Farm Raised Deer

September 18, 2013

And then there was this…


This came in my email this morning… an ad for trophy buck semen.

It’s deer season, and as usual, along with the guns and bows, out come the ethics arguments.  It’s an educational opportunity for those with the patience to sort through the hypocrisy and ignorance, and for the rare individual who can resist the temptation to feed the “trolls”.  Ethics conversations are almost always worth having, even if the outcome isn’t always definitive (it almost never is). 

Yesterday, an article about deer “farming” was making the rounds on social networking sites.  As you might imagine, it drew a good bit of debate, both about the specific topic as well as the associated conversations about high fence hunting. 

First of all, let me say that while I try to be pretty non-judgemental about hunting practices and trends (as long as it is safe, legal, and environmentally healthy), the one thing I have consistently bemoaned is the focus on trophy antlers. 

In my opinion, I feel like it changes the nature of the hunt to some sort of competition.  I hate to hear a successful hunter practically apologize because his buck is “just a forkie”.  It’s disingenuous, to begin with, because if the hunter really felt bad about shooting it, he shouldn’t have shot it.  But it’s also a sad sign when we feel like we should measure up to some arbitrary and inconstant standard. 

I also feel like the focus, from TV shows, magazines, and the myriad of record books like Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett, perpetuate and feed the appetite for bigger and better deer.  I know that “bragging rights” aren’t a new thing (although it will be an interesting bit of history research to pinpoint when trophy quality first became a point of pride), and I absolutely grok the concept.  Hell, I am as happy as the next guy at the opportunity to kill a prime specimen (I’ve killed a few), and I lose no time getting those pictures on the Interweb for all my “friends” to see.  But I’m also pretty tickled to shoot a fat doe.  “Quality” deer to me doesn’t mean big, thick antlers… it means big, thick backstraps. 

I also have a lot of respect for the individuals who choose to hunt only for big, trophy bucks.  It takes a lot of self control, patience, and hunting skill to consistently kill mature bucks.  You have to be willing to set a standard, and to be willing to pass on anything that doesn’t measure up.  It can be a great, personal challenge which I can certainly appreciate… as long as they don’t get all self-righteous about it. 

But you’d think there would be a limit.  No matter how good your property or your management program might be, wild whitetail bucks are only going to get so big. 

Enter the deer farms…

Breeding big bucks is huge business.  From my place here in the Hill Country, I can drive an hour in any direction and find deer breeding ranches where farmers are mixing genetics to develop an “ultimate” deer. I’m not sure how, or if, anyone defines “ultimate” in this context.  Maybe it’s the wrong word, because it implies a final point.  I don’t know if there’s any such thing.  With the right, carefully managed genetics and ideal nutrition, we could eventually see whitetail bucks with over 300 inches of antler. 

It sort of makes me pity the poor bucks, though.  I’ve seen some of them in the breeding pens, their heads so heavy with antler that it looks like a struggle just to look up at the sound of the feeder.  There must be a reason they never grow that big in the wild… doesn’t anyone consider that? 

My sentimental feelings aside, though, it’s crazy big business.  From talking to some folks who are involved, I’m reminded of the horse breeding industry.  A tube of prime semen can go for tens of thousands of dollars.  A breeder buck will set you back more than a house.  Even the does can go for a pretty penny, especially if they’re “guaranteed bred” with a top buck. 

And then there’s insane amount of money some people will pay to hunt these freaks…  and here’s where the conversation gets dicey.

The vast majority of hunting for these freakish deer takes place on high fence ranches.  It makes sense, of course, since nobody who paid that much to stock these animals on their property wants to take a chance of it wandering across property lines to be shot for free by some yokel.  And just the mention of hunting and fences sets off the klaxons of self-righteous “ethicists” and hunting “purists”. 

“Hmm. Strong words, Phillip,” you might be thinking. 

And you’d be right.  I’m a little sick of the ongoing, holier-than-thou assaults on the general practice of high fence hunting… particularly when it’s carried out by people who’ve never experienced it and don’t have a clue what they’re really talking about.  The arguments are built on stereotypes, myth, and the misplaced idea that their ethics are the only ethics.  It’s a button.  They push it. 

So for now, I’m not going further down that road.  Just noting that the aforementioned crowd is going to dogpile anything to do with high fence hunting, and that’s that.  Not likely to change.

There’s another faction in the argument though, and they’re not as concerned about the fact that these trophy animals are hunted behind a fence (which they generally don’t like) as they are about the trophy itself, and how the hunter chooses to show it off.  This one is curious to me. 

The scenario they paint is some uber-wealthy individual who goes out to an exclusive property where he spends a blue-collar salary to sit in a luxury shooting house and pick over a herd of genetically superior deer until he picks and shoots his “trophy”.  (So far, so good… it’s plausible because it happens.)  A few months later, the mount comes back from the taxidermist and goes on rich man’s wall.  He proceeds to regale anyone who will listen with the tale of his monster buck, and either omits or changes the actual conditions of the “hunt” in order to enhance the trophy and his own status as Great White Hunter. 

Kinda makes you want to take a shower, huh?

And the truth is, those guys are out there.  They’re the same ones who lie about their golf handicap or their financial portfolio.  They’re the ones who live in trophy houses and collect serial trophy wives.  They are every stereotype of the rich and famous that we’ve ever glommed onto.

But I ask you, besides the fact that everyone hates a liar and a braggart, why does this stereotype have such a grip on people… on hunters?   Is there a perceived impact on hunting ethics, or on our individual experiences as hunters?    Or does it have to do with the traditional divide between the “haves” and “have nots”… a resentment of wealth and privilege? 

It’s a valid distinction, and in a lot of ways, it’s probably as old as sport (e.g. recreational) hunting.   But does it advance any agenda for hunting?  Does it make our individual hunting experience better or worse?  What do we gain by denigrating other hunters, even if we don’t appreciate their methods? 

It seems to me that this is the question on which we should focus… not on whether farm-raised, genetically modified deer are a good thing or bad.  Not on whether it seems fair that only the super-rich get to hunt these monstrosities.  Not even whether we should call what these rich sports do behind their high fences, “hunting.” 

I think we should be focused on whether or not making that distinction makes us, or our sport, better.  Does it improve us?  Does it improve the deer herd or habitat?  Or is it just an annoyance that we find irresistable to pick at, like an itchy scab over a shallow wound?


8 Responses to “Farm Raised Deer”

  1. David on September 20th, 2013 09:11

    “Quality” deer to me doesn’t mean big, thick antlers… it means big, thick backstraps.”

    I agree 100%. I have written on some of the forums about that before. I whole heartedly agree that if you shot the buck, you should never have to justify it.

    I wish California would allow more doe hunts. I would shoot does whenever possible. I hunt for meat to fill my freezer and could care less about antlers. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see and shoot a buck but that is not my primary purpose for hunting. My primary purpose is to spend time with my kids working hard in the woods for a great reward – fresh organic meat.

    As far as high fences go, at this time in my life, that is not for me and I used to judge people somewhat harshly if they did hunt high fences. But as I have aged and as I have known some people that have done this, I no longer think the same way about it. I know a guy that takes his 90 something year old father out to a high fenced Elk Hunt every couple of years. He is 90, still as sharp as ever, can still see good, but can’t walk or hike very good at all. The high fence operation they go to is huge, once inside, you really never see a fence and it gives him the feel of a wild hunt. They transport him out in a motorized ATV or Rhino and set him up to hunt. He gets his animal and the team comes in to clean it and transport it back for him.

    I also realized that anyone who has ever gone in and bought a big fat juicy tasty ribeye (and I have been known to buy a few), has no room to talk. That is the ultimate “high fence” operation.

  2. The Suburban Bushwacker on September 21st, 2013 04:35

    Vulgar and stupid – but each to his own, and it keeps the countryside boys in work so while i’m not in favour I’m not really against it either, except on grounds of good taste.

    David’s point is well made, does are better eating

    The Bambi Basher and i are going to scotland for a week stalking Hinds (does of red deer) and I was trying to explain this to someone the other day

    ‘Would you rather eat Miley Cyrus or Mike Tyson?”,
    sure Mike would make a more impressive skull mount, but now well past his prime i’m thinking he’d be a bit tough. The Veal-like Ms Cyrus would be better eating.
    Chilli con Tyson vs Capriccio Di Miley

  3. Phillip on September 21st, 2013 05:49

    Good points all, and thanks. I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t just written the pariah post.

    Point A – it’s true that meat is often better on a doe. But minor counterpoint, even the best, most mature buck I’ve killed tasted great. Trophy doesn’t always equate to poor table quality.

    As to high fences and game farms, I absolutely get why the idea is distasteful to many hunters, and I don’t fault anyone for choosing NOT to be involved… either as a customer or as a rancher. It flies in the face of the ideal of the hunt that many of us have adopted as personal truth. I do get that… and for a long time, I felt the same way.

    But all I’ve ever said is that we shouldn’t judge other hunters who don’t see it the same as we do. The whole idea of attempting to define someone else’s experience through our personal filters seems wrong to me… and it always has, not just in hunting, but in all pursuits.

    And capriccio di Miley… I dunno, SBW. I think you need to hurry on to Scotland and get some time in the field… city life appears to be melting some critical circuitry.

  4. David on September 21st, 2013 09:36

    “Chilli con Tyson vs Capriccio Di Miley” – HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHa

    I just spit my coffee out everywhere. That was funny.

  5. The Suburban Bushwacker on September 21st, 2013 15:15


    I was thinking about this earlier today, its all a bit ‘Neuromancer’/ Do androids dream of electric sheep?” isn’t it? Grow a 23 spiral horn, tranquilise a hign mountain sheep, surgically implant the horn, release the sheep, …..

    Myself and Hunter’s X and Y were talking about the trophy collecting impulse a couple of weeks back and Hunter X went to Namibia where he paid to hunt a famers land in the company of a guide who was there to make sure HunterX only shot something ‘price appropriate’ leaving the trophies for people paying many many times the $300 for the day hunterX was able to come up with. He’d been gutted when told he wasn’t allowed to shoot a rangy old bull with one half shattered horn, we agreed that he’d have been a splendid skull – gnarly and full of character. Sadly the guide wouldn’t let him, and was,on return to the farmhouse, balled out for not letting him. As X pointed out a big bull is worth the price of a new pick-up to these guys.

    HunterY on the other hand has had some fantastic hunting adventures including Driven Moose in russia but even then declined a trophy.

    Re your ;ast comment
    Wise words indeed – Chad’s recent post puts this in an interesting light
    Seeing the world only as we are it wouldn’t be appropriate to rush to judgement.


  6. Phillip on September 23rd, 2013 13:57

    Never much of a sci-fi fan, but I get the point. Where does it stop, and at what point does the nature of the game change?

    Truth is, the trophy (like the experience itself) is in the eye of the beholder.

  7. Chas on September 26th, 2013 14:18

    Once I heard Wes Jackson of The Land Institute talk about the see-saw relationship between “energy” and “information” in ecosystems. For instance, a field of corn, a monoculture, has low “information” (diversity) and so requires lots of “energy” (diesel fuel, fertilizer, etc.)

    Likewise, the hunter who has low information—knows nothing about the terrain, the game, etc., has to spend energy/money to get a result.

  8. Phillip on September 26th, 2013 19:37

    All true, Chas. It’s one of the reasons I’ve used guides in most of the states I’ve hunted as a non-resident.