Small-Scale Elk Ranching

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PHOTO: BRANSON REYNOLDS
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.

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.

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.

Other Elk Farming Considerations

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.