OYFF Wildlife: Bigger, Better Bucks Have Ainsworths LIving Dream
Behind the fences lining both sides of Warrenton Road in rural Marshall County, Will Ainsworth is living out a dream, a dream first envisioned when he was a junior marketing major at Auburn University but one that has evolved far beyond his own imagination.”I grew up deer hunting with my dad, and just enjoying the outdoors, and thought I wanted to do something in the outdoor business,” he recounted. “I did a project in school on opening up a hunting store in Guntersville. You had to put together a business plan, and I did all this research to show how a hunting store would work in Guntersville, based off the traffic count off of U.S. 431 and the population within a 30-mile radius.”Around that same time, he met a young sophomore from Tupelo, Miss., and shared his idea with her. “I thought it was a great idea,” said Kendall Ainsworth, the sophomore who became the other half of that dream and who joins him in being recognized as the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Outstanding Young Farm Family in the Wildlife Division.”When Will gets something in his mind, he’s going to follow through with it,” she said. “So, I was excited for him.”But then Will and his father attended the Safari Club International hunting show in Reno, Nev., where about 150 commercial hunting ranches were represented. Before long, Will’s dream of a quaint little hunting store was moving in a different direction.”We had no clue whether we’d do deer hunts, quail hunts or what we were going to do, but we liked what we saw,” said Will. “I didn’t know what deer breeding was. Had no clue.”Today, he has more than a clue, thanks to two years of study under nationally renowned deer farming consultant Doug Leitch who he hired to get his plan off the ground. “I study this stuff religiously because I want to know as much as I can,” said Will. “Since, if this is what I’m doing, I hope I can be at least one of the best.”Now, five years later, Ainsworth’s dream has become Dream Ranch, one of the state’s premier deer farm operations offering a wide array of services — deer hunting and breeding, quail hunting and professional consulting for others interested in turning their own property into wildlife preserves. It even offers a custom blend deer feed. “We’re trying to be as diversified as we can,” he said.About 350 deer roam the ranch’s 1,400 fenced acres, drawing hunters from all over in search of the trophy buck of a lifetime. Last year, 450 hunters came to Dream Ranch; this year, Ainsworth says 500 will hunt the farm. About 60 percent of those are corporate hunts; about 40 percent are father-son, family and friend hunts.”If we have a group come in, I’ll help cook and help serve and greet the people,” said Kendall, adding that a grilled peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich has become a favorite with repeat clients who enjoy meals at the farm’s beautiful 900-square-foot cabin.”We try to make memories that’ll last,” said Will, pointing to a 96 percent client retention rate. “That’s a big thing in the hunting business because you want to retain your clients. The best thing is a happy customer and word of mouth.”Kendall, who works full time for the Marshall County Board of Education, also helps with promotional mailings and other administrative duties.That’s why both are so excited about the ranch’s new lodge, a 12,000-square foot log structure overlooking Lake Guntersville. The lodge, which should open sometime this month, will not only give Dream Ranch the ability to host multi-night hunts, but do so in luxurious fashion. Large enough to sleep as many as 25, the lodge features such niceties as a 12-by-30-foot commercial kitchen, a dining room that will easily seat 30, hot tub, wrap-around bar, a pro shop, inside and outside fireplaces, plasma TVs, locker rooms and even trap shooting from the balcony.”It’s really the small things, in my opinion, that matter, like putting a mint on a guy’s bed, having clean towels and things like that,” said Will. “We try to control the things we can control, as far as having good food, having friendly staff, having clean and neat facilities, trying to be professional. Obviously, if the weather doesn’t work out and the deer don’t move, there’s nothing we can do.”Even so, hunters enjoy a success rate that averages 90 percent. “That’s because I only book the amount of hunts when I think we’ll have mature deer,” Will said. “If you start booking a lot of people and are not watching what you’re doing, you’ll ruin your herd.”Will pays close attention to herd management, and has 20 breeding pens where about 100 doe give birth to twin fawns each year, using a single-sire breeding program. There’s also a full-scale artificial insemination program with off-site storage and shipping with a straw of semen fetching anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000.”We got into the breeding business to stock our hunting preserve, but there’s such a strong market within the state of people wanting deer that we’ve sold a lot of our deer to other breeders getting into the business,” said Will, noting that an adult doe sells for $10,000 and he’s sold 90 of them. “At the end of the day, genetics are a big part of it, and that’s our niche. We have the best genetics in the state, and probably the Southeast.”The genetics show where it counts most — the antlers. “Our biggest deer will score 240 on the Boone and Crockett scale,” said Will. “He has 23 points, and he’s just 3 years old.””We believe the doe is responsible for 60 percent of what a buck will have on its head, antler-wise,” he added. “Say you’ve got 15 does in a pen and you breed them all to the same buck, and then all of a sudden, one of those does produces a monster buck. Why is that? It’s not that the buck bred her differently or anything, it’s just that she’s just got a strong genetic makeup and that cross worked. So, understanding your does and what they are producing is a real important part of our program.”Will guesses there are about 100 deer farms in the state, but would like to play a role in increasing that number.”This is a great way to diversify your farm,” he said. “A lot of guys may be struggling in the cattle business or row crops, but you can take 20 acres and put deer pens up and do really well as long as you know what you’re doing.””Besides,” Will says, “this is a lot more fun than a hunting store.”
For more information, visit www.DreamRanch.org or call (256) 571-7355.