Are Wild Game Farms Sustainable?

Arby's, John Stewart's favorite fast food chain, recently began serving venison (aka deer meat) sandwiches in select locations for a limited time around the US. Rob Lynch, Arby's Brand President & Chief Marketing Officer said that the meat will be sourced from free-range, grass-fed farmed deer and was confident that "deer hunters are going to love this sandwich."

Growing up in a hunting family, I've often been told (lectured?) about the environmental and health benefits of eating wild game meat. What I didn't know, and was curious to find out, was how sustainable farm-raised game meats are.  Is it possible, for example, to raise wild animals like deer, bison, ostrich and alligator on a farm in large numbers in a way that is humane and allows the animals to have limited impact on the surrounding environment? Or would concentrating a large number of these animals in one place generate more waste and pollution than the surrounding waterways and ecosystem could handle?

After spending many hours looking for answers to these questions I came to a surprising conclusion: yes, farm-raised game meats can indeed be sustainable. So next time you see ostrich, bison, venison or alligator on the menu, ask about how the animals are raised and give it a shot! They are meats that are both tasty and (can be) environmentally friendly.

For fellow curious minds and food nerds out there, I've put together the summary of my findings below outlining how common game meat animals are raised on farms and the impacts of those facilities on the environment.

Alligator Farms and Ranches

"St Augustine Alligator Farm " by John Stavely via Flickr


First established in Florida as commercial enterprises in the 1890s to supply leather for belts and boots for the military, in recent years, alligator farms have received renewed interest. There are two different types of alligator production: farming and ranching. Alligator farming is conducted in a closed-cycle system where adult alligators are kept as breeding stock to produce all the eggs needed to keep the farm going. Alligator ranching, on the other hand, does not maintain breeding pairs and alligator eggs or young hatchlings are collected from the wild. In this way, alligator ranching has been shown to help conserve wild alligator populations by giving ranches an economic incentive to help keep a healthy environment for breeding alligators.

Today, most alligator farms can be found in Florida, Louisiana and Georgia.  According to researchers at the University of Florida, one of the distinct advantages of alligator farming is that the animals don't require large tracts of land or water, and farm operations don't have a large negative impact on the surrounding environment. In fact, alligator farms have even been shown to incentivize coastal wetland conservation in Louisiana which provides natural storm buffers and helps support critical habitat for birds and other wildlife. In addition, there's evidence that alligator farming helps take pressure off of wild populations by reducing the need for illegal poaching.

However, there are some questions over whether or not keeping alligators in captivity is ever ok from an animal welfare perspective. It's been documented that alligators in some commercial farms are inhumanely slaughtered and can suffer from stress in confined spaces such as farms, leading to disease outbreaks like caiman pox, adenoviral Hepatitismycoplasmosis, and chlamydiosis.  According to reptile biologist Dr. Clifford Warwick, one reason for these problems is  that the people running alligator farms most often aren't reptile experts and aren't familiar enough with their needs or biology to handle or care for them appropriately.

Unlike other types of livestock, alligators have to be fed a lot of animal protein. For example, one alligator requires about 400 pounds of meat to grow to six feet. If the meat used by an alligator producer comes from factory farms, this can make alligator farming incredibly unsustainable. However, to address this issue, some alligator farms are using meat for feed that would otherwise not be suitable for human consumption - like freezer burned meat from grocery stores, bycatch from commercial trawlers and offal from chicken processing plants - and as a result, are helping to reduce food waste. As with any meat you would purchase, it's best to look into the practices of the farm or ranch before buying their products.

Deer Farms

"Deer farm" by Andy Nelson via Flickr


Deer farms are typically fenced-in pieces of land used for grazing large populations of cervids - a family of animals that includes deer, elk, moose and reindeer. Large scale deer farming started in New Zealand in the 1970s, and the country remains the world's largest commercial producer of farm-raised deer meat in the world. According to a report from Texas A&M University, deer farming is one of the fastest growing agriculture industries in rural America, generating around $2.3 billion a year and supporting tens of thousands of jobs.

One of the environmental benefits of deer farming is that unlike cows, deer can adapt to many different terrains and do well on small tracts of wooded and marginal land, making pasture otherwise unsuitable for cows or other animals profitable for farmers. Farmed deer are typically raised on pasture, trees and brush during warmer months and fed a combination of hay, grain and produce over the winter.  Compared to cows, deer consume less forage, are less damaging to pasture and mature more quickly.

However, due to their natural needs and behaviors, if incorrectly managed there are some environmental and animal welfare challenges created by keeping large amounts of deer in captivity.  Keeping deer in large confined herds contributes to the spread of deadly diseases like chronic wasting disease. In addition, deer's tendency to pace along fences when confined and wallow in streams and other water sources can lead to soil compaction, erosion, sediment loss, fecal contamination of waterways and harm surrounding wetlands and stream beds. To help address these issues, organizations like the New Zealand Deer Industry have developed sustainable deer farm management protocols called Land and Environmental Plans for farmers that, when followed, help protect soil and water resources.

Ostrich Farms

"Ostrich Farm" by Kevin Armstrong via Flickr


While it may not yet have found its audience here, ostrich has a strong following in other countries such as South Africa, where the lean, tasty meat is a staple. Ostrich are a relatively easy farm animal to raise. They thrive in dry, desert environments but are highly adaptable and can live in a wide variety of climates. They just need shade from the sun and shelter from the cold - their spectacular feathers act as both cooling and heating systems to regulate the animal's temperature.  

Ostrich require very little space. A breeding pair can be kept on as little as one-quarter to one half acre of land, according the American Ostrich Association. Thirty to forty non-breeding birds can be raised on about five acres of farmland. According to a 2012 study from Uludag University, the most common animal welfare problem affecting ostriches occurs during catching, transport and slaughter of ostriches which can result in stress and fear responses in the birds. However, as this is a relatively new industry, more research needs to be done to determine what the welfare needs of ostriches in captivity are.

Over half the ostriches in the US reside in Texas, California, Arizona and Oklahoma. Ostrich eat mainly grains such as milo, corn and alfalfa but will also graze for insects, lizards or other small creatures if they are available. They enjoy a good splash in water but get most of their hydration needs from the plants they eat.

Ostrich farms are highly profitable. When compared to cattle, one ostrich produces forty offspring compared to one calf, yielding seven times the meat, fifteen times the leather, plus a supply of feathers. The feed to meat conversion rate is highly favorable for ostrich, particularly when compared to other red meat such as beef. It takes five pounds of feed to yield one pound of beef. Yet a pound of ostrich meat requires an investment of only 1.7 pounds of feed. This results not only in a net reduction in the cost of feed for the farmer, but also minimizes the net ecological footprint created to raise the animal for food, as less feed equals fewer natural resources to grow, process and transport.

Bison Ranches

 Photo Courtesy of Gabrielle Blavatsky


Bison - the game meat on this list that you're most likely to see at your local grocery store or restaurant - has been steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, thanks in part to the trendy paelo diet movement. By the end of the 19th century, there were less than 1,000 bison left in the US. Today, there are close to 500,000. Bison are typically raised on huge fenced in swaths of grassland.  As the bison meat industry has gotten bigger, The New York Times has reported that there has been debate between traditional ranchers who, like most cattle ranchers, switch their bison from grass to grain for the last few months of life, and younger ranchers that raise bison exclusively on pasture as nature intended. The biggest bison rancher in the world, media mogul Ted Turner, owner of a 51,000 member bison herd and 1.9 million acres in Montana (one of his 15 ranches, Flying D, is pictured above), is of the traditional variety and finishes his bison on grain to accelerate their growth.

Due to their large size, bison have few natural predators. As a result, some bison ranchers like Ted Turner actually allow bears and wolf packs to predate naturally on their land (to an extent). This ensures that nature can remain somewhat in balance and that predator populations aren't put in too much danger. He also ensures that other wild animals like elk and deer can pass through his ranch safely.

According to research published in the journal Nature,grasslands like the North American Great Plains are carbon traps that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and return it to the soil through their root system. America's grasslands evolved over tens of thousands of years in part because of the continuous grazing of the American bison. According to the American Bison Association, this co-evolutionary process between grasses and grazers developed as a symbiotic process that is beneficial to both. In fact, according to the Nature Conservancy, grazing is critical to the restoration of grasslands.  As bison graze and engage in their natural behaviors, their waste fertilizes the soil and their hooves help bury seeds and create small pockets for rainwater. Their focus on grasses also allows the wildflowers that pollinators like bees and butterflies depend on to survive, enhancing biodiversity. Thus like pasture-raised cows, when raised exclusively on grass and managed through techniques like rotational grazing, bison ranches can actually be very sustainable.  

Image "Deer Farm" by Inverness County [email protected] Network Society, "St Augustine Alligator Farm " by John Stavely, "Deer farm" by Andy Nelson and "Ostrich Farm" by Kevin Armstrong on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.