Pioneers of WA's deer industry to wind back

Pioneers of WA's deer industry to wind back

News
 It's the end of an era for deer farmers and owners of Margaret River Venison, Graham and Cynthia Morrison as they have decided to sell their beloved farm and business. This deer statue was hand crafted by Murray Matuschka, New Zealand and marked the beginning of the renowned Margaret River Venison brand.

It's the end of an era for deer farmers and owners of Margaret River Venison, Graham and Cynthia Morrison as they have decided to sell their beloved farm and business. This deer statue was hand crafted by Murray Matuschka, New Zealand and marked the beginning of the renowned Margaret River Venison brand.

Aa

When Graham and Cynthia Morrison told people they were going to start a deer farm in Western Australia, they were told they were mad.

Aa

WHEN Graham and Cynthia Morrison told people they were going to start a deer farm in Western Australia, they were told they were mad.

And perhaps they were a little.

Starting a farm in a non-existent industry is certainly a venture that many would not take on.

But the Morrisons had a vision and many say that when Graham gets an idea in his head, it's hard to stop him.

Although they wouldn't say it themselves, the couple essentially pioneered the WA deer and venison industry, which has enabled other farmers to experience the same joys and overcome similar challenges that the Morrisons have.

It seems that Mr Morrison inherited his determination from his father Milton.

Milton bought a 1214 hectare sandplain property at Beverley, which the family developed, with Graham having two brothers and a sister.

Graham and Cynthia later purchased the property from his father which they sold in 1981.

Graham and Cynthia Morrison have found deer to be relatively self-sufficient animals to farm, with few concerns of disease and they don't require attention for calving.

Graham and Cynthia Morrison have found deer to be relatively self-sufficient animals to farm, with few concerns of disease and they don't require attention for calving.

During the early days of his career Mr Morrison worked as a shearer alongside an Aboriginal shearing team.

One of his first major investments was a chainsaw which he bought on hire purchase to cut jam posts for the Beverley property.

After reading the book 'Gold on Four Feet: Commercial Deer Farming, A New Rural Industry of Outstanding Potential' by Ronald Anderson in 1979, he started to devise a plan on how they would farm deer.

"When I read the book, I found that deer were animals that converted feed to body weight more efficiently than other farm animals," Mr Morrison said.

"Then if everyone was battling and going broke, theoretically we should be the last ones to go broke, so that's what I based it all on."

Deer have always been and still are classed as pests in WA, so strict regulations must be met before applying for a permit, let alone actually farming the animals.

After meeting the specific fencing requirements for that time, the Morrisons obtained a licence to farm deer and sourced their first animals in 1979.

News of a deer farm coming to Cowaramup spread when the Morrisons moved to the region in 1990. A regional newspaper wrote a story on their arrival to town and took their photograph on the original bridge. Since then the bridge has been replaced. They posed for the photo as their time farming on the property is starting to draw to a close.

News of a deer farm coming to Cowaramup spread when the Morrisons moved to the region in 1990. A regional newspaper wrote a story on their arrival to town and took their photograph on the original bridge. Since then the bridge has been replaced. They posed for the photo as their time farming on the property is starting to draw to a close.

"I think one of our biggest successes was getting deer in the first place because after we read the book Gold on Four Feet, we went to what was the Agricultural Protection Board in Perth and said we wanted to bring deer in and they said no, well you don't tell Graham no," Ms Morrison said.

"And two and a half years later we had our deer."

Mr Morrison's persistence to see an idea come to fruition has been consistent over the years.

In 1980, with the aim of moving away from sheep and grain farming and expanding their deer herd, the Morrisons moved to Donnybrook.

Within the expanding South West and being close to Bunbury, they saw the potential for a tourism business to complement their deer operation.

In 1981 they started a wildlife park, Glen Karaleea Deer Park, which became a B-class zoo and was a huge attraction for WA as it had a range of animals including three species of deer, emus, kangaroos, donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, camels, ostriches and even a monkey.

One of Mr Morrison's inventive ideas came to fruition during the period of them owning and operating the deer park at Donnybrook, which helped put the town on the map for tourists outside of the region.

Still standing today, Donnybrook's big Lady William apple, which measures about 26 metres in total, was on the national list of 'big things in WA'.

During the 1980s the family's deer herd was expanding, as Mr Morrison was involved with a group of investors, who established the company Western Game Pty Ltd and purchased 1000 Red hinds and fifteen stags from New Zealand.

One of the key by-products of Red deer that the Morrisons farm for is velvet antler. This is popular with Asian medicine and is believed to have numerous health benefits.

One of the key by-products of Red deer that the Morrisons farm for is velvet antler. This is popular with Asian medicine and is believed to have numerous health benefits.

By 1990 the deer park had 36,000 visitors annually and had become too busy for them to manage alongside their deer farming business, a decision had to be made to keep and expand one of the businesses.

In the same year they sold Glen Karaleea and purchased Western Game Pty Ltd from the investors along with 120ha on Caves Road, Cowaramup, which would become known as Margaret River Venison Farm.

What began with a vision to farm deer despite a non-existent industry, has now become a thriving business with a well established and well-known brand that is sold into a string of viable niche markets.

"Before we got deer but knew we were going to get them, we did a trip over east from South Australia all the way up through to Queensland, visiting farms trying to learn about deer farming," Ms Morrison said.

"I had an exercise book and wrote notes on everything that each farmer told us.

"We got home and read it and no two farmers said the same thing, so we figured every farm is different.

"So we just thought we would do it ourselves and do what suits us."

Secured in two metre high fencing, they now run about 750 Red deer, with about 260 of them being mated and the rest are carry stock or stags (uncastrated males).

One of the reasons that Graham became interested in farming deer was he read they converted feed to body weight more efficiently than other farm animals. Pictured are two-year-old carcasses of 72 kilograms each.

One of the reasons that Graham became interested in farming deer was he read they converted feed to body weight more efficiently than other farm animals. Pictured are two-year-old carcasses of 72 kilograms each.

"Because it is so wet in the winter time I wouldn't run more than 750 head, as the seasons dry out then potentially more could be run," Mr Morrison said.

"We like to run Red deer because they are a dual-purpose animal, they not only produce good meat but also velvet antlers and they are bigger but easier to handle."

In a normal season they run 100 to 110 stags.

One breeding stag is run with 50 breeding hinds (females).

Mr Morrison said they ran the risk by single mating the deer but they have had success with it.

The deer have a very specific mating season of April to May and they calve once a year in November to December.

Calves are weaned the following year in October.

Over the years the Morrisons have found deer to be rather self-sufficient animals as there is little to no concern for disease and they calve quite independently.

"All the females only come out of the paddock two to three times a year, there is no reason to bring them back," Mr Morrison said.

"We don't have to worry about flystrike, we don't go around at calving time because we have found that we are probably doing more damage than good by checking on them and the percentage of losses from 250 animals a year is very minimal, less than one per cent."

In February/March the young stags are put on feeders with a custom feed.

All of their deer and venison products are sold at their shop.

All of their deer and venison products are sold at their shop.

"Some people say they can't afford to feed the animals, my theory is if you can't afford to feed them then you shouldn't have them," he said.

"Because we are putting them through that feed, they have a 15 to 20 kilogram heavier carcase compared to other deer producers that don't feed them properly.

"So $50 worth of feed can turn into $100 extra profit at the other end."

Temperament is the most important trait they look for when selecting animals for breeding.

"I don't really care how big the animal is, even though we are chasing body weights as well," Mr Morrison said.

"It depends on what we're doing at the time because sometimes a smaller animal will produce a bigger set of antlers than a bigger animal."

Ms Morrison said the key to working with deer was patience.

"Deer have a different temperament to sheep and moving them requires patience and I know someone who hasn't always got patience," she said while looking at her husband.

Graham has found careful selection for breeding enabled them to develop a herd which tends to have a more workable temperament.

"I don't have a problem with their temperament now, but when we first started I did, they would want to bite, kick and jump on us," he said, due to the fact that their base stock were wild caught from Queensland.

"We adopted a three-strikes policy in the early days."

This three-strike policy involved taking note of the timid animals' tag numbers when they were in the yards and if they got three crosses, they were sent to the abattoir.

"Last year we went through about 100 hinds and I picked out 50 to keep and put the rest in the kill mob and left them there for a few months," Mr Morrison said.

"Then when I went to bring them in to take them to the abattoir, I noticed one looked like a magnificent hind and wondered what she was doing in the mob, so I took her out and put her in a pen.

"But as soon as I isolated her, she wanted to kill me and that's when I realised why she was in the mob in the first place."

Decades of deer farming is sure to teach you some tricks of the trade and Mr Morrison said the most difficult part about working with them has been trying to get them out of the paddock, which he has improved over time.

"One thing I learnt after a period of time is that if say six animals stay behind in the paddock they won't come out unless they have a leader with them," he said.

"Bringing the deer out of the paddocks, we don't actually do any handling of the animals themselves, it's all done with the fences, gates and quad bikes."

They don't use working dogs either as there is too high a risk of them being trampled.

About 90pc of the venison is sold through the shop, located on Caves Road, along a popular tourist route for the region, with the remaining 10pc going to Mahogany Creek Distributors at Malaga, that supplies the hospitality industry and has been dealing with the Morrisons since 1991.

The business has become a labour of love which has been passed down to the next two generations, as the couple's children Kylie, Brendon and Miranda and grandchildren have all been involved in the business at some point in time.

The Margaret River Venison brand has become internationally recognised for its premium quality and offering of speciality venison products, with a popular one being the velvet antler.

It's said that velvet deer antler has numerous health benefits, particularly for sports performance enhancing and increasing stamina, improving the immune system and fertility, reducing swelling and strengthening bones.

It is especially popular with people who use Asian medicine techniques.

"We are known for our product, there is no doubt about that," Mr Morrison said.

"No one else in Australia is doing what we're doing to the standard that we do."

They don't run any deer with hard antlers because there is too much risk of the stags injuring or even killing other deer or the human owners.

The velvet antler grows at different rates, depending on the stag's age and the animal itself.

When the velvet is harvested, it is done over a three-month period.

Velvet antler, which as the name suggests feels like soft velvet, can first be cut as a 'spikey', which is reached when the stag is about 14 to 15 months.

"We let these go hard and they are sold in the farm shop for knife handles etc," Mr Morrison said.

"So we get our first cut of velvet from a two-year-old stag and then send them to the abattoir.

"We have some sire stags that we cut last week and will probably get another regrowth cut of those again but some we won't."

The sire stags average four kilograms of velvet antler each which is currently worth upwards of $100 per kilogram.

The whole antler grows within three months and if the velvet antlers are not cut at the right time, the blood vessels will stop to function and the antler inside will calcify and harden up.

Then they will eventually fall off, completing one full natural growth cycle of antler over a year, and the stag will grow another pair each year.

Perhaps it's the heightened concerns of environmental and farming sustainability, or just the Morrison's passion and love for deer, but throughout their business, right from start to finish, very little product is wasted.

"I'd say that we recover about 90pc of the carcase," Mr Morrison said.

Wherever possible they have found a way to repurpose by-products of the animals through some creative and obscure products to sell through their shop.

After the deer are processed at DBC Bunbury, the carcases, including the offal, are returned to the farm's boning room for further processing by long-term employee and butcher Tony Dwyer.

Products such as hearts, livers and kidneys are sold at the shop and other parts are made into pet food.

The tails, sinew and penises are recovered and sold at the shop.

The neck bones and sinew are sold for soup, other bones make popular pet food and they also dry some bones out which are sold as marrow bones for dogs.

They even dry some of the livers and sell them in a 40 gram pack.

The popular small goods range, including the famous venison chorizo, are made in Perth by Elmars Smallgoods and brought back to the shop where they are sold.

Seeing as venison is such a lean meat, most similar to kangaroo, olive oil is used to add moisture to the sausages and chorizo has pork fat added for moisture.

Now venison is a niche but highly coveted meat, but in the beginning Ms Morrison said people were hesitant to try it.

"At first we had a lot of trouble trying to get people to eat it because no one wanted to eat Bambi," she said.

It is regarded as a highly nutritious red meat that is high in protein, very lean and strong in flavour.

"Ninety nine per cent of the venison I eat at home or the shop just melts in my mouth and people keep coming back for it," Mr Morrison said.

"I find that beef is nowhere near as tender as my venison."

The Morrisons are certainly not people to gloat about their success and when asked about the highlights, rather than reflecting on their achievements, which there are many, they instead looked back at some of the times that now make them laugh and one memory stood out from the rest.

Originally when they were farming at Beverley, the deer were secured with 2.25m fencing which had a 45 degree lean in on top of that.

Back then it was almost impossible to get over the fence in a hurry if you needed to, compared to the current 2m fences they have now.

But as Ms Morrison proved, when fearing for her life and pumping with adrenaline, it was almost but not impossible.

"It's amazing what you can do when you have a pair of antlers coming at you," she laughed.

"We went back there when I could walk again and I tried to climb over that fence and I couldn't get over it - I have no idea how I did it but I did."

Developing the deer farm and reputable brand has by no means been an easy feat.

These entrepreneurs have managed to cut through numerous hurdles of red tape and bureaucracy that crucifies so many small businesses and farmers.

And their story is even more impressive having started from very little, developing an uncleared sand plain property at Beverley to now having a successful and nationally recognised small business with a list of awards under its belt.

It is with regret that this couple has decided it's time to close the chapter of their farming career and lifestyle and settle down for retirement, by listing their beloved deer farm and business for sale.

But as they are leaving farming, they will leave a legacy of pioneering the WA deer industry and a footprint that will be cherished within the family for generations.

They are an example of where hard work, a little bit of luck and never taking no as an answer can take you.

Mr Morrison reflects....

From trapping rabbits and taking them on his bike in pairs to the school bus run, where the local rabbit carrier would pick them up, to working with an Aboriginal shearing team, riding 16 kilometres to work and home again after shearing all day, at only 16 years old to farming deer I believe I have lived in the best part of WA's history.

Aa

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