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Versatile Cervids: An Unusual Livestock Option

Pet Column for the week of July 25, 2011

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Related site - Farm Animal Services at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

Quite likely you've never heard of "cervid farming," and now that you have there are two obvious questions: What is a cervid and why would one farm it?

Cervid refers to deer, the same way a bovid is a cow and felids are cats. More than thirty species are classified as cervids, from white tail deer and reindeer to moose and elk. Dr. Clifford Shipley, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, not only provides veterinary care to cervids at a variety of farms and parks, he also raises them himself.

Dr. Shipley has loved deer for as long as he can remember and started hunting at the age of 12. Once he became a veterinarian he started working with a few cervid farms and now has become well-known as the "reindeer doctor."

According to Dr. Shipley, deer farming has been going on for thousands of years. In medieval times deer hunting in private "gardens" was a beloved pastime of nobles and royalty. Meat from these deer was so prized it could be given as a gift.

Today deer farming continues to thrive, for hunting as well as for meat, antlers, and even urine. Just as production medicine veterinarians serve dairy or swine farms, veterinarians assist cervid farms in managing the health status of herd populations, seeking to ensure the animals' health and humane treatment while improving the farm's efficiency and profits.

Cervid farming is more common than you may realize, and deer have more uses than you might expect. There are around 150 members in the Illinois Deer Farms Association, and across the nation cervid farming is a $3.2 billion industry.

Dr. Shipley has several reasons for farming deer. "I raise them because I enjoy them, and I also sell urine and sell animals for meat, to other breeders, and to hunt ranches," he says.

Hunt ranches are probably the most common reason to farm cervids. Although state natural resources agencies allow wild deer hunting to control the deer population, there are strictly enforced hunting seasons. For gun hunters, there are two several-day hunting seasons a year, and for bow hunters, the season lasts three and a half months.

Since the demand exceeds the supply for deer to hunt—especially for trophy-level deer— privately owned hunt ranches are there to fill the need. Hunters can pay to hunt any time of year the ranch chooses to allow it. These animals are well taken care of and well fed, and there are a lot more trophy animals to be had because people selectively breed for deer with larger antlers.

Farmed deer are very closely regulated, much as other farm animals are. The animals are given dewormers and vaccines and are tested for tuberculosis, chronic wasting disease, and brucellosis to ensure that deer on a hunt ranch are healthy trophy animals. Deer must have ID tags to be moved from one location to another, and all farms must have permits to own deer.

Cervids are also farmed for meat. Meat usually comes from elk and red deer, which are larger species and produce more meat. Just like all other meat sold in stores, deer and elk meat must be inspected by the USDA. Most deer meat sold in the United States is imported from New Zealand, where the feral red deer—once an invasive species on their islands—is now farmed for what has become a thriving market. The U.S. elk farming market has been hurt by outbreaks of chronic wasting disease.

Velvet antlers from cervids have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is used as an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, immune stimulant and pro-growth agent. In Western medicine velvet antler is used as an anti-inflammatory and to enhance athletic performance. It has effects similar to other glycoaminoglycans in improving joint fluid and cartilage and tendon. Since deer grow new antlers every year, there is a renewable source of antler that doesn't harm the animals in any way.

Deer urine is marketed to hunters, who use it to attract wild deer. People also raise deer to sell for breeding stock. Deer parks and reindeer ranches have become tourist attractions.

For all these farmed animals, whatever their purpose, you can be sure that a veterinarian plays a role in maintaining their health.