Wisconsin is widely recognized as one of the nation's top deer-producing states, with a million or more whitetails roaming across public and private woodlands, farm fields, city parks and suburban housing developments.
Less well known is that thousands more whitetails are raised each year on nearly 400 private Wisconsin farms and ranches.
These unique enterprises add about $75 million annually to the state's vital and growing agricultural economy.
Breeders sell their bucks to hunting ranches all over the country, many through direct Internet sales or auctions.
Better quality does are sold to other breeders to improve their genetics, with lower-end does sold to meet the growing demand for venison.
Semen is also a high-dollar product for breeders; there are also numerous urine facilities around the country.
Shed antlers provide another source of revenue. Smaller antlers are sold by the pound for arts and crafts, while larger antlers are sold by the set and can bring a high price depending on the look and the score.
WHITETAILS OF WISCONSIN
A majority of these whitetail farms and ranches are members of Whitetails of Wisconsin (W.O.W.) a non profit organization that was formed 12 years ago to promote Wisconsin's whitetail deer farmers, hunting preserves and this specialty livestock industry.
"Our goal is to help educate those interested in raising whitetail deer and share information regarding whitetail deer breeding, production and health care," said Laurie Seale, the organization's immediate past president and current vice-president. "W.O.W. also assists its members in marketing their deer products and hunting preserves within the state and nationally."
Seale was one of approximately 500 W.O.W. members and guests who attended the organization's annual summer picnic, Aug. 10, at the Apple Creek Whitetail Ranch near Gillett in Oconto County.
Attendees had the opportunity to learn about new feeding and management techniques during seminars and ranch tours. They also spent time socializing during lunch and while checking out a variety of displays.
According to Seale, who has owned and operated Maple Hill Farms near Gilman for over 20 years, W.O.W. is governed by a nine-member board of directors who are elected from the membership at large.
"Our association is dedicated to promoting deer farming and ranching as an agricultural pursuit and serves members through its educational programs, publications and by providing leadership in setting and maintaining quality standards," she said. "We're proud to have one of the best association newsletters in the country, which is published four times a year."
Along with a summer picnic, W.O.W. also holds an annual meeting for its members. There's a calendar raffle every year that highlights some of the largest bucks raised in Wisconsin.
Everyone who purchases a calendar for $20 has an opportunity to win one of the 24 guns on the raffle.
HERD HEALTH & REGULATIONS
Many people have falsely accused commercial deer farmers of spreading diseases to the wild herd, particularly since the discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD).
Seale responded to the critics by saying, "I think if people understood how highly regulated we really are they would realize how disease free our animals are and not be so opposed to what we do."
She acknowledged the discovery of CWD brought hardships to many of the state's deer farmers and that some in the southern part of the state ceased operation.
"We're now 12 years into testing and monitoring our animals, we feel we're over the hump," Seale remarked. "Our markets are good, we've tested more animals than any other state. It's been five years since we've found any CWD in a breeding facility."
According to Seale, the deer industry is the most highly regulated segment of Wisconsin agriculture. The farms are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the fencing is regulated by the Department of Natural Resource.
"We must CWD test every animal that dies or is killed in order to move live animals intrastate or interstate We also must TB test our animals to move intrastate or interstate," she stated.
"All animals must carry an official ID, and we must report whole herd inventories on a yearly basis, including all deaths, purchases and sales, Seale explained.
Seale added, "Every animal that is moved to another location, even across the street, must be accompanied by a heath certificate filled out and signed by a herd veterinarian. The paperwork can be overwhelming at times as well as financially burdensome."
Whitetails of Wisconsin is also very active in working with the state legislators and government departments to help ensure that laws and regulations are fair and to encourage a vibrant whitetail farming sector in Wisconsin.
Members hold a legislative day every year in May, when they visit state Senators and Assembly Representatives.
"We let them know what we're about and what issues we have," Seale said.
Seale continued, "Currently, our biggest issue is the wild elk being brought into the state that are untested for chronic wasting disease, TB and brucellosis. If any of these animals would be found to have diseases, our farms would be affected by being prohibited from shipping our animals out of state. We feel these animals should be tested at near the levels that we're testing."
Members also attend the United States Animal Health Association's yearly convention, and they visit national legislators in Washington, DC on a yearly basis. "We have been making the trip to D.C. since 2003," Seale said.
GETTING STARTED IN DEER FARMING
Along with the opportunity to market a variety of products, deer farming can help protect land from industrial or residential development. According to the industry's economic impact survey, the state's average cervid farm protects 69 acres of farmland.
For those who might be interested in becoming involved in commercial deer farming, Seale recommends first visiting as many farms as possible.
"They should talk to several owners and others involved in the industry to learn as much as they can before investing," she said. "There is a large investment in the eight-foot high tensile fence that's required. We just want to make sure people know what's all involved before they get into it," Seale said.
Seale, like most others in the deer industry, is very passionate about the animals she raises.
Seale comments, "There are no words to describe how rewarding it can be to raise these beautiful creatures - from the newborn fawns in the spring, watching the antlers grow from year to year, and the knowledge one gains from these highly intriguing creatures," she said.
"Deer farming is an adventure the whole family can enjoy. It is a unique farming experience that I have thoroughly enjoyed for the past 24 years," Seale emphasized.
To learn more about Whitetails of Wisconsin and the state's commercial deer industry, visit the association's website at www.whitetailsofwisconsin.com.