From luscious desserts to high-end nutraceuticals, this novel product is helping New Zealand venison farmers squeeze a premium from their herds, writes Naoki Nitta.
Dairy is a big business in New Zealand, contributing nearly €6 billion to the national economy.
As the world’s largest exporter of milk, the industry, however, has come under recent scrutiny for the large environmental toll exacted by the country’s 5 million cows.
But now, some Kiwi ranchers are tapping a more sustainable source to squeeze out a novel first: milk expressed from red deer.
Despite their meagre output — about 4% of a cow’s annual production volume — its silky, ethereal quality and concentrated nutrients make deer milk a premium culinary and nutraceutical ingredient.
And for deer farmers, that creates an alluring, high-value proposition for expanding and diversifying revenue, one that treads lightly on the land.
At €36 a litre, “it is an expensive ingredient, no questions about it,” says Hamish Glendinning, head of commercial for Pāmu.
The state-owned agricultural enterprise, which runs the country’s largest deer farming operation, has led the development and marketing of the speciality product.
“It is a true tribute to New Zealand ingenuity,” he adds — “a world’s first.”
British colonists introduced deer to the archipelago in the mid-19th century, releasing them into the wild for sport.
With no natural predators, their population quickly ballooned, and by the 1960s, efforts to thin herds had spawned an export market for venison.
Commercial deer farming soon followed, fueled by foreign demand for velvet.
The soft, fuzzy membrane covering deer antlers is harvested for use in medicinal products.
Currently, the €163 million industry counts approximately 833,000 livestock deer on 1,400 ranches.
Pāmu’s herds — about 100,000 heads on farms speckled throughout the country — are raised mainly for meat, with the biggest markets in North America and Europe, and for velvet, which is exported to Asia.
2,000 deer on 320ha
In 2014, Pāmu approached Peter and Sharon McIntyre, fifth-generation ranchers in Benio, in the South Island, about a new dairy venture.
The family farms about 2,000 red and fallow deer on their 320-hectare farm, and their two adult children, the couple recalls, “were very keen to give [deer milking] a go”.
Of their herd’s 500 red hinds, approximately 90 of them are dairy deer.
“They are nowhere as domesticated as cattle or sheep,” says their son, Chris, who runs the milking operation while his sister, Rhionne, manages the fawns.
“But they are very intelligent and quick to learn routines.”
Coaxed along with a handful of nuts, they quickly habituate to twice-a-day milkings.
“They are very comfortable and calm around us, so we get to see their personalities,” adds Sharon McIntyre.
“Some are quite affectionate. Some are quite cheeky, and some are a little bit reserved.”
While happy hinds tend to produce more milk, the most prolific ones peak at about 1.5 litres a day during the November through March lactation season. (In comparison, ewes can pump out twice that amount for almost half the year.)
Given the volumes, “it is a huge amount of work, and it will never be big numbers,” McIntyre says, noting that their annual yields total less than 12,000 litres.
Yet with an airy lightness that belies a near-28 percent fat and protein content, “it is beautiful milk,” she says. “Silky white and beautiful to drink.”
As pioneers in the field, developing the dairy operation has been “a completely new endeavour,” says her husband.
“So we have had to build it from the ground up.” The milking facility and equipment have required quite a bit of customisation; he adds, “with lots of trial and error”.
Handling deer, for instance, requires a higher level of safety than other well-domesticated livestock.
As such, the milking stalls are built with a walled separation between staff and hind, which allow udder access through a hole.
And the custom-made milking machines were also designed to gently pump each of the four, one centimeter-long teats.
“Most other businesses have an existing market for these products,” says McIntyre, “but we had to build [our operations] from the ground up.”
Pāmu has since tapped the family’s knowledge and experience in developing a similar-scaled dairy facility at its North Island deer farm in Aratiatia.
While the milking parlour and specialised equipment are significant investments, raising dairy hinds require few changes in deer husbandry, says Pāmu’s Glendinning.
The herd grazes year-round on rain-fed pasture grass, frequently rotating between paddocks.
Methane and stocking rate
Along with their subsistence on natural feed, farmed deer produce 80% less methane than cows.
And with lower stocking rates — the herd’s per-hectare pasture density — than sheep or cattle, “from [an environmental] footprint perspective, they are much easier on the land,” he says.
As the driver of product innovation in the venture, Pāmu markets the milk as a dehydrated powder which helps prolong shelf life and makes the offering more economical given the current small-scale demand.
Still, with the high level of solids obviating the need for additives or emulsifiers such as soy and lecithin, “it’s 100% pure deer milk,” says Glendinning.
Given the price tag, the product is not destined to make a big splash on breakfast cereal.
But it is a “stunning” ingredient, says renowned Auckland-based chef Geoff Scott.
The alumnus of Monaco’s Le Louis XV and London’s Chez Nico specialises in putting a fresh, local take on high-style French cooking in what he calls “Kiwi haute cuisine” and has developed a repertoire of deer milk-based desserts.
Its weightless, ultra-fine texture elevates creamy sweets “to another level,” Scott says. “It’s like satin in your mouth — wonderfully rich but delicate.”
Scott’s interpretation of classic treats such as panna cotta and milk sorbet showcases the ingredient with little adornment.
His crème brûlée is “pure milk — there is no cream, no vanilla, just a little bit of sugar and egg yolks,” he says. “It just works magically.”
Yet the ingredient’s lush nature — and of course, the hefty price — lends itself to desserts served in precious dollops.
Like truffles or foie gras, “it’s a taste experience,” says Scott, one in which a little bit goes a long way, especially as the finale to an elaborate tasting menu.
And the cost, he adds, is ultimately a reminder of the full pasture-to-table efforts.
For chefs, the opportunity to experiment with a new ingredient is rare, Scott says. The milk’s novel properties inspire a new level of culinary creativity, all the while highlighting a distinctly New Zealand-sourced ingredient.
Gastronomy aside, independent research shows that the milk is rich in mineral and omega-3 content.
Pāmu’s own studies, while still preliminary and yet unpublished, indicate promising benefits on brain function and immunity, says Glendinning, as well as on strengthening grip and bone density in ageing adults.
Nutrient-packed, low in lactose and easily digestible, “it’s got all the goodies you need naturally, without being fortified,” he adds. “It’s like a little booster shot.”
In addition to New Zealand and Australia, Pāmu has extended deer milk’s reach to the nutraceutical market in Korea and Vietnam through a partnership with a large Korean pharmaceutical company, which uses the ingredient in therapeutic and cosmetic products.
The novelty has caught the attention of the international industry.
Last year, the milk won Best Dairy Ingredient at the Global Dairy Congress’s annual World Dairy Innovation Awards.
For Pāmu, the recognition validates the value of developing and marketing a unique specialty product, says Glendinning.
“One of our key roles is around innovation. By applying our knowledge and expertise to the process, we can help private farming enterprises reap the rewards.”
For many deer farmers, that type of support can be invaluable.
As an international commodity, venison faces wild price fluctuations, Glendinning says, making deer ranching a risky venture.
He recalls that prices collapsed by 60% at the height of the Covid pandemic when demand for food services plummeted.
“If we can add milk as a revenue stream to help underpin the sales of venison and velvet, that will make it a more sustainable and more resilient industry,” Glendinning says.
“It is all about utilising more from the animal,” Glendinning concludes.