Whitetail deer are normally the foe of the Illinois farmer, eating plants and damaging property.
But some farms welcome them, raising the animals instead and making a profit.
One of those farms is 'R' Crazy Whitetails, which has been running for almost 30 years near Altamont and Dieterich. It was started by John Ruholl and his son, Jason Ruholl.
John Ruholl started the farm in the mid-1990s, with the two each buying a deer to start the herd. Jason Ruholl has since taken over day-to-day operations and maintains a herd size in the mid-20s split between near Altamont and another near Dieterich. Working with Lance and and Debbie Elledge, he improved the herd through feed and artificial insemination.
In 2007, Jason Ruholl decided if they were going to raise deer, they should go for the biggest antlers. He's reliably passing 200 inches, he said, with some 300-inch racks and the possibility of 400-inch racks in the future. Right now, one of his 4-year-old bucks has over 300 inches of antler, currently in velvet. He had last year's shed mounted and hopes to have many large ones in the future.
Ruholl also ranches cattle and he sees similarities between the animals. Both require land to graze, food and medical care to be the most productive.
But there's differences.
One of the largest is that deer are not domesticated, he said. He is comfortable with his daughter, Madelynn, playing with the deer when he's present. He lets visitors in the pen as well, particularly when the fawns can be handled. But they are still wild, he said, and he's cautious, even with the ones he and Madelynn have bottle fed.
Although his animals have always lived with people, they can become skittish when humans are around. They'll unexpectedly bolt and can become dangerous if spooked, he said.
Ruholl treats the farm as more of a hobby than a business, but he's not above making some money. He sells the live deer – both does and bucks.
"It's a hobby, but it is a business," he said.
That includes culling the herd, which can include selling the animals off or butchering them.
He's thought about selling the shed antlers, but so far he's storing and displaying them. Antlers are sold as decorations and chews for dogs.
There are a number of financial opportunities from the farm. One of the major ones is breeding, with top-flight deer drawing as much as $5,000 a straw. Deer urine is also sold for use in hunting. Deer velvet is sold as a dietary supplement, which is purported to boost strength and endurance, improve immune function and aid in athletic recovery. However, these results have not been verified in studies.
Ruholl remembers the sudden popularity of deer farming, starting about 2010. It seemed like a viable side business for many people with land not suitable for most farming with a low cost.
"Raising deer maximizes land potential so that even small tracts of marginal property can become extremely profitable," according to the North American Deer Farmers Association, a trade group.
Deer farming has been clouded by chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease passed among deer. Multiple outbreaks of CWD were blamed on deer being moved across the country, bringing the disease to areas it wasn't seen before.
Strengthened regulation and tracking has apparently limited the spread of CWD. Ruholl, and other Illinois farmers, are required to have their herds examined by a vet annually, track where the animals come from and test for diseases regularly.
An avid hunter himself, he doesn't get involved with the end result of his animals.
"Once they buy the deer, it's their problem," he said.