Small-Scale Elk Ranching

This elk ranching primer by a successful twenty-year elk farmer provides detailed guidelines to starting a small-scale elk ranching operation.

| March/April 1986

  • Wild elk ranching
    Capable of grazing by pawing and nosing down through deep snow, and willing to browse a variety of brush, elk require less supplemental feed in winter than do cattle.

  • Wild elk ranching

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. 

Small-Scale Elk Ranching: A Hopeful's Primer

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.

Getting Started Elk Ranching

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.

Making a Profit: Elk Economics

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:

Calves $400
Spike (immature) bulls $500 to $700
Cows $800
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.


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