cheese, it takes just 3.2l of deer milk to make 1kg of cheese.
Research into the nutritional traits of deer milk has shown it is particularly good for brain development, gut health and the immune system.
After five years in the unusual business, Simon is very keen to continue.
“I’ve developed a passion for developing systems and procedures to allow the deer milking industry to grow in the future, while learning the ins and outs of deer milk and how it can be a product with great potential,” the Shinrone man told the Irish Farmers Journal.
“My boss, Mark Faulks, had close to 30 years of deer farming experience before helping with two dairy farm conversions for the company.
“His knowledge and experience in both the dairy and deer industries is valued as one of the best in the business and to learn his systems both on farming and business is worth its weight in gold,” says Simon.
You can find out more about the development of Deer Milking New Zealand in this video: