Specialized Livestock

White-tailed deer.
Tourism Saskatchewan

Specialized livestock raised for economic livelihood by Saskatchewan farmers and ranchers includes prominent species such as elk (wapiti), white-tailed deer, bison, and wild boar. Other species raised in Sasatchewan that are also included under the definition of specialized livestock are: ostriches, emus, llamas, alpacas, reindeer and fallow deer.

Prior to 1987, specialized livestock species were managed by the provincial Department of the Environment, recognizing the owners with zoo licenses. In 1987, the government transferred the management of licensing producers to the Department of Agriculture. Today, the Departments of Agriculture and Environment work together in regulating and managing the specialized livestock industry. It should be recognized that some of the species, such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and reindeer are indigenous wild species in the province. Hence, this results in the need for regulation by both departments as these animals fall under their respective regulations.

In 1995, the Crow Rate transportation subsidy was eliminated in Canada, resulting in agriculture diversification in Saskatchewan. From 1995 to 2000, both the number of specialized livestock producers and the number of animals in western Canada grew by approximately 26%-30% per year. In 2000, chronic wasting disease was discovered in Saskatchewan farm-raised elk and in free-ranging wild mule deer. This discovery forced the closure of export markets for the elk and deer industries, which halted the rapid expansion the industry had experienced.

Saskatchewan is currently home to approximately 25% of the Canadian deer herd, 36% of the Canadian elk herd, and 24% of the Canadian bison herd. According to Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food 2001 statistics, over 580 deer and elk operations are raising an estimated 7,250 mule deer, white-tailed deer and reindeer, and 38,000 elk. Approximately 560 bison producers are raising 41,500 bison. The wild boar population of Saskatchewan is estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 head (including approximately 2,700 sows), raised by an estimated 150 producers.

With the rapid expansion of the specialized livestock industries in the 1990s, infrastructure and support expanded as well. The white-tailed deer, elk, wild boar and bison industries each have provincial producer associations, with both the elk and bison associations having developed national associations to address such issues as animal health, marketing, and relations with other countries. As well, governments and university research and support groups in western Canada exist to assist the specialized livestock industries. For example, at the University of Saskatchewan individuals were assigned to examine marketing, nutrition, meat science and veterinary medicine for specialized livestock species. For all species the single most prominent challenge is developing and expanding new and current markets.

Elk. The primary market for the elk industry is in breeding stock and export sales of antler velvet to countries such as Korea, while competing against other countries such as the United States, New Zealand, China and Russia. When the price for velvet antler products dropped in the late 1990s, owing to the Asian economic downturn, interest was spurred in the marketing of elk for venison and bulls for trophy hunt ranches. Since the legalization of elk farming in Saskatchewan in 1987, the elk industry has demonstrated innovation in the areas of handling, nutrition, and artificial insemination. Current issues challenging the elk industry include the investigation and live animal diagnosis of chronic wasting disease, the determination of specific nutrient requirements that match digestive physiology and optimize production, disease issues such as better tuberculosis testing methods, developing diagnostic tests for parasites such as Parelaphostrongylus tenuis and Elaphostrongylus cervi to facilitate live animal trade, factors affecting antler growth, velvet antler efficacy trials, velvet antler quality assurance standards, venison production, and marketing and product development.

White-tailed Deer. The primary market for white-tailed deer is the sale of adult male bucks to trophy hunt ranches and breeding stock. In the early 1990's white-tailed deer operations were few, as most of the “specialized livestock” interest was being directed toward the elk and bison industries. However, as the value of elk and bison breeding stock increased, more interest was being generated in the white-tailed deer industry. Much like the elk industry, the white-tailed deer industry has shown innovation and expertise in the development of feeding programs, handling systems, and artificial insemination methods. Challenges for the white-tailed deer industry include better testing/investigation of chronic wasting disease, how antler growth can be enhanced through nutrition and genetics, control/eradication of necrobacillosis, developing diagnostic tests for parasites such as Parelaphostrongylus tenuis and Elaphostrongylus cervi to facilitate live animal trade, better testing/investigation of tuberculosis, marketing structures for trophy ranches and venison markets, venison quality and product development, as well as several aspects revolving around nutrition as related to digestive physiology and production requirements.

Bison. The commercial production of bison is also relatively new to western Canada, with rapid increases in animal and producer numbers throughout the 1990s. However, what sets bison apart from the deer and elk industries is that in Saskatchewan, bison are classified as a domestic species and require fewer regulations. In federal jurisdiction, however, bison are regulated as a captive ungulate. The main product of the bison industry is a red meat that is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Other products of the bison industry include sales of breeding stock, hides, bleached skulls for art work, trophy ranching, and tourism. The main advantage of bison is that no other continent outside of North America commercially farms a significant number of bison. Thus, North America is the only major supplier of bison products to the world. The bison industry has also made strong advancements in the areas of handling and nutrition throughout the 1990s. However, much like the deer and elk industries, the bison industry is going through a series of growing pains. Bison meat production is at a disadvantage in Saskatchewan because there is no federally licensed or European-licensed bison slaughter facility located within the province. Without this licensing, bison meat products cannot be exported beyond provincial borders to importing countries such as the United States and Europe. As such, the Saskatchewan industry is currently transporting live animals to licensed slaughter plants in Alberta or the United States. Another primary challenge to the industry is the marketing of its red meat while competing with high-volume meat protein sources such as beef, chicken, and pork. Other obstacles that need to be addressed include bull fertility between and within age groups, growth characteristics and differences between “plains” and “wood” bison, and if differences exist, how to optimize bull feeding and production through the wintering period, and investigation into diseases such as malignant catarrhal fever, Johnes disease and testing of tuberculosis.

Wild Boar. The main product of the wild boar industry is domestic red meat sales and export to Europe and Asian countries. Other saleable products include breeding stock, animals sold to trophy hunt ranch operations as well as animals sold into ethnic markets. Both full-blooded wild boar and commercial standard-bred (hybrid cross with domestic swine) are being raised. The main challenge for the wild boar industry is the marketing of the red meat and structures/infrastructure involved. Federal and European-licensed slaughter plant availability for wild boar also needs to be developed. Issues involving animal handling and containment, meat consistency and quality, marketing and product development are challenges to the wild boar industry.

Other Species. Other species that are termed “specialized livestock” include mule deer, reindeer, fallow deer, ostrich and emu. Challenges to these industries are specific to each species. However, as with the elk, white-tailed deer, bison and wild boar, most of the emphasis is placed on market development and access, market identification, product development and supply, development of production targets, optimization of production, and enhanced knowledge of nutrition and health as it relates to each species.

Murray S. Feist

Further Reading

Haigh, J.C. and R.J. Hudson. 1993. Farming Wapiti and Red Deer. Missouri: Mosby-Year Book; Martin, J., R.J. Hudson and B.A. Young. 1993. Animal Production in Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.