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Game Ranching

David P. Price is a consulting nutritionist specializing in feedlot and range cattle

Several years ago we discussed the nutritional aspects of game ranching. We discussed how in “natural” game ranching through sensible range management we can attract and hold indigenous wildlife. We also discussed how through supplementation reproductive rates can be increased. With deer for example, supplementation can not only increase the number of does conceiving, but increase the number of twins and triplets; resulting in fawn crops exceeding 100 per cent. Conversely, without supplementation, during drought years fawn crops can be as low as 20 or 30 per cent.

Today, over half the cattle ranches in South Africa have converted to game ranching. There, as in other African countries, the business model is such that there is a set trophy fee for each species. Rather than field dressing the animal, most game ranches have a mini-processing plant. The animal is transported from the field to the plant. The client retains the hide and horns; whereas the ranch keeps (and markets) the meat. They charge the client somewhere on the order of $1,000 to $2,500 per animal (depending on the species), while still retaining the meat.

In temperate climate countries such as Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Argentina, there is a different business model. More specifically, when antlered deer species (deer, elk, or red stag) are the quarry, the meat is considered incidental. It is the trophy quality of the animal that determines the fee. In some cases the mere presence and opportunity to encounter an exceptional animal will demand a high standard fee. In the case of true game ranching, however, the fee will often vary with the trophy value of the animal taken.

Since antler size can double or triple trophy fees, nutritionists are constantly queried as to what can be done to maximize antler growth. Indeed, there are a number of commercial mineral products sold for that purpose. The problem is that research has continuously disproven the idea that we can affect antler growth with supplemental minerals. Given the phenomenal amount of mineralization that occurs during antler growth, it would seem logical we could influence growth with supplemental minerals, but unfortunately that just isn’t the case.

When we covered this subject last time, genetics was the only way known to affect antler growth. For true game ranching, “stud” animals are available for purchase at breeding farms that can improve antler size; just as you would buy a bull to improve EPD for weaning weight.

For operations relying on wild indigenous animals, genetics come into play when the buck:doe/bull:cow ratios becomes too wide. By observation with client ranches, we have found that when the number of does or cows become too large (in relation to males), this gives opportunity for male offspring to breed their dams. When this happens, antler girth becomes smaller and the number of animals with freak antlers becomes much more common (obviously due to inbreeding).

Recently the Texas Dept. of Wildlife completed a study that showed nutrition can affect antler growth. It is not mineral, but protein that enhances antler growth… at least that is the consensus. It was not a controlled study, but large-scale data collection. During drought and normal years, conservation officers collected antler scores from age categorized buck mule deer. What they found was substantially smaller antlers during drought years.

During drought years forage has less energy, protein, phosphorus and trace minerals. Phosphorus and trace minerals have been adequately studied, with no positive results. It’s illogical to assume energy would spur antler growth, but as a practical matter, if we supplement protein, deer (or elk) will also receive more energy. This is because when ruminants are short on protein, so also are the rumen microorganisms deficient. With sub-optimum protein levels the rumen microbial population declines, and so also does the ability to digest low-quality forage. As a result, they consume less energy.

If we supplement protein, in addition to antler growth, reproduction will be enhanced, (since reproduction is linked to energy). That is, the deer or elk will be able to eat more drought stressed forage, and thus consume more energy. Increased energy increases reproductive rates. This has been well proven with captive herds.

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