Getting Started in the Elk Business

By Barry Dyar, Elkquest owner and operator and Travis Lowe, Executive Director, North American Elk Breeders Association

The elk business is one of the most rewarding segments of the livestock industry with endless possibilities. The ability for elk to be used for multiple markets makes them a very attractive agricultural animal. In North America, elk ranching exists from the Arctic Circle to Northern Mexico. Other species of elk and closely related cousins are raised in other parts of the world. 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. Elk have basic nutritional requirements that usually can be met with combinations of locally grown feeds.

Most states and provinces will allow you to raise domestic elk, with varying regulations applying to your area. At the national level, elk ranching is under the oversight of the United States Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. At the state and provincial level, the governing authority is almost always the department of agriculture. Though less common, sometimes the governing authority is the wildlife agency. Prospective breeders should contact their local state or provincial government to review regulations before they get started.

When starting an elk operation, 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. Antler can actually be divided into two subcategories - hard antler and velvet antler. 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, however, you should prioritize your top markets and allow the remaining markets to become secondary outlets.

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. Eight foot 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. There is a fair amount of used equipment, including fence, which can be found for sale from elk owners planning to retire.

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. It costs the same amount of money to feed a great cow as it does a poor cow. Remember, quality over quantity. Be sure to buy animals with high health credentials. The herd you are buying from should be TB accredited and have at least a five year CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) surveillance program. CWD is a growing problem in North America. You need to find out if you are in an endemic area, or how close the disease is to you. There is a rare genotype which has shown significant resistance to CWD and recent studies have shown that these animals may play an important role in the future of the species. CWD resistant elk, although rare, have proven to be fit and as viable as susceptible elk. Resistant elk are worth considering when developing your herd plan.

It is important to note that genetics in breeding stock will vary greatly. Do your homework before you buy. The North American elk industry has now spent three decades developing genetic lines. Some operations will implement aggressive artificial insemination programs and cull genetic lines that do not meet preferred benchmarks. NAEBA (North American Elk Breeders Association) members are able to access the NAEBA Elk Registry and search the database for pedigrees of over 83,000 registered elk across the continent. The NAEBA International Antler Competition results from every year's competition are published and you can match the competing bulls with their cow family in the registry. NAEBA is the breed registry association for elk. Through NAEBA, members can register their animals with DNA profiles and test for purity. We recommend any breeding stock you buy be NAEBA Registered. DNA registry is the only way to prove the animal's genetics. Proving purity is also important when moving animals to certain states, for example, Colorado.

How do you know what to look for in a good elk breeder? Find one who has a good reputation and a breeding plan. Elk ranching is like any business. Plan ahead and make smart decisions. Follow the advice of breeders with consistent production that know their genetics backward and forward. 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 continent and adjust well; 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 which an experienced elk stockman can help you with. 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 as many ranches as 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. 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.

Probably one of the best moves you can make when starting up is to join the North American Elk Breeders Association. By joining you will receive bi-monthly publications filled with news, market reports and advertising. You will receive the association directory that lists all members, but also lists each operation that is buying and selling certain animals, products and services. NAEBA's website,, is a wealth of information. NAEBA can be contacted by calling 320-543-3665 or by email at NAEBA's membership is divided into six geographical regions. Each region has at least one representative to serve on the NAEBA Board of Directors. NAEBA urges its members to stay in regular contact with the board member(s) in their region. Markets and regulations within each region, state and province vary greatly, Communication is key. Most states and provinces have a local association that can also be of help, with more of a micro focus on your area and a voice at your local state capital. It is important to join and support them.

NAEBA's biggest event is a combined annual convention and international antler competition that takes place towards the end of summer. Elk ranchers, new and experienced, gather for the membership meeting and attend educational seminars on elk ranching. Hard antler sheds and velvet antler is entered in the competition to get an official score. There is great value in receiving official scores from NAEBA as it ensures the animals are registered and scored by an official judge. Vendors of many elk products display their wares. It's a chance to meet ranchers from all across 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. It is also a lot of fun.

Give elk some thought. The industry is very exciting with elk markets doubling since 2009. Join NAEBA, do some research to find a reputable breeder or two and make friends. You can also purchase NAEBA's Elk Farming Handbook that consists of over 300 pages of information. Visit as many elk ranches as possible. Much may be learned from research, but one visit to a good operation is worth volumes.

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