Deer farms experience rapid growth in Franklin County and beyond

Glenn Dice Jr. makes the deer on his farm feel right at home.

The 39-year-old Chambersburg man has married his love of the outdoors with his knowledge of dairy farming. He doesn't crawl around in camouflage, and he doesn't get up at 4 a.m. to milk. His fences are tall.

Dice is among Pennsylvania's 1,069 certified deer farmers.

Deer and elk farming "is perhaps the fastest growing industry in rural America," according to a 2007 study for the Texas Cooperative Extension. More than three-fourths of the deer and elk farms in Pennsylvania have been established since 1990, according to the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association.

Texas and Pennsylvania lead the nation in numbers of "cervid" farms. A cervid is any ruminant animal with cloven hooves, with males characteristically having antlers they shed annually.

With $40 million in annual sales, Pennsylvania's cervid farming is small potatoes compared to Franklin County's $140 million dairy industry.

Franklin County is the second-leading dairy producer in the state. The county is sixth in deer and elk production.

Deer farming, however, is a significant agricultural industry. Pennsylvania deer farmers sell more product than all Fulton County farmers. Their annual sales are roughly equal to the value of Pennsylvania's pumpkin and strawberry crops.

They sell breeding stock, trophy animals to hunting ranches, deer for wildlife watching, urine for buck lure, venison for meat and antlers to craftsmen.

Breeding sales account for more than half of all industry sales. A single buck sells for more than $10,000, and a straw for artificial insemination goes for $1,000.

The pedigrees would be a hit with Larry the Cable Guy with names like Big Guy, Little Boomer, Daisey Mae, Big Girl and Bucky 331.

"Friends, nieces and nephews enjoy coming up with names for me," said Dice, who, true to his dairying heritage, knows his deer by the numbers on their ear tags.

It's a national billion-dollar blue-collar business, according to the Texas study.

"I did not know that the industry was that big," said Rep. Todd Rock, R-Mont Alto. "I thought it was something they did as a hobby."

Dice recently spoke to Rock; Rep. Dan Moul, R-Gettysburg, and other legislators on the House agricultural and game committees touring a 40-acre deer farm near Hummelstown.

"It's tough to make a living growing crops on 40 acres," Moul said. "What amazed me is how much people are willing to spend to go on a hunt. As a hunter, I never gave deer much of a thought. It's not just producing trophy bucks to sell to the hunting preserves. It's such a well-rounded piece of agriculture."

The industry promotes the small, profitable deer farms as a way to help save Pennsylvania's disappearing farmland.

"A guy can take a smaller tract of marginal land and can turn a return that is better in many cases than traditional farming operations," said Dice, second vice president of the National Deer Farmers Association and a board member of the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association.

Dice started his farm four years ago and is far enough along to invest in a handling barn. He started with two does. All of his current herd was born and raised on the farm.

His success is in line with what his father told him: "It takes five to seven years to grow a good dairy herd."

He's producing big main frame typical bucks. One atypical has more than 50 points.

"I very much cater to the genetics market," Dice said. "I have that annual (business) plan: Let's make money this year."

Dice and his deer walk a fine line between wild and domestic.

Young bucks come to within the range of Dice's toss of an apple over the 10-foot fence. Does approach a little closer, but he leads visitors away before they get too close.

A buck injured by his pasturemates is being rehabilitated, and runs the risk of becoming too close to his handlers, Dice said. When breeding season starts, a tamed buck can hurt those who are close to him, but left with his fellow bucks, his fate would be almost certain death, Dice said.

"It's Mother Nature," he said. "It's the way they were built."

He's fashioned shelters from used fiberglass storage tanks. The deer will hide in the rape seed and chicory pasture with 6 inches of snow, he said.

"If wind kicks up with the cold, they tend to gravitate to the shelter," Dice said. "They prefer to be outside."

Cows may be couch potatoes of the farm and deer the athletes, but their health signs are the same -- bright eyes, wet nose and strong appetite.

"You have to be intuitive and pay attention to your animals," Dice said. "Animals can never tell you what's wrong."

The state Department of Agriculture, which oversees traditional farm livestock as well as dogs and racehorse, watches over deer farms.

The department annually inspects cervid operations, according to department spokeswoman Nicole Cullison. Inspectors check the general health of the animals and specifically for evidence of chronic wasting disease, an infectious disease that targets most cervids. They make sure the farmer accounts for the coming and going of each animal. They check the fences to make sure the contained cervids do not come in contact with wild deer and elk.

Jim Hook can be reached at 262-4759 or .
U.S. farming facts
Average whitetail herd: 82
Expenditures: $101,000 per breeding farm
Economic impact: $3 billion
Jobs: 29,199
Deer facts
Top five deer farming states
Texas 1,006 deer, elk farms
Pennsylvania 1,000
Minnesota 722
Ohio 666
Wisconsin 611
Source: Texas A&M University 2007 study
Top 10 counties in Pennsylvania
by deer, elk farm inventory
1 Blair
2 Centre
3 Venango
4 Bedford
5 Lancaster
6 Franklin
7 York
8 Lawrence
9 Fulton
10 Bradford
Source: Pa. Deer Farmers Association 2007 study
Growing industry
Deer and elk farming is a growing industry in rural Pennsylvania:
- The state had 616 operations in 2002 and more than 750 by 2006.
- More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania's cervid operations were established after 1990.
Pa. farming facts
Avg. size: 69 acres in Pennsylvania
Avg. sales per farm: $53,650
Employment statewide: 1,300 full-time and 2,200 part-time jobs
Economic impact: $103M
Direct sales: $40M

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