Getting Started in the Elk Business
The elk business is one of the most rewarding and profitable segments of the livestock industry, and it's an easy one to get started. Elk are raised from the Arctic Circle to Florida. With minor considerations, they adapt very well to different climates. Some elk are pastured on steep, rocky sides of mountains which are covered with various types of brush, while others are kept on lush, irrigated alfalfa fields. In some Asian countries, they are kept in small, stone courtyards and fed entirely by hand. Elk have basic nutritional requirements that usually can be met with many combinations of locally grown feeds.
Most states and provinces will allow you to raise domestic elk, with varying regulations applying to your area. The Wildlife Division, the State Veterinarian, Department of Agriculture or Stock Inspection Division are the agencies with which to check to determine the jurisdiction. A list of current state import regulations is at www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/sregs/. A list of current state veterinarians and contact information is at www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/sregs/official.html A summary of import regulations for Canada is at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ncie/iregs/animals/. U.S. import and export regulations are at www.aphis.usda.gov/NCIE/.
When starting up, it is important to define your goals. Are you going to raise elk for a hobby or a business? Do you just want to have some around because they are beautiful, majestic and fun animals, or are you looking to make money? Profitable returns are dependent on producing animals for a specific market. The four markets are meat, trophy, antler, and breeding stock. The type of operation, land and infrastructure differ when raising elk for each market, and they become more complex when multiple markets are sought. It is possible to raise elk for all the markets, but most scenarios start with one main market, with some animals going to secondary markets. My ranch, the Mad Hatter Ranch, is an example. Our primary objective is to raise breeding animals with strong velvet genetics, as well as with good dispositions, size and conformation. Bulls that are not good enough for breeders but which cut good velvet weights may go into our velvet herd or may be sold as velvet bulls. If the bulls do not have substantial velvet cuts, they can be sold to hunting preserves as trophy bulls, or failing that, they are sold for meat. Cows that do not reproduce or that are not good breeding prospects are meat market prospects.
Once you have defined your goals, set a budget and write a business plan. List the necessary expenditures. It is far better to do it right the first time, even if it means that you have to scale back and develop your operation in stages. High fences are expensive, a stock watering system must be thought out, a feed plan established, and remember to allocate money for operational expenses until you have a crop to sell. Above all, buy good animals. Your returns in the long run will be greater by starting with fewer good elk rather than lots of poor ones. I get many phone calls from people who have been in the business for a short time and want to upgrade to better stock as soon as they get rid of the ones with which they started.
Probably the best two moves you can make when starting up are joining NAEBA and establishing a relationship with a good elk breeder or two. NAEBA can be contacted by calling (888) 431-3605. The people who run the different departments are top-quality, friendly and helpful. NAEBA publishes a bimonthly magazine that is loaded with information, and they will send you literature on getting started. It is an aggressive association that deals with all types of issues that affect elk. It is involved with developing and improving markets, research and development, education, regulatory issues, providing support for states and provinces, and much more. NAEBA has an international convention once a year and sponsors other events like the International Antler Competition. Breeders in many states and provinces have also formed associations. NAEBA can provide information on these.
The NAEBA annual convention is in late July, and it offers seminars on many different subjects. Vendors of many elk products display their wares. It's a chance to meet many ranchers from all over North America and to share ideas and concerns. The convention is a wealth of information that will get you up to speed on a variety of topics. Besides, it is a lot of fun. Call NAEBA for information about this year's convention.
How do you know what to look for in a good elk breeder? Find one who has a good reputation and a breeding plan. Our industry is young and immature. Many ranchers are simply raising elk and breeding to the hot bloodlines of the moment. Find one who has purpose in his decisions. He should be on the cutting edge of the industry. Check out his facility, pastures and equipment. Look at the condition of his elk. If these do not please your eye, maybe you should look elsewhere. You can jumpstart your operation off the reputation of the ranch from which your seed stock comes. Don't be afraid to do a little traveling. Elk are shipped all over the country; you are not limited in your scope. The size of the investment and your future success warrant the extra effort to find a good mentor.
Good elk breeders not only can sell you good seed stock, but they can help you in all aspects of the business. A good breeder welcomes newcomers and takes responsibility for getting you started on the right foot so you will be successful. He can show you how he has set up his operation and can advise you on how best to set up yours. There are many do's and don'ts with which an experienced elk stockman can help you. Work some animals with him if possible. It takes the right amount of pressure, posture and patience to be a stockman. A hands-on experience is invaluable. Visit many ranches if possible.
Every rancher has been in your shoes at some point, and you can learn from his experiences. There are many tricks to building fence and laying out alleys, gates, and holding pens so that they are efficient and accepted by the elk with minimum stress and maximum safety to the animals and handlers. Curves and corners are important, and the strategic placement of gates and walls is critical. Designs and theories on types of handling facilities have changed over the years. Some just don't work, while others work great. I have heard of ranchers who have counted on an artificial insemination program for months but who ended their plans in frustration when they couldn't get the animals in the facility. We looked at all the setups we could before we built ours, and it paid off. With our handling system, my wife and I can run through 80 animals-bulls and cows of all ages from as many as ten pastures-in under three hours, with no stress to us or the animals. Good elk breeders can shed light on most of your particular concerns, or they know where you can get the answers.
Ask for information from manufacturers and dealers of fencing supplies, handling facility components, hydraulic squeeze chutes, post pounders and elk-related products. Fence wire suppliers will give you specifications and recommendations on setting posts, corners and braces. Handling facility dealers will offer you pages of designs. Brochures on squeeze chutes and manual systems are readily available. All of this may seem overwhelming, but it will come together quickly when you see it in person.
Do yourself a favor! Join NAEBA and do some research to find a reputable breeder or two and make friends. Visit as many elk ranches as possible. It is not possible to cover all the details in an article, but one visit to a good operation is worth volumes.