Thursday, December 5, 2002

Home on the range in Scarborough

Published in the Current

Hidden away on Ross Road is a medium-size farm behind a big business. Started in 1992 with a few dozen animals, Bayley Hill Elk and Deer Farm now has 1,200 head of Rocky Mountain elk and red deer serving several different markets.

Owned by Fred and Kathleen Bayley, the farm is open to visitors through Christmas Eve, and when families buy a tree at Bayley’s Campground on Pine Point Road, they get a free bag of apples to feed the elk and deer on the farm just down the road.

Many families come back year after year, Farm Manager Nick Richardson said. “It’s become a tradition.”

Behind the scenes, the farm is a serious business.

One big market it serves, according to Richardson, is producing velvet, or new growth antlers for an arthritis supplement the farm sells as nearby as Lois’s Natural Marketplace on Route 1 and as far afield as China. “China is starting to look at buying a lot,” Richardson said.

The horn is harvested every 60 days, Richardson said, and is dried and sent to Canada for further freeze-drying – shrinking fresh antlers to about one third their original weight – before being made into pills. The pills can sell for as much as $150 per pound, Richardson said, and the farm’s best producer of antlers, a bull elk, has put out over 30 pounds of fresh antler per year.

The farm used to ship more to the Far East, where velvet antler is used in traditional Chinese medicine. That market has slumped recently, allowing
Richardson to grow out the antlers on many bulls to see if they would do well for a second market, which is trophy animals.

Ranchers in Texas, Ohio and Florida buy live bull elk and deer to take to their land for hunters to stalk, paying big fees for the privilege. The ranches will pay up to $5,000 for a bull, Richardson said, and Bayley Hill will sell about 110 animals to ranchers this year.

And though the animals are fenced in on private land, the hunt isn’t necessarily easy. “In Texas a ranch can be 100,000 acres,” Richardson said.

Closer to home, the animals’ meat sells well. The farm deals with a restaurant supply company in Boston that serves high-end hotels and restaurants throughout New England. The farm sells “several tons” of fresh venison and elk meat each year, slaughtered and processed in Guilford.

“We ship all over New England,” Richardson said.

Making matches
The fourth segment of the business is the most complex and also the most profitable. Bayley Hill provides breeding stock for other deer and elk farms.

Bayley Hill, Richardson said, is one of the top breeding farms in the U.S., and the top bull can bring in as much as $400 per straw – the unit in which bull semen is sold – with hundreds of straws possible per year.

“The beauty of it is that you don’t actually have to bring the animals here,” Richardson said. Rather than shipping animals, breeders send cases of straws around instead. It’s cheaper and easier, especially with the international fears of spreading hoof-and-mouth disease.

Now there are restrictions on animals entering and leaving countries, for fear the disease would be transported along with them, unbeknownst to the owners.

In 1997, Bayley Hill inseminated 240 females, and this year will inseminate 1,000 females, with the goal of improving the farm’s stock.

There is a general rule: “Fast-growing animals that produce huge horns are valuable animals,” Richardson said. But other attributes also up the value of an animal or a line of offspring.

Lean meat is what the meat buyers want, and large antlers are good for the velvet antler market. The largest bull, which would provide the most meat, does not necessarily produce the biggest antlers, Richardson said, meaning lines have to be separated by their intended use.

Females are bred not for size but for mothering skills and quality of milk. A small female may be the one with the most successful offspring, Richardson said, because it’s a better mother than a larger female.

“Each successive generation gets better,” Richardson said.

Ease of birthing is also a factor. Unlike cows, which cannot give birth without human assistance, deer and elk still have unassisted births most of the time. That’s an attribute Richardson and his counterparts at farms around the world want to keep.

Smart animals
Richardson has been doing this sort of work for 20 years, first in New Zealand and then in Britain, where he managed the largest deer farm in the country for five years before coming to Bayley Hill in 1997.

Elk and deer, he said, are intelligent animals that are also very strong. They are kept in fields with six-foot-high fencing around them, but Richardson said some animals could jump even that if they wanted to. Instead, they stay and get 20 to 30 pounds of food a day, which they rapidly turn into meat. At 17 months, the elk can get close to 600 pounds. They eat hay and brewers grain, a byproduct of the Budweiser brewery in Merrimack, N.H.

The animals do have to be handled with caution, because of their size and their wildness, despite living on a farm. “We’re very very careful, but it’s still a high-risk business to be in,” Richardson said.

In the barn, where they are taken for shipping or harvesting of antlers, there is a sophisticated system of hydraulic-powered chutes to keep them moving along properly and under control.

Despite the danger, the animals do play a lot, running around their fields and romping with other animals.

“I truly do believe they have a sense of humor,” Richardson said.