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Venison, velvet and … milk?

How do you milk a deer? Very, very carefully.

In Benio, close to Gore the McIntyre family are doing just that with a herd of 90 hinds. It’s something they’ve been doing for four years and they put their success down to good handling of the deer.

Peter and Sharon McIntyre’s son Chris is in charge of the twice daily milking. He said at first a lot of people didn’t believe the family were milking their deer. Four years on, and with food and innovation awards under their belt not much has changed.

“It depends who you talk to. A lot of people still don't believe us.”

“It's gone through taste and smell tests at Massey University. With blind testing it's come out on top of everything. Sheep, goats, dairy the lot.”

The key to being able to milk the hinds comes down to handling. He said contrary to most people’s perceptions not all deer are flighty.

“Our ones aren’t. They are pretty calm. You go down to the paddock with a bag of nuts and half of them will come up and eat out of your hand.”

The hinds, which aren’t hand-reared, were carefully handled over a period of weeks to get them used to the milking shed before milking was attempted.

The milk produced from the hinds is different to other ruminants. It’s high in protein and fat but doesn’t feel creamy the same way a full fat milk does. McIntrye describes it as fresh and light tasting, and very white in colour.

“It's gone through taste and smell tests at Massey University. With blind testing it's come out on top of everything. Sheep, goats, dairy the lot.”

The proof of the McIntyre’s efforts, quite literally, is in the pudding. Desserts made with milk from their deer feature on the menu of some of New Zealand’s top restaurants and the milk has won two awards for innovation.

Its journey from farm to fancy restaurants was made possible through a partnership with Pāmu, who are also New Zealand’s largest farmers of deer.

Business development manager Hamish Glendinning said it’s exciting bringing a brand-new ingredient to market: “It's double the fat, double the protein of cow's milk, giving it a rich, silky feel and taste. In terms of how that performs in a cooking sense, it's extremely unique and different. Because of that it's found its home at the premium end of the food trade, in things like luxury desserts.”

Glendinning said the product is sold in a powdered format which was tested with chefs as part of the development process.

“We tested the concept of powder with chefs to make sure we weren't completely crazy due to the predominance of fresh and having liquid formats for milks.”

The result was overwhelmingly positive he said, tapping into high end chefs desire for new and novel ingredients that help them stand out from the crowd. The powdered format has a long shelf life so wastage is reduced, and chefs could see the advantage of using powder as well as rehydrated milk in their dishes.

Menus with deer milk dishes become a talking point said Glendinning.

“It's a bit of dialogue for wait staff and for chefs. 'What do you mean, deer milk are you serious?' That naturally leads into a conversation around where it is sourced from.”

Currently talks are underway with Australian chefs and it’s likely exports will be established.

Deer produce less milk than cows, and milking takes longer. There are also logistics to navigate. Equipment which works for cows doesn’t necessarily work for the svelte-framed deer.

As a result the price of the milk means it’s likely to remain a high-end product said Glendinning and won’t end up on bowls of cereal.

One place it will end up is in South Korean cosmetic products.

Pāmu’s general manager of innovation and technology Rob Ford said opportunities for the milk had been researched by Massey University.

“When you look at the product, and what’s in it, you look at the high fat content, there are definitely attributes targeted to that cosmetic space. Obviously in some countries the properties of deer are really sought after.”

Yuhan, a leading South Korean pharmaceutical company will sell a serum and moisturiser featuring the milk from early 2019.

Part of the reason Ford is enthusiastic about new products such as non-traditional milks is to encourage farms facing environmental or scale constraints to consider shifting from their current systems. He said the trial evidence suggests this could this makes economic and environmental sense for some farms.

“You’re doing a bit of sheep milk, you’re doing a bit of beef maybe and you might be growing avocados.

“It’s that kind of diverse model that seeks to lower stocking rates, nutrient leaching and emissions. This mix of enterprises could enhance farm system resilience and returns and thus be  more sustainable than current practice.”

The milk produced by Spring Sheep New Zealand, in which Pāmu is a 50 percent partner, product is a good example of this. Spring sheep milk has a lower environmental footprint than cow milk and it’s more digestible for many people. Ford said there are three farms in full production and over 3,500 ewes being milked. The milk is marketed in Asia as a dried milk powder and as calcium supplements.

When asked if llama milk is next on Pāmu’s innovation list Ford laughs:

“Our real drive is not so much looking now for the next milk product. It’s to continue to develop those businesses and get them going really well to a scale and a size that is commercially viable. Working with farmers and other investors to access complementary expertise is a key element in our approach."

Ford said people are coming together and rallying behind some of new farm systems Pāmu is encouraging.

“We’re one of many catalysts to start to get this thinking underway. It’s not all talk, we’re actually doing this on-farm as well as developing the supply chains, processing infrastructure and market relationships with the help of our partners. People are taking notice of the early results and going ‘Wow, sheep milk, deer milk, no palm kernel.’”

He notes evidence that more consumers in high value export markets are shifting to plant-based proteins and alternative milks - their concerns around environmental sustainability presenting an opportunity as well as a threat for pastoral livestock farming.

“The necessity for developing options for this fast-evolving future is now. It’s all colliding at the same time, it’s not happening sequentially.”

This is the second of five articles looking at innovations and new ways of farming being introduced by publicly owned farmer Pāmu, as part of a content partnership. The first, by Bernard Hickey, is here

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