Most Ohioans are very familiar with the whitetail deer that roam the state’s forests and fields in increasingly plentiful numbers. But, while there are plenty of wild deer, there is a growing demand for dazzling trophy bucks that just don’t show up in natural Ohio on their own. This demand drives an industry that most people do not really know much about.
“There are 600 people in Ohio raising deer, but people just don’t know we exist,” said Curt Waldvogel, a Madison County deer farmer and president of the Whitetail Deer Farmers of Ohio. “We’re not trying to hide, but people don’t know there is this industry out there.”
Waldvogel Whitetails focuses on high quality breeding stock and improving genetics to get the big bucks that hunters hope to find on a stroll beneath their tree stands.
“I sell high end genetic breeding stock. My goal is not to sell to preserves, though that is ultimately what is driving the business,” he said. “At the end of the day, every deer farm is a production farm, but you want to be a breeding farm. The goal is to sell breeding sires. If
they don’t sell as breeding sires, they get sold to a private hunting preserve.”
There are some hunting preserves in Ohio, but most of the animals that Waldvogel sells go out of state. The breeding animals on his farm receive incredible amounts of individual attention and the highest level of care.
Waldvogel got his start with whitetail production on his home dairy farm in Wisconsin.
“I was 17 years old and my dad and I were avid hunters. We were dairy famers in Wisconsin. We had a corner chunk of ground that wasn’t good for anything else and we started raising deer for a hobby because we loved deer,” he said. “Later, we started to see potential for a business with the deer that was basically the formation of our current industry. We put up more pens and bought some better genetics. Once you put up a fence and start raising deer, you start to realize there are other people doing that. We expanded and started making it into a business and making real money at it in 1999.”
Waldvogel moved to Ohio in 2005 with hopes of further expanding the business. He searched the region for the perfect site for a deer farm.
“I considered Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and Ohio was the best option. My intent was to find a property that was the best for what I was doing for a living of raising whitetail deer,” he said. “This can be a profitable business, but it is not a get rich quick program. It takes a lot of time and thought and money to do the best you can with your herd. I had a plan in mind for my pens and handling facilities. This is the highest point around here. It is also an open area that is partially wooded. It is perfect.”
The farm now has 30 acres behind the required eight-foot woven wire fence with a second fence around most of the rest of the property, which is not required by law.
There are generally around 100 animals on the property and there were 35 pregnant females having babies this spring.
“They do not generally need much help with having babies,” Waldvogel said. “The norm is for them to have twins.”
In addition, there are 20 un-bred females and 45 bucks growing racks. The farm also sells semen.
“In the last 10 years, significantly more animals are being artificially bred and a significant portion of our business is semen sales,” he said. “It is maybe around 75% artificial insemination now.”
In terms of the genetics for the perfect buck, there is no such thing.
“It is not true that if it scores more it is better. There is no set in stone formula. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Ten different guys can pick 10 different bucks. It is difficult to quantify what is desirable. Because of that, things like EPDs really have not taken off,” Waldvogel said. “We do have events where different farmers show what they have, but nobody brings animals. We have auctions but no animals. Those are a big part of the industry any more. It seems like I am on the road a lot more than I used to be.”
There is a huge price range in the cost of the animals.
“You can go and buy a bred doe for $500 to $1,000 all day long and there are does out there you can’t touch for $50,000 or $100,000. You can get a good female for $5,000 to $10,000,” he said. “The top few bucks in the industry have tremendous value that would exceed the value of any female. But there are a larger number of females that have a higher value because of her pedigree. With a male, that pedigree does not always show up on his head. You can go out and get a good male for $25,000 to $50,000 as a good herd sire. You can find them for way less, maybe $7,500 and way more, into the multiple millions. You need to have a big name, recognizable buck to get nationwide recognition.”
The farm has 12 different pens that are roughly half cover and half open pasture. The animals are penned based on age and sex. Some are grouped based on how they were bred. Every pen of animals is hand fed every day with the same feed. They also have access to pasture.
“I am an old dairy man and I think we could do better with individualized feeding, but what we are doing now works well. I am very big on putting them on fresh pasture whenever I can. I put in a mix of clover, alfalfa and chicory, with the most chicory, then clover, then alfalfa and grass fills in,” he said. “I topdress seed in every pasture every year. I plow it under and reseed every three years or so. I am very picky with my pastures. In winter I supplement with hay. I want good alfalfa hay because, even though they do not really need that protein with all of the mineral in the feed, they don’t waste it.”
The female fawns are all bottle-fed.
“We bottle feed all of the females so they get used to working with us. We leave them with the mom for one to three days so they get colostrum, but the longer you leave them with the mother, the more difficult they are to get started on the bottle,” he said. “We bottle feed them three times a day — morning, noon and night. If they are stubborn at first, we may be messing with her six or seven times a day. We don’t bottle feed males. Whitetail bucks are very hierarchal. They all know who the boss is in the pen. When you bottle-feed a buck, he may challenge you to gain dominance. Females stay gentle, but the males are males and a bottle fed buck can be a very dangerous animal.”
The facilities are specifically designed for handling the potentially challenging animals. Waldvogel built “walls” that slide along an overhead rail to move the deer into the handling facilities with little to no human contact. He also built an impressive series of rooms and chutes for handling the animals with minimal stress on the deer and maximum safety for the farm workers.
“Handling the challenging bucks starts with the pen layout and then continues with the handling facilities,” he said. “When I set up this farm I already had a lot of experience and I set this up to make it safe and stress free for everybody.”
He has worked hard to turn his love for working with deer into a successful business.
“This is my hobby. I love the animals and enjoy working with them. I have the advantage that I can make my living doing a hobby,” he said. “Even on challenging days I am not really working. I love working with my customers too. You will not find a better group of people to work with than whitetail deer farmers. There is a huge learning curve in this business, but everyone is so nice and helpful. Everyone goes so far out of their way to help a new person to succeed. There is a mutual respect with this. It is all about the health of the animals and the benefit of the herd.”