Two grazing experiments in New Zealand, using newly weaned red deer stags, assessed methods of maximizing growth over winter and spring, with the objective of attaining a slaughter weight of 92 kg liveweight (> 50 kg carcass) at the end of spring, by 12 months of age. Perennial ryegrass/white clover pastures, and the same direct-drilled with an annual ryegrass, were grazed at two surface heights (5 cm and 10 cm; Experiment 1; 1988) or at similar pasture mass (Experiment 2; 1989). Balanced groups of stags grazing each forage were immunized against melatonin, commencing at 3 months of age (Expt 1) or at birth (Expt 2). Moata annual ryegrass comprised 19–46% of the feed on offer in Expt 1 and 65–82% in Expt 2. Perennial ryegrass comprised 79–89% of control pastures and white clover generally comprised < 10% of all pastures. Organic matter digestibility of both the feed on offer and diet selected, determined with deer fistulated in the rumen or oesophagus, was 75–80%.
In Expt 1, rates of body growth during winter were greater for stags grazing at 10 cm than at 5 cm pasture height, with no effect due to the inclusion of annual ryegrass. During spring, growth rates were similar for stags grazing 10 cm pastures and the 5 cm pasture containing annual ryegrass, but were lower on 5 cm pasture based on perennial ryegrass. Inclusion of annual ryegrass slightly increased winter rates of herbage dry matter accumulation, animal carrying capacity and the proportion of stags attaining target slaughter weight.
In Expt 2, annual ryegrass pastures were of higher organic matter digestibility than perennial pastures during winter, and supported greater rates of liveweight gain (LWG) and voluntary feed intake (VFI) than the perennial ryegrass. During spring, LWG increased in both groups of stags although the difference between the two groups ceased to be significant. More of the animals grazing annual ryegrass pastures attained target slaughter weight than those grazing perennial pasture. Rumen acetate: propionate ratio, measured in fistulated stags, was similar for both groups of animals. Relative to perennial ryegrass, pastures containing high proportions of annual ryegrass resulted in similar animal carrying capacity during winter but substantially lower carrying capacity in spring.
Antibodies binding melatonin were detected in 75% of immunized animals, with higher and more persistent titres being obtained using Freund's than using Dextran adjuvant and titre being much higher in stags immunized at birth than at 3 months of age. This was associated with a small and variable increase in plasma prolactin concentration, but had no effect upon plasma concentrations of LH or testosterone or upon LWG.
It was concluded that the small increase in deer production attributable to annual ryegrass was mainly due to higher VFI, and that grazing perennial ryegrass/white clover pastures at 10 cm surface height resulted in higher levels of deer production than grazing at 5 cm surface height. These studies emphasise the feasibility of early venison production from grazed pastures in New Zealand, and show that the young deer were growing close to their genetic potential under this system.