Trials and Tribulations of Fawning Season

Badger vs. Whitetail

By: Jake M. Badger 
Originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue of the Upper Midwest Cervid Newsletter

When I walked into the breeding facility barn that morning there was more than the usual cry of hungry fawns. Today there was something different. Nothing could prepare me for the morning we were about to have at Legends Ranch. Entering the pen, I saw two fawns stretched straight out - clearly not the way a hungry baby should be lying. That was the first experience I ever had with what we now call a “down" baby: one that is no longer able to function lying on its side, sometimes kicking and other times stiff from straining. That morning we rushed both fawns straight to the lab and plugged in the heat lamps and blankets and started providing electrolytes orally. Just when the two fawns had given up on life, and we began to recollect the morning's events and our unsuccessful efforts, I heard someone yell “Angie is down and two others too!" The whirlwind of sick babies overcame us like nothing we had ever experienced, and we had no idea how to end it. 

Can you recall a story of a neighbor or friend who found an abandoned baby deer, stuck a bottle of milk in its mouth and raised it to be an adult? I think many of us have. Most don’t realize just how much of a too-good-to-be-true situation that story may be. Sure, it may appear easy to keep a fawn healthy that has unlimited room to run around and no other animal bacteria to deal with. There is a reason you haven't heard of many non-farmers raising more than one or two babies at a time. The reason is because it is hard. How do farmers who raise 20 fawns do it successfully, and what about those raising 50 or even 100 at a time? This article will attempt to explore some of the lessons learned at Gutierrez Cervid Company at Legends Ranch while taking care of up to 100 dependent bottle-fed fawns at a time. 

Raising whitetail deer is not an easy endeavor for the inexperienced farmer. So much more goes into a fawning season than just taking care of cute baby deer. Don’t get me wrong - they are cute - and they can be loving and friendly, but they can also be a great challenge to keep healthy 

Nobody can teach you exactly what to expect. Just when you think you have seen it all you will discover a new situation. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of what to expect is “poop.” You will see more poop than you have in your entire life, and if you are paying attention you will notice different colors, textures and smells that you never thought possible. The important thing about deer waste is what it can tell you about the condition of the animal. Many animals will be bloated and thus not able to pass waste. Some will have such loose stool that it comes out just as fast as the milk goes in. Sometimes it will look blue, sometimes gray or even yellow with blood mixed in. All of these different situations will bring a different scenario helping the farmer to develop a plan to try and make the deer better. My best advice for you is to talk to a vet each time you get a new situation you are unsure of and learn what that means for the health of the animal. 

The phrase that there are not enough hours in the day is completely true when it comes to deer 
farming. You should expect long days and nights. Many nights the temperature gets so low that all we could do to keep the fawns from freezing on their metal crates was to leave numerous propane heaters going all night long. But to me it's always worth it. More than once I have had to curl up on the plywood floor with my dog next to a line of fawn crates all night long when the power went out. The second thing to expect is the joy that comes from bottle feeding those young fawns There is no greater feeling in the world than successfully getting your babies to weaning in good health. Knowing you raised something so small and fragile is truly a great feeling.

l underestimated the importance of living conditions for the animals when I first came into the business. When I was younger, I thought dirty waste-covered barns were just the way things were. Little did I know at the time that deer do not fall into the category of "farm animal" that should live like that as an infant. My first season of bottle feeding was a huge learning curve for myself and the entire team. We concentrated too many babies together for our enclosures to handle and cleaned them only half as well as we should have. As a result of this slack procedure, we had sick fawns. In the first few weeks of being on the bottle we had an entire barn full of fawns with diarrhea which would not respond positively to any antibiotic or natural remedy we gave them. Nothing worked, nothing helped. The only option we had was to spend hours a day giving extra subcutaneous fluids and Pedialyte to those who were healthy enough to drink it. The lack of hydration in the fawns and cold temperatures led us to come in each morning to two or three more lethargic or dead fawns. Over the course of four fawning seasons our operation has gained experience from many other deer farmers as well as great trial and error. We have started a system to keep the fawns separated as newborns in a cleaner environment. I promise you that walking into a barn of healthy babies makes it worth every hour at extra preparation making a good home for them. 

The ground is one of the most important factors in keeping deer of any age healthy. Deer constantly browse for food on the ground. If the ground is concentrated with feces, the deer will contract illnesses. A few simple ways that we keep the ground in our fawning areas cleaner are to spread lime in the off-season as well as tilling up the ground. If you are really dedicated and have a close relationship with the fawns, you can continue to stimulate them and actually catch and dispose of feces after each feeding to reduce the spread of bacteria. 

Fawns are fairly easy to feed. They need milk, water, solid food and some greens. For us, we have always used a milk replacer to make sure the fawns get all the nutrients they need. We slowly start to feed them a calf pellet and clover after the first few weeks of life. After weaning, we have found that just because there may be grass in a pen does not mean the fawns can get the nutrition they need on that alone. They need clover, hay, or some kind of mixture until they move to an adult pen, to avoid becoming malnourished. 

So, I've told you my first few weeks raising deer on the bottle were tough but this is where I explain how on Earth we actually got through it alive (Most of us at least). Let me take you back to that morning again and tell you exactly what I would have done if I knew then what I do now. “Angie is down and two others too!” I hear those words and leave the lab running for the fawn crates that have the down babies inside. First step is to determine who the fawn is; It is Penny, Blue 25. I rush to the second and third step simultaneously as I think back if Penny had a history of illness and swoop her up into my arms all in one fluid motion. Next step is to prepare a heat lamp a foot and a half above a heating blanket. I place a bag of Sodium Chloride in the microwave and warm it up to about 100 degrees. As soon as everything is set up I lay Penny on the towel outstretched so I have quick access to her neck and any vein I need. I then grab an IV cable and attach it to the sodium chloride and put a 20-gage needle on the end, making sure to get all the air out of the tube before I begin my work. A loud buzz rings out as I shave her neck to expose her barely beating pulse. I find the vein and hook her up to a slow drip of fluids straight into her bloodstream. It feels like I have done all I can now but that is not the case. During the time it takes me to get the fluids flowing into her vein, my assistant has prepared about 3 ounces of warm Gatorade in one container to be tube fed into Penny's stomach, and also has drawn out about 120-180 ml of sodium chloride to give subcutaneously under the skin. When my assistant asks why I gave the fluids under the skin; I answer that If the fawn survives the next 30 minutes of critical care, the subcutaneous fluids will be what helps her survive the next 4 hours until she is really stable again. Now we are back to reality again. If I had handled the situation how I just explained, there is a chance that Penny would be a three year old doe now with fawns of her own but instead she is the unfortunate first point on an everlasting learning curve. 

The bond created between human and deer can be just like most people would think of the relationship between dog and owner. When you take the fawns away from mom and place them into their new homes, you are the first thing they see the next morning. They don't see their mother, they only see you. When you are in every aspect, the mother of these animals, they become your children. Intern Mikayla P. from Maine said, “it was incredible to think how an animal so timid can rely on you so much and establish a relationship with a person.” For myself, domesticating whitetail deer has definitely been one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had.

Better conception rates are one of the greatest outcomes of having a bottle-fed doe herd. They have less stress, are calmer in the handling facility, and have quicker tranquilization times. Bottle fed deer allow you to get close to their fawns, which leads to their offspring being calmer as well. Every aspect of calm deer is better. For myself, the greatest advantage of bottle-fed animals is the: ability to medicate them at close ranges. Every day, we go out in the pens and throw peanuts which are a healthy treat for the deer. When the deer hear' the noise of peanuts hitting the ground they run fuII-speed over towards us. This gives the farmer a dependable way to quickly observe and evaluate the herd up-close. If a deer is coughing or has diarrhea., you will be able to hit them with a dart of whichever antibiotic you prefer for that situation. Sometimes you can also tell which bottle-fed lawns are sick if they don't come running when they normally do). 

Choose wisely what advice you apply to your fawns when it comes to sickness. Just because farmer Jon down the road had good luck with giving a shot of vinegar and fruit juice to a sick fawn doesn't mean it is either good or helpful to your situation. Your best friend during fawning season should be your veterinarian. Sometimes it takes losing three fawns from unsuccessful treatments to save that last one, and in the end it is worth it. I would also advise being willing to spend the extra money for the antibiotics recommended by your veterinarian. 

When you treat an illness in fawns you want to make sure that illness is completely wiped out so it will not return. Also be sure to avoid gimmick products. Sometimes less is more in our world of raising fawns. If you have a procedure that works well, stick with it! Don't change just to try something new.

Do not forget about yourself during fawning season. The quickest way to get sick babies and miss warning signs of unhealthy situations is to over-work yourself. Take a day off once in a while! Disappear and go spend some time doing something completely unrelated to deer, it will help you refocus and increase your spirit. I am embarrassed to say it but my favorite thing to do on days off is to take the motorcycle to Walmart and go walk around for a few hours while looking at all the great deals they have to offer. During the heat of summer, it is so easy to get caught up in your job of keeping babies healthy that you forget about yourself.

It has been four years of learning and I can finally say that we, as a team at Legends Ranch, believe we can take care of fawns almost as good as a mother doe can. I‘ve also come to accept that being able to take care of a fawn almost as good as its mother is a great achievement. We have taken a program - which lost as much as 50 percent of fawns a year - to a complete season of losing less than ten percent of our entire fawn crop. As I walked down the runway behind the last five fawns to be weaned of the season, I felt a great sense of accomplishment for having come so far in such a short period of time. The fawns finally made their way through the gate of their new pen and our barns are at peace until next May when we do it all over again. 

Hello, my name is Jake M. Badger. I am 28 years old and lucky enough to be the Breeding Facility Manager of Gutierrez Cervid Company at Legends Ranch in Bitely, Michigan. I haven’t always been a Michigander though. I am originally from Maine and I graduated college with a Wildlife Biology degree from the University of New Hampshire in 2011. You might be wondering why any of this matters to you? Well luckily for me I was able to tell you a little about my experiences in the first five years of leading one of the largest breeding operations in the state of Michigan.
Thank you for reading and I definitely appreciate your feedback! Contact me anytime at:

Thank you,
Jake Badger