Elk on a Beef Farm

Many new elk farmers come to our industry from a background in the beef business. Many more beef farmers are watching our industry grow, and considering the possibility of adding an elk component to their beef farm. For those with an understanding of cattle production, the following discussion will allow you to think about elk farming as a comparison.

Elk and high wire are changing our agricultural landscape. In just over twenty years, the pioneers and forward thinkers have built a thriving industry. As of 1997,in the United States and Canada together, there are now over 1,000 elk farms stocked with over 100,000 head of elk .

So, why raise elk? Is there a place for them on your beef operation? To make that diversification move a success, here are some things one should know. Both beef cattle and elk work well on farms for some of the same reasons:

  • They are ruminants, able to take vegetation which people could not eat and live on and efficiently turn it into good nutritious food;
  • They are social animals with strong herding instincts, traits that make them easy to manage in a farm situation;
  • They are polygamous, meaning that we need only one excellent bull to breed many cows;
  • They fit well in our climate.

The most important difference between cattle and elk is summed up in the word “seasonality”. Elk are still much closer to nature. They have strong seasonal cycles in breeding activity, feed requirements and general management requirements. Elk bulls are only capable of breeding from about August to January, and the cows cycle only during that same period. In order to grow antlers, elk bulls must have very low levels of testosterone in their systems. In January, their testicles begin to shrink, and their entire reproductive systems slow right down. During velvet antler season, the bulls are kittens to handle. During the rut, the breeding season, they can be monsters. This temperament change is entirely related to hormone levels. Cattle, on the other hand, breed all year around, and their temperament is little affected by the seasons.

Feed requirements for cattle vary more with temperature and lactation status than with the actual seasons. Elk, conversely, show strong seasonal swings in feed requirements. Bulls pack on the weight in summer, then show little interest in feed and lose up to 40% of their bodyweight during the rut. They begin eating seriously again in November, then slow down again in late winter. As spring greenup occurs the bulls go back to putting on weight. Elk cows maintain more consistent weights than elk bulls, staying much the same over winter as the weight of bodyfat accumulated in the fall is replaced by the weight of the growing calf. Cows then lose pounds to the heavy demands of producing  rich, concentrated milk all summer and recover those lost pounds on the hard, rich feed of autumn. Elk calves grow very quickly.

An elk cow averaging 550 pounds liveweight will raise a 210 pound calf in 100 days. A beef cow averaging 1100 pounds will wean a 550 pound calf in 200 days. Cattle and elk eat essentially the same feeds. An elk will browse on leaves and twigs more than most cattle, and cattle will use more coarse feed, especially coarse hay or straw. This reflects the need elk have for higher mineral levels, especially copper, which are found in higher concentrations in browse. Cattle can utilize coarser feed largely because of the relative size of a cow’s mouth, teeth and rumen. Basically, good alfalfa/grass pastures are the best choice for both elk and cattle in most of Canada and the northern U.S. Elk have virtually no problems with bloat, due to the fact that their rumen releases gases and foam more often than in cattle, thereby avoiding the buildups that cause bloat. However, elk are more susceptible to grain overload than cattle. Grain overload causes rumen acidosis in elk, which can be fatal or may damage the rumen walls and cause tendonitis and lameness.

Rotational grazing systems work well for both elk and cattle, using either permanent fences or temporary electric subdivisions. In winter, both elk and cattle are fed similar feeds. Elk cows are supplemented with grain and pellets just before and during the breeding season (late August to early November) then fed hay to maintain their weight through to calving in May and June. Stockpiling pasture or swath grazing can work for both, effectively extending the grazing season.

Breeding and calving have many similarities in cattle and elk. Elk cows are exposed to a bull in ratios of five to one for a yearling up to fifty to one for an older, experienced bull. Elk breed for the first time as yearlings, at about 16 months of age, and these yearlings show conception rates of about 85% with good management. Conception rates for adult cows should be slightly higher, at about 95%. Semen collection and artificial insemination is becoming commonplace for elk, although embryo collection and transfer is much less successful than for cattle. A good AI program, utilizing CIDR’s (controlled internal drug release devices which are inserted vaginally to program the cycle) and cervical AI should yield at least 60% conception. A well – designed breeding program for both cattle and elk will have similar goals, such as structural soundness, manageable temperament, and efficient production, with the addition of a significantly different product of elk, their antlers.

Elk calve only in the springtime, just as the food supply booms, and nurse their calves when that feed is least expensive. Cattle were probably that way long ago, and our selective breeding has changed them to be able to calve at any time of the year. This is a big advantage for some reasons, but you have to wonder when you’re carrying those calves in out of a blizzard. Calving difficulties are very rare in well – managed elk herds. Selection for larger and larger bulls, and luxury feeding programs can lead to difficulties. An assisted birth of an elk calf generally results in a bottle fed calf, as elk cows are usually very stressed by the procedure.

Herd health management for cattle and elk is somewhat similar with some key differences. Elk are susceptible to most diseases that trouble cattle, but less so. As mentioned before, elk are much closer to nature than cattle. In nature, individuals or bloodlines that tend to succumb to disease are quickly wiped out. Even if the disease does not kill directly, it weakens the animal to the point that predators or exposure does the job. Thus the weak or susceptible genetic makeup is removed from the population. With domesticated livestock, we develop vaccines and antibiotics to fight disease and keep our animals healthy and breeding. This is effective in the short term, but it perpetuates the susceptibility to that disease. Eventually, we might breed that same susceptibility into farmed elk. For now, elk are less prone to most diseases, especially the respiratory complex. Most elk farmers vaccinate for Chlostridial disease. The need for other vaccines, such as for scours, rabies, leptospirosis and others, depends on the farm location and history. Parasite control is a necessity for elk as it is with cattle. The intensity of control required for both depends on stocking density and herd history. Winter ticks are a concern with elk, but are rarely seen on cattle. Other parasite concerns and control strategies are very similar. Good management is the key component of a herd health program for both cattle and elk. Livestock, which is well fed, has access to comfortable resting and shelter areas, and lives without stress will rarely become ill.

The most significant difference in herd health management for cattle and elk is the requirement for whole herd tuberculosis testing of elk. At present this must be done every three years. This is required because so few elk are slaughtered. A large portion of the population of cattle are slaughtered on a regular and continuous basis, allowing inspection of the carcasses for abnormalities or disease, particularly any signs of TB. Most elk are too valuable alive to make slaughter for meat a viable option, making regular testing a necessity. The test site for TB is slightly different – beside the tail for cattle – on a shaved patch on the neck for elk. The farmed elk and cattle herds in all of Canada and most of the United States are currently considered to be free of Tuberculosis, Brucellosis and all other dangerous communicable diseases.

Handling facilities and fencing requirements for elk are more robust and substantial than what is required for cattle on most farms. Elk are comparatively more athletic and excitable. The well constructed steel facilities of a modern auction mart are not a lot different from those required for elk, but most small cattle operations can manage safely with facilities which cost one third to one half of what facilities for a small elk operation would require. Perimeter fences for an elk farm must be eight-foot tall page wire, with handling facility walls at ten feet tall. Handling elk and cattle employs very similar techniques, as long as you consider the elk to be the same as the wildest, longest – legged exotic cattle beast you can remember from the 1980′s, except a lot smarter! They both handle as herd animals, following a leader, and prefer some company at all times. While cattle work well in facilities with solid walls, elk prefer to be able to see all around them. To accommodate this desire, elk facilities are built with horizontal plank walls and spaces between the planks. Good stockmanship is the key. Curves and
corners in the facility, strategic placement of gates and walls, and the right amounts of pressure, posture and patience is what is required. Stressed cattle and stressed elk both need time to settle before handling. The preferred method is to avoid stressing them.

Two things set elk apart from cattle: Suitability and Products. God made elk for our climate and environment. They are not exotic, not imported from anywhere. When it’s thirty below, with a stiff breeze blowing, elk are just as likely to be laying in the snow on an exposed hillside as to be seeking shelter. Their annual cycle is totally in tune with the changing seasons, and one of the most noticeable aspects of that annual cycle is the growth and shedding of the antlers on the bulls.

Antlers are the most unique trait of all members of the deer family. As the most rapidly growing living tissue (other than mushrooms), antlers have an exceptional chemical makeup. Practitioners of traditional Asian medicine, who use different portions of the antler as food supplements, recognized this long ago. Users of these medicines feel that antler helps them with energy, growth and blood circulation, and alleviates symptoms of arthritis and pre-menstrual syndrome. A huge and growing market exists for these products. Such a market makes velvet antler production one of the most profitable agricultural enterprises today. Hard antlers are also a very valuable product, especially for hunters who are thrilled with the opportunity to hunt and harvest a spectacular bull.