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Deer farmers raise unusual livestock in South Dakota
One of the white-tailed deer, Ashley, at Chris Kassubes farm near Bath stands near the edge of her enclosure. - photo by Photo Contributed

BATH, S.D. (AP) — This time of year his farm can be pretty boring, Chris Kassube said.

The fences on his Bath-area farm stretch higher than most, 10 feet toward the dull sky. And they hold what most South Dakotans are only used to seeing in the wild: about 60 white-tailed deer.

Kassube began deer farming about three years ago. That was two years after Carl Hanson, who farms deer north of Bath.

Each farm is tucked away and accessible only by traveling down rural gravel roads, muddied by the first signs of spring.

That’s when things will pick up on the farms.

“Spring will bring fawns,” Kassube said.

And a lot of them at that. Does almost always have twins and sometimes triplets, he said.

The Aberdeen American News reports that while the size of their herds grow, deer farming itself seems to be an increasing trade, especially in northeastern South Dakota, where the practice can come as a surprise to some.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 231,431 head of deer on 4,042 operations in the country during its 2012 census, with 89 captive deer in South Dakota on just five operations. The 2017 census of agriculture is still being conducted.

Now, however, there are 43 farms that have captive nondomestic permits for either deer or elk throughout the state, said Mendel Miller, assistant state veterinarian with the South Dakota Animal Industry Board. Miller estimates about a quarter of those are in northeastern South Dakota.

In order to obtain a state permit, a farmer has to have the facility that will hold the animals, and is inspected and approved by a state-sanctioned veterinarian. Above all, the facility has to ensure that captive animals are kept in and wild deer are kept out, Miller said.

That is primarily for disease control, but also for inventory purposes.

The reasons for farming deer vary, he said.

“Some just have them because they like them and they don’t do too much with them. They just have them to look at. There are some facilities that sell them to other in-state or out-of-state farms, and some that offer hunts,” he said.

Both Kassube and Hanson got into deer farming for virtually the same reason: the animal itself.

“I’ve always just kind of liked deer,” Hanson said.

That includes the antlers on bucks.

“The bigger the horns, the more value they have,” he said.

The antlers can be sold by the pound to businesses such as Beadles Fur Trading, Hanson said, with a pound netting $6 to $7 on average. Bigger antlers, however, can go for substantially more. He estimated that 200-inch antlers could fetch $500 or $1,000.

The antlers on his bucks will span 200 inches in two years, “which is really good. Most hunters don’t shoot 150-inch deer in the wild,” Hanson said.

The figure comes from a series of measurements on the antlers, including the inside spread, length of each side and the main beam.

Kassube waits to sell his antlers until the buck is 3 years old. That’s because bigger seems to be best, he said, and each year the horns grow more. He keeps every shed antler in order to compare year by year and show potential buyers the progression.

The antlers grow faster on farms because the deer don’t have the same stress as wild deer. Their diet — a mix of corn, soybeans and minerals — is balanced. And their genetics can be traced.

Kassube recently traded five does for one because her father had “super genetics,” he said.

Genetics, stress and feed are the three big factors in deer farming, Hanson said.

Antlers can be used for home decor, like chandeliers, or to make items such as knife handles or coat hangers, Hanson said.

Hanson waits until the bucks shed their antlers naturally, while Kassube cuts them off. That’s because the bucks will fight to the death, he said.

Hanson once experienced that first hand. He lost a buck last year at the antlers of another, he said.

Hanson, 46, has worked his whole life on the farm started by his grandfather. He grows soybeans and corn and raises longhorn cattle, along with the deer.

“With farming, you almost have to get into different things,” Hanson said. “I got into (deer) as a hobby, but also to make money.”

This year could be the first time the deer part of his farm is profitable, he said.

He’s grown his herd to 17 head, including four bucks that are almost 2 years old and another that is almost 5. In captivity, white-tailed deer can live six to 14 years, on average, according to animal facts on National Geographic’s website.

Hanson will need to fence more pens before he expands his herd, but that’s his goal.

Kassube, 43, also started with two bred does. With 60 head, he’s at maximum capacity, and that’s where he plans to stay. About 20 of those deer are bucks, he said.

Both farmers bought their first deer from farms in Minnesota, where deer farming is more popular, Hanson said.

One of Kassube’s favorites is Daisy, a doe triplet born to a deer named Rosie. Then there’s Ashley, a doe friendly enough to pet.

She was fed from a Coke bottle that had the name Ashley on it, he explained. That’s how Squirt got his name, too.

Kassube doesn’t name all of his deer, but he can pick out his favorites by just glancing into one of his pens.

“They all look a little different,” he said.

There is one that certainly stands out from the rest. Nyla is an albino fawn.

“The albino would get more money, but she’s not going anywhere. She’ll stay here her whole life,” he said.

Nyla has a one in 10 chance of having an albino fawn herself, Kassube said.

There aren’t a whole lot of differences between raising deer and cattle.

“You feed them every day, work them once a year, have babies and sell them,” Hanson said.

Kassube does his chores every morning, walking into each of his five pens with a bucket of feed. “It doesn’t take me but a half-hour a day,” he said.

The farmers are heavily regulated, Kassube said. Every year a state-approved vet inspects the fence and ensures the deer are tagged, which has to happen within a year of birth.

When tagged, the deer are given antibiotics, Hanson said.

Deer breed in November and have babies in May. The farmers almost always are hoping for bucks.

“That’s where the money is. That’s what you can sell,” Hanson said.

Bigger bucks can be sold to hunt farms. Does can be sold as breeders or for venison. Neither has yet sold deer as venison, but Hanson was hoping to sell a few in order to thin his herd. He hadn’t yet decided on an exact price, but he figured around $200 per deer.

Had Kassube not traded some of his does for another, he would have sold some as well.

Per state regulations, a deer would have to be slaughtered at the farm, inspected by a veterinarian before it left, and then taken to the meat locker of the consumer’s choice, he said. That’s because the state mandates that inventory be kept of all deer.

Selling the animals is just another way that the deer are no different than raising livestock, Kassube said.

“You know they’ll go somewhere and that’s what happens,” he said. “It’s just part of the deal, part of farming.”

Any live deer that leaves the farm for another has to be permitted by the state, Hanson said.

After three years of raising deer, he has changed his own perspective a little, however.

“You change your standards a bit. I haven’t shot a wild deer for a number of years now,” Kassube said.

Simply watching the deer is one of the best parts, both farmers said.

“Just watching them, seeing the babies, and watching their horns grow,” Hanson said.