Although Lou Wyman runs 200 to 300 head of elk on a sprawling 1,500 acres of prime western ranchland, he firmly believes that just about anyone with a few acres of good pasture, and the wherewithal to erect a strong fence and purchase a small starter herd, can make wild elk ranching pay. In fact, he feels that a person with just a few head of elk can realize a profit that wouldn't be possible with the same number of cattle pastured on the same acreage.
Assuming that you're already equipped with the necessities of tending large livestock — sufficient acreage, hay barn, feeding and watering facilities — the biggest expense involved in converting to an elk operation will be fencing. Elk can, and often do, leap over or bull right through standard barbed wire. The Wymans use an eight-foot-high, V-mesh fence stretched between strong, deepset poles. At current prices, such a fence — assuming you purchase all the materials at retail and hire the work done — could run as much as $5.00 per foot. However, by utilizing the high-tensile-strength, single-strand fencing that's recently become available, and by doing the work yourself, that per foot cost can be reduced considerably.
With a strong, high fence in place, you'll need some elk — which can be purchased from the Wyman ranch, from similar operations around the country, or at the annual wild animal auctions held at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, each fall and at Chamberlain, South Dakota, in late winter. The minimum practical starter herd would consist of one bull and a few cows. With an 80% annual calf return, your herd should grow quickly, and once you have 12 adults and their spring calves, you can begin harvesting an animal per month without decreasing the size of your base herd.
The following prices are representative of what elk sold for at the Cape Girardeau auction in 1985, and are close to what you can expect to pay for starter animals purchased in 1986:
|Spike (immature) bulls||$500 to $700|
|Bulls||$1,000 to $1,100|
|Royal bulls||Up to $1,900|
On the average — as detailed in the accompanying article — if you sell your elk for meat, you can figure on netting around $900 per adult cow . . . and several times that amount of profit will accrue from bulls whose antlers are harvested annually for several years before the animals themselves are sold.
And where will you sell your elk meat? According to Wyman, elk is coming to be considered a delicacy by many Americans (it always has been for Europeans), and the demand is growing rapidly. In fact, many restaurants are presently buying frozen, imported New Zealand red deer (a smaller, European relative of the wapiti) and advertising it on their menus as elk, because they can't find a domestic supplier of the real thing.
What about overhead. Elk are more efficient foragers and eat about a third less than cattle; since they're equipped to paw and nose down through deep snow to feed, they're able to provide a higher percentage of their own food in winter. Wapiti are by nature grazers, preferring grasses and tender, new-growth plants, but will browse a wide variety of shrubs in winter.
An adult elk should be able to fend entirely for itself on as little as a couple of acres of good grass during the warmer months. In winter, however, you'll probably have to provide some supplemental feed. The Wymans cut and bale their own alfalfa and grass hay for this purpose . . . and tell of another elk rancher in Illinois who keeps his wapiti winter-fat and happy with corn on the cob.
Because elk are naturally healthy, they're subject to few diseases or parasites, and require little if any veterinary care. The Wymans have experienced no disease in their herd, though they regularly test for brucellons, tuberculosis, and internal parasites. And rather than administering frequent vaccinations or feeding antibiotic supplements, the Wymans protect their animals by providing them with plenty of room to roam, and, in winter, by feeding them on a fresh patch of untrampled snow each day.
Although wild elk once roamed most of the United States, they prefer a cool, dry, high-altitude environment such as that found in the mountains and forests of the West, and are not suited to withstand intense heat and high humidity. While there are prosperous private elk ranches operating in the Midwest and as far south as the Texas hill country, the Deep South is pretty much out of the wapiti picture.
Finally and foremost, while wild-game ranching, as well as the selling of elk meat and antlers, is perfectly legal in most states, it's prohibited in some and regulated in various ways in others. Consequently, if you're considering getting into elk, your first move should be to determine the legality of such a venture in your state.
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