A Wild Elk Farm: Raising Elk for Profit

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With the help of a single hired hand, Wyman maintains his elk in three separate herds. The first group consists of 60 or so head pastured near ranch headquarters. These animals are about as close to being domesticated as elk are ever likely to come.
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Antlers shorn, the bull on the left still defeated his heavily antlered opponent.

For nearly two decades now, an enterprising Colorado
ranching family has been demonstrating that raising wild elk
on their elk farm for the commercial market is more fun than
herding cattle or sheep, and can also be an extremely
profitable venture.

At the age of 52, Lou Wyman is everything a half-century of
cowboy movies has conditioned us to expect a lifelong
western rancher to be-strong, independent, even ruggedly
handsome in a Clark Gable sort of way.

Wyman’s Wild Elk Farm

And the Wyman ranch — 10,000 acres of lightly
timbered Rocky Mountain foothill country perched at 7,000
feet in northwestern Colorado — would also satisfy
popular notions as to what such an operation should look
like . . . with a cattle-guarded entrance gate located
several miles from the nearest paved road; a traditional
single-story ranch house furnished with age-darkened
antiques; a huge barn with hayloft, its roof sagging with
the memory of decades of heavy snows; a log bunkhouse, its
interior decorated with hunting trophies and warmed by a
cavernous stone fireplace; sprawling pastures watered by a
meandering fork of the nearby Yampa River; and a generous
assortment of corrals, narrowing chutes, loading ramps,
squeezes, and sundry outbuildings — all Wyman-built
from locally harvested logs and home-milled lumber.

In fact, about the only thing missing from this otherwise
classic Western American Gothic is a lazing herd of lowing
cattle. But that’s OK, because Lou and Paula Wyman ranch
critters that are a heck of a lot more interesting and
aesthetic than a bunch of gutbulged cows; the Wyman ranch
supports, depending on the season, from 200 to 300 head of
wapiti . . . the regal Rocky Mountain elk.

Elk Ranching at a Glance

With the help of a single hired hand, Wyman maintains his
elk in three separate herds on their elk farm. The first group consists of 60
or so head pastured near ranch headquarters. These animals
are about as close to being domesticated as elk are ever
likely to come: When Wyman steers his dilapidated flatbed
truck into the big, white pasture early each winter morning
to distribute the daily supplemental feeding of alfalfa or
grass hay, the pampered wapiti fall in behind the motorized
feed wagon as obediently as a platoon of army recruits
forming up in front of a chow hall.

The second herd — pastured in a more remote area
— is wilder, has the run of a good deal more country,
and will line out for yon side of the nearest hill at the
slightest provocation. The third and largest herd —
over 100 adult animals plus their offspring — has
close to 1,000 rolling, aspen-timbered acres upon which to
roam and graze, and is, in a practical sense, wild.

In addition to wholesaling fresh, organically grown elk
meat and distributing their own brand of preservative-free
elk jerky, the Wymans have developed a marketing strategy
that includes selling live animals, helping to satisfy the
oriental craving for an aphrodisiac derived from elk antler
in velvet, and outfitting and guiding a few hunters each
fall, both on the nearby National Forest and Bureau of Land
Management lands and in the hinterlands of the sprawling
ranch.

Elk Impresario

As a matter of fact, hunting is what got Lou Wyman into the
elk ranching business in the first place.

For years, Lou had supplemented his ranching income (his
family ran some 5,000 head of sheep and cattle) by guiding
big-game hunters each fall. He enjoyed guiding, and he
enjoyed its monetary rewards. What he didn’t enjoy
was the shortness of the annual hunting season-averaging
just a couple of weeks. Consequently, Wyman began casting
about for a way to legally extend the local elk hunting
season.

In 1968 — after determining that the state of
Colorado had no regulations restricting the private
ownership of elk (he would later help write the first of
such laws) — Wyman purchased 50 head of wapiti from
the Denver Zoo, bought a few more from private sources here
and there, and established the largest privately owned elk
herd in Colorado. After enclosing 1,500 acres of the ranch
with eight-foot-high, “elephant-proof” V-mesh fence, and
working out the legalities of operating a game preserve,
Wyman was ready to begin hosting paying hunters —
anytime he chose.

That was 18 years ago. Today, the Wymans continue to take
on a score or so hunters annually — hunters who are
both able and willing to pay a premium price to hunt a
premium herd that boasts a remarkably high percentage of
royal bulls (males having at least six tines, or points,
protruding from each main antler beam). However, over the
past few years, the Wymans have gradually deemphasized the
hunting aspect of their business and have come to depend
more on the sale of meat and antlers as their primary
source of income.

Meaty Elk Products

With a base herd numbering 200 mature elk and a calf yield
of 80% a year, the Wymans can harvest more than 100 animals
annually. Of this number, about 20 of the largest bulls are
taken by hunters, and 6 or 8 cows and young bulls are sold
each month for meat. (Rather than do the processing
themselves, the Wymans truck their elk to a meat-packing
plant in nearby Craig, where the animals are slaughtered
under the official eye of a U.S. Department of Agriculture
inspector.)

The average adult elk — 600 pounds or so on the hoof
— will produce about 350 pounds of butchered meat
that sells, wholesale, for $4.00 per pound. After deducting
transportation and butchering costs, the Wymans are left
with around $900.00 net profit per animal.

While the prime cuts are air-freighted fresh to wholesale
restaurant suppliers catering to exclusive eateries, a
portion of each animal is shipped to a plant in Utah, where
the meat is processed (chopped and formed) into nitrate-
and nitrite-free elk jerky sticks. The elk jerky is then packaged
in plastic tubs of 30 sticks each, labeled, and shipped
back to the ranch. From there, Lou and Paula distribute the
product to various retail outlets around the country (and
as far away as Greenland) via a network of wholesalers.

Racking up Profits

Most oriental cultures still rely heavily on herbal
medicines and other elixirs, and one of the more revered of
these is a purported aphrodisiac made from powdered deer,
caribou, or elk antler. While just about any antler will do
for the more budget-priced of such elixirs, elk antler is
demanded by the discerning, and elk antler in
velvet
is considered to be the Mercedes of aphrodisiac
ingredients. And since Korea, China, and the other big
consumers of such antler-based potions all suffer a severe
shortage of elk, the U.S. has come to be a leading
supplier. However, many Americans object to such dealings
on the basis that it’s cruel to rob a wild ungulate of its
antlers.

The Wymans have given a lot of thought to that criticism,
but in the final analysis can see nothing cruel or morally
wrong in harvesting the antlers of about half of their
mature bulls each year, especially when those antlers are
worth $45.00 per pound and the head of an average adult
bull is adorned with 10 to 15 pounds of the valuable bone .
. . which will drop off in March anyhow and — in the
dried state — be worth only about $6.00 a pound.

When the time arrives to harvest antlers — usually
midsummer — the Wymans herd the selected bulls into a
large corral that vents into a narrowing chute, which leads
in turn into a cattle squeeze that Lou has modified
especially for handling elk. As an animal enters the
squeeze, a lever trips and a gate drops down in the rear,
preventing the bull from backing up. At the same time, the
floor drops out so that the wapiti’s body is squeezed by
its own weight down into the V-shaped contraption and held
firmly but gently in place. Finally, the bull’s head is
immobilized in a snug collar so that the antlers can be cut
without fear of several hundred pounds of uncooperative
beast thrashing about and possibly harming either itself or
Wyman.

As soon as the antlers have been removed, Lou caps the
stumps with paraffin to stop the bleeding, prevent
infection, and provide a degree of protection against
injury until the wound heals over (which takes only a few
days). And since bull elk enjoy fighting during the fall
rutting season, Wyman often leaves their brow tines —
the two bottom, downward-slanting antler points — in
place as eye protection.

The dehorning operation takes a few minutes and apparently
causes little, if any, pain to the animals. (The Wymans
base this assumption on the fact that elk are highly vocal
creatures that don’t hesitate to “cry” when frightened or
in pain — and the bulls never utter a sound before,
during, or after having their antlers trimmed.)

Give Me a Home Where the Wapiti Roam

While ranching indigenous ungulates has long been an
established business in Africa, it’s still a relative
oddity here in the U.S., where the meat of wild game is
considered by the nonhunting majority to be something less
than desirable. Of course, ignorance breeds contempt, and
many folks who think they dislike wild meat simply because
they’ve never tried it (as well as those who’ve eaten
hunter-killed game that’s been improperly handled or
prepared) are in for a delightful surprise if they ever get
an opportunity to lay a lip over a lean, organic,
Wyman-grown elk roast.

The Wyman Elk Ranch is working proof that big-game ranching
can be as financially sound a venture as raising more
traditional livestock such as cattle or sheep, and Lou and
Paula Wyman enthusiastically testify that it’s also a darn
sight more fun.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Though they normally market their elk
jerky in bulk lots through wholesale distributors, the
Wymans have agreed to make the product available directly
to hungry (or merely curious) MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. To order a
tub containing 30 sticks of elk jerky, contact Wyman Elk Ranch,
Craig, CO
.