The Name of the Game

Raising deer, oryx, antelope, and more on central texas ranches

Deer at I-Diamond-I Ranch, in Mills County
Deer at I-Diamond-I Ranch, in Mills County

Driving just about anywhere in the Hill Country these days, you can hardly help but notice the fences. Not the old barbed wire ones, but the tall ones, often adorned with a ranch sign that includes the word "Exotics." (I always find myself peering into the brush behind those fences, hoping to catch a glimpse, of what I'm not sure.) And if you've eaten out much in the past few years, particularly in white-tablecloth restaurants, it's likely you've observed an increasing number of game dishes on menus. Yes, there is a connection between what's on the plate in restaurants and those high Hill Country fences. It's called raising game, and Central Texas is one of the world's hot spots for this burgeoning enterprise.

Today, game products raised in Central Texas are sold across the United States, both to restaurants and to individual consumers. Recently, I visited several area ranches and talked with people in the business. Although there are a variety of approaches to raising game, I was struck by several common themes. The first is the enthusiasm shared for the flavor, versatility, and healthful properties of the meat -- these people are venison evangelists. Another is that developing markets for a foodstuff that most people are not accustomed to eating can make it a tough business. And I'm impressed by the fact that every person expressed a fundamental respect for both the land and the animals in their charge.

Finally, there's the meat itself. What I've sampled is some of the best-tasting protein I've ever had. In addition to sausages and jerkys, loins and chops, I've fallen hard for antelope liver, which is so mild and delicate that I dare think of foie gras. And check this out: Venison has less than 2% fat, about half the calories of beef, and contains significant proportions of Omega fatty acids. Raised game has no hormone or steroid injections and, for the most part, is not exposed to pesticides.

A Venerable Enterprise in a New Locale

It isn't that the idea of keeping game (broadly defined as wild animals suitable for human consumption) is a new one. Fallow deer, gazelle, and antelope were kept in captivity in Sinai in 21st-century BC; ancient Egyptians also adopted the practice. Romans kept well-stocked preserves of deer and antelope, and rearing game was prevalent in early China and Europe. The Saami of Scandinavia were herding reindeer by the eighth century, and in medieval Britain, there were as many as 2,000 deer parks. The term "venison" (from the Latin venari, to hunt) originally meant meat of the chase, any furred game, but since the Middle Ages, it has referred specifically to the deer family. (Since 1983, the USDA has included antelope in the definition.)

In the New World, game was traditionally an important food source for both indigenous peoples and European settlers. By the 20th century, however, market hunters had nearly eradicated many species, and the 1890 Lacy Act ended American hunting for commercial purposes. From then on, to eat game, you either had to hunt it yourself or know someone who did. This made venison largely unavailable to an increasingly urban population, and the often poor, unregulated field practices contributed to the perception that it was tough and undesirable ("gamey") meat, inferior to that of domesticated farm animals.

So how did we get to the tender and flavorful ranched and farmed game in the U.S. today? Cut to that other New World -- New Zealand. In the 1850s, European settlers imported red, fallow, and sika deer, where the habitat proved so ideal that they naturalized and almost overran the place. Farmers began domesticating the wild deer, and developed a booming industry. Eighty percent of the venison sold in the U.S. today comes from New Zealand. Most of the rest, however, comes from Central Texas.

The first exotic (non-native) species in Texas was nilgai antelope from India, introduced on the King Ranch in the 1930s. Other species (axis, fallow, sika, sambar, and barasingha deer, mouflon sheep, blackbuck antelope) came to a few more ranches, such as Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker's Patio Ranch and the Schreiner YO Ranch, both in Kerr County. These animals require far less water and care than cattle, they adapt easily to the climate and terrain, and they don't interbreed with native species. As trophy hunting became more popular in the Fifties, breeding exotics continued to spread. An interesting wrinkle is that some Texas-raised stock have been re-introduced into their countries of origin where the species is endangered or threatened.

It wasn't until the early Eighties that Texans began raising these same exotic deer and antelope as commercial sources of meat. Inspired by New Zealand's success, and looking for creative and minimally disruptive ways to utilize the land, ranchers persuaded the Legislature to amend existing game laws, clarifying that exotics are private property like livestock, unlike the native white-tailed and mule deer that are publicly owned. The state also stipulates that the harvesting and processing of commercial venison must be rigorously scrutinized and certified by inspectors licensed by the Texas Department of Health.

Among those who raise game for meat, there is a spectrum of practice and philosophy ranging between "farmed" and "ranched" game. The distinction is based on the terrain in which animals are raised, and the degree of human intervention in their lives. Farmed animals are raised in more controlled environments and have greater human interaction (feeding, vaccination, worming, de-antlering); this venison generally has a milder flavor. Ranched animals run free-range with minimal human interaction; they have firmer muscles and more complex flavor due to exercise and a wild diet. Most Texas game-raising operations fall somewhere in the middle of these definitions.

It is commonly accepted among game farmers and ranchers that minimizing stress in the animals' lives (and deaths) is not only the morally proper way to treat them, but also greatly contributes to the pleasing flavor of the meat. (Adrenalin triggers lactic acid production in muscles, resulting in that undesirable gamey taste.) Deer by nature are easily disturbed, and while approaches differ, a major part of raising and harvesting them has to do with keeping them as stress-free as possible.

J-ONE-S Ranch, Driftwood, Texas

Standing in the middle of the idyllic J-ONE-S Ranch, 435 rolling acres located between Driftwood and Dripping Springs, it's hard to believe that you're a mere half-hour from downtown Austin. Oak, cypress, and pecan trees line meandering creeks, and you never know when a sprightly little blackbuck antelope will come bouncing across your line of vision.

One of the bigger surprises of my life occurred when John Jones stopped the ranch truck and hollered into the distance, causing a small herd of buffalo to stampede out of a copse of trees and thunder toward us. When milling about, they seemed benign, but any one of those guys looked like they could push the truck over without even trying.

Although quite wild and very entertaining, the blackbuck and buffalo are not raised commercially on J-ONE-S (at not least yet). For that, owners John and Sidney Jones maintain about 200 fallow deer, guarded by llamas, in 13 pastures interconnected by a system of lanes used to move the animals among pastures and to the working sheds. "Our facilities were designed for the deer to run from us -- this is how we herd them," John says.

The fallow deer are total herd creatures that stick together; the fence is more to keep whitetail out than to keep the fallow deer in. "If one does get out, it runs up and down the fenceline, wanting to get back in with the tribe." Because they are so societal, John explains, "I can't cause one deer do anything, but I can make 100 deer go anywhere I want." Sidney adds, "It's still like herding butterflies, though."

"We try to interact with the animals as little as possible," John continues. "However, in the last two years of drought, we've had to feed the deer pellets; but given a choice, they'll graze greenery first." They use diatomaceous earth to eradicate intestinal parasites, and John has devised a system to de-antler the bucks by himself; he also transports the animals to the processor and harvests them.

The Joneses, who run four businesses (including a law practice) from the old stone ranchhouse, began their game operations in 1994, starting by selling whole or half animals to restaurants. They intended marketing only primal cuts; however, they quickly got into making the sausages and spicy-sweet venison jerky for which they've become modestly famous.

Venison has less than 2% fat and significant proportions of Omega fatty acids.
Venison has less than 2% fat and significant proportions of Omega fatty acids.

Together, they gave me a crash course in the daunting start-up economics of game ranching. I learned that, beyond the expense of establishing the infrastructure (they have 8.5 miles of flexible deer fence alone), there are astronomical costs for launching a food product, including insurance, production, marketing, selling, and distribution. John remarks dryly, "You don't see many poor people in the deer business."

A big part of the work is educating chefs and the general public about venison. Sidney maintains a mail order Web site (see left) and is a fixture at Central Texas food festivals, handing out literature and samples. She says, "I'll sell sausages any way I have to."

I-Diamond-I Ranch, Goldthwaite, Texas

Deep in Mills County, Judy and Dan Watson raise fallow deer and Boer goats, about 200 of each. It's an adventure visiting I-Diamond-I; after 20 bumpy miles down a dusty gravel road, you round a final bend to enter what appears to be goat heaven. Guarded by a pair of watchful donkeys, goats are everywhere, rambunctious babies climbing and running around like kids on a playground, and making just about as much noise. The considerably quieter deer herds are pastured farther away, accessible only by more miles of off-road driving.

From a distance, we view the does resting tranquilly in the shade, many ready to fawn any minute. In an adjacent pasture, the bucks come running at the approach of the truck. While certainly not tame, they seem unfazed by us, primarily interested in the range cubes Judy has brought. "Hi there, 82," Judy calls to an inquisitive young buck, identifiable by the numbered, color-coded tag in his ear.

The Watsons started their operation on the banks of the Colorado in 1997; their interest in raising venison lies in its health benefits. "One of my passions is providing people with a healthy diet," Judy says. She grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming and always dreamed of running her own spread. Between her childhood ranch life and her current one, she spent 20 years in Tucson working in counseling, real estate, and investment banking, always with the ranch goal in mind. Dan is a glass sculptor with an engineering background; formerly, he built telescope mirrors at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

The I-Diamond-I operations fall on the farmed end of the spectrum. The deer live on 120 acres of high-fenced bottomland, and are rotated among six pastures. Ten acres are native grasses; the rest are cultivated with forage crops. The Watsons supplement with range cubes and corn, and provide minerals, salt, and water. They work the stock fall and spring, weighing, vaccinating, and worming, painlessly de-antlering the bucks each fall. Practicing preventative medicine, they've developed quiet working systems to minimize stress. Dan says, "We feel a very serious responsibility toward our animals; we do everything we can to keep them healthy and happy."

Like everyone else I talked with, they are cognizant and respectful of the wild creatures that share their land. "We designed our pasture and fence system to have as minimal an impact as possible on the native whitetails' paths of travel and access to the river."

Judy sells her venison mainly by mail order, advertising on the Internet and shipping to 22 states. Her major product is sausage, but she also has primal cuts available (see left for Diamond Cut Venison products).

As the Watsons serve me delicately spiced slices of summer sausage and fork-tender, barely seared venison loin, I ask if they ever get tired of consuming their products. They both shake their heads. "The last time we bought any red meat was in 1998, and we eat venison about twice a week."

Venison World, Eden, Texas

According to a Dallas Morning News article a few years ago, "Dallas has Neiman Marcus. New York has Bloomingdale's. Eden, Texas, has Venison World."

This surprising upscale emporium can be found in tiny Eden, three hours northwest of Austin at the crossroads of highways 83 and 87. Company President Nancy Green says that about 9,000 cars pass every day, many of them stopping for the primal cuts, jerky, sausages, gift items, and gourmet condiments made by area entrepreneurs.

In 1992, Nancy and her husband, Joe Green, owners of Comanche Springs Ranch in Concho County, collaborated with 13 other ranchers who raise axis deer, scimitar-horned oryx, and nilgai to create a retail outlet to sell their game-related products. At first, they sold only Venison World-brand items, but now retail other products as well. In addition to the store, they maintain an extensive Web site and mail-order business (see left), with customers in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, New York, Florida, California, and Hawaii.

Green points out that some of the participating ranches raise species that are endangered in their native countries. These include barasingha deer from India and the scimitar-horned oryx from Sudan, which were reduced by overhunting to as few as 300 in their indigenous desert habitat. "At times, we've had more oryx than that at Comanche Springs Ranch alone," she said.

Broken Arrow Ranch, Ingram, Texas

It's hard to imagine a discussion of game ranching without Mike Hughes of Broken Arrow Ranch coming up. Everyone I spoke with evoked his name as the eminence grise of the commercial venison industry in Central Texas. After visiting the Broken Arrow operation, I understood why. The unassuming storefront in downtown Ingram gives no hint of the magnitude of the business, where a mind-boggling 350,000 pounds of meat are processed annually and shipped to 45 states. With a staff of 20, Broken Arrow raises, slaughters, processes, markets, and distributes fully half of the venison produced in the United States.

Hughes became interested in game ranching in the early Eighties, when the idea was just glimmering in this country. In his capacity as founder of Oceaneering International, a Houston-based diving technology and research corporation, he'd observed experimental deer farms in Aberdeen, Scotland, near one of the company's sites. "We've got more deer in Texas than the UK ever dreamed about," he had thought. "Maybe I should look into this." He started talking to chefs about markets for venison, and realized that Americans were uncomfortable with the origins, safety, and quality of game products. To shorten a long story, he worked with the USDA, the Texas Legislature, and the Texas Department of Health to help define the term venison for commercial purposes and to determine and establish the rigorous state inspection laws that govern the production of raised game.

Hughes retired from Oceaneering in 1983, moved to Ingram, and devoted his considerable energy to building the game business. A fervent believer in free-range ranching and absolute minimum human interference, Hughes developed a unique and sophisticated field harvesting system, a mobile unit equipped to efficiently process meat in the field. With this mobile facility and in the presence of a state inspector, animals (axis, sika, and fallow deer, blackbuck and nilgai antelope) are harvested from more than 150 different Central and South Texas ranches. The carcasses are brought to the Ingram plant, where they are fully aged before being packaged into 250 products. Hughes says, "As far as I know, no one else in the world does this."

A whopping 90%-95% of Broken Arrow's customers are fine-dining restaurants around the country. The biggest customer is the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas; other stalwarts include the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Houston's Cafe Annie, and Biga on the Banks in San Antonio. Hughes notes, "We've been featured in many James Beard House events in New York." According to Operations Manager Glen Hollowell, Whole Foods Market orders 20,000-30,000 pounds of meat a year for resale.

Why is Broken Arrow so popular with high-end establishments? "We are perfectionists," says Perrin Wells, general manager. "We offer very personalized service, good presentation, the best quality, and a unique range of products. And because our volume has increased so much, the prices haven't risen perceptibly in 20 years."

The personalized service extends to individual customers with small orders (see p.38). According to sales representative Valery Groff, some buyers have specific health concerns, such as allergies to corn or additives. "We also have customers who want to 'eat intuitively,' like our ancestors who consumed only undomesticated animals. Some people want very pure meat because they don't cook it. And some even buy it for their dogs. But most people just like the taste and variety we have to offer." end story

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