Elk – A Different Kind of Ruminant

If you are driving just outside the Lake Benton, MN area, you may pass by Jim Kallemeyn’s elk farm. If you don’t notice the tall fencing or the elk in their respective pastures and pens, the telltale signature sound of the animals bugling will certainly alert you to their presence.

Elk, like deer and moose, are part of the Cervidae family that are known for being herbivore ruminants. They have long legs with two toes on each of their hoofed feet. Their heads are long, and their tails are short. Most males in the Cervidae family have antlers.

Until 2013, Jim raised cattle and bison, neither of which he found particularly profitable. That year, he happened to be at an auction in Texas where he saw three elk bulls sell for $22,000 and he was intrigued. Not long later, he was driving in northern Minnesota when he came across an elk farm for sale. According to Jim, “I didn’t buy the farm, but I bought the elk.” Along with the entire herd, some of which were from New Zealand, Jim purchased the farm’s eight-foot-tall chute system that he erected in one of his barns.

What a RACKet
While producers often purchase livestock to haul back to the location of their operation, their antlers complicate this process for elk bulls. Jim says, “Cows can be hauled almost anytime. Elk are often moved in the spring after the bull racks are gone.” Every spring, the bulls shed their antlers. Yet in some cases, such as transport, treatment, or separating two bulls who have become interlocked, Jim must remove the racks himself. Sawing them off with a small wood saw has been hard on Jim’s shoulder. It might be surprising to learn that he does so without using a headgate. Instead, the chute in his barn lifts the animals off the ground, which immobilizes them enough for him to be able to work them.

Jim collects the racks that have been shed or removed and sells them to be used in a variety of ways. Some creators use antlers in art. Other racks become furniture. Antlers have been made into tools and weapons, among other items. Velvety antlers have also been used in Oriental medicine, promoting general health and helping people with arthritis. They have been ground into powders and processed into capsules or thinly sliced to be brewed into tea.

Some will say that deer and elk are not domesticated animals, making them difficult to raise on a farm or ranch. Many people feel that other livestock like cattle, pigs, poultry, and small ruminants have a greater ease of handling, and the return on the feed and labor expense is more significant. Others feel that the versatility of elk makes them a great alternative to more traditional livestock farming, and if done correctly, they require less land and feed than cattle, thus making them less expensive.

Comparing his current elk herd with his bison herd of the past, Jim says. “Bison could kill you any day of the week. The elk won’t. I can always walk in the pen and feed them with buckets.” Although he usually has a good handle on the temperament and needs of the animals, Jim admits, “I have been chased by bulls a few times, and cows can be worse than bulls at times.” Yet, with the correct setup and attention to proper handling, the process can go very smoothly. Jim says, “I have worked over 60 head by myself in an hour. You wait for your chance. They are curious, so when the opportunity comes, they run out when the gates are open. I only need a little help getting them inside to work them.”

Nutrition and environment
Nutritionally, elk require a better forage than cattle. They need a source that offers closer to 16% protein, while the recommendation for cattle is 7%. As a result, producers often take measures like pasture improvements and ration supplementation. Alfalfa and grain are common feedstuffs consumed by elk. During velveting, when the newly growing bone is covered by skin, elk bulls have higher nutritional needs than male cattle.

With access to quality feed, elk fare far better in a farm or ranch setting, particularly during the colder months. Jim says, “In the wild, elk lose up to 1/3 of their body weight during the winter.” Most of his cows weigh over 300 pounds. He is successful at breeding yearlings and credits the feeding program for most of that success.

While nutritional requirements are higher, elk do not need the level of care and attention required by their cattle counterparts. They are strong, hardy, and willing to eat almost anything they can find, including grass, weeds, and tree bark. They often prefer to lie in the snow to shelter, and bedding can be optional.

Looking back on his experiences raising various livestock, Jim realizes he learned a great deal from each venture. He is getting close to thinking about retiring. Although he will miss many aspects of elk farming, Jim feels that his age and the timing of some changes in livestock regulations will make that transition easier.