Travis Lowe’s family has been a member of the North American Elk Breeders Association since 1991. Lowe, the executive director for the past two years, says that raising elk provides something for everyone. “Some people grow them for meat, some as breed stock and others raise them as pets.”
Today, the association has 350 members, who benefit from the nonprofit organization, which promotes and protects the elk farming and ranching industry. The primary goal of the association is to educate its members and the general public through conferences, journals, and newsletters on all aspects of raising elk including proper management and breeding practices.
Lowe oversees the association’s membership services, communications, policy, financials, and coordinates with the board of directors. “We promote the elk industry, and like products throughout the U.S. and Canada,” he adds.
His family farm in Garnett, Kansas, is currently raising 30 elk on 55 acres of his 100-acre property. He tells me in a phone interview that three elk can be raised on one acre.
“Elk are one of the most versatile alternative agriculture livestock animals out there,” Lowe says. “The meat industry is large but there are other markets.” Breeding stock is a large part of the industry and, like the horse community, there is a purebred registry.
Bulls grow velvet, yearly, with the antlers falling off around February or March. Velvet, a renewable resource, is used for many products including dog treats. “Pet owners are going nuts over elk antlers for dog chew bones—it’s a natural bone and cost effective when you consider chew hours,” Lowe explains. Antler products can be found online, at farmers markets, gas stations or on elk farms.
Centuries ago elk were native well across the U.S., northern Mexico, and Canada. This allows elk to be raised throughout those regions today.
Cliff Carley says his elk in Atlanta, Indiana, do not need extra protection in the winter living on his wooded property.
“I wanted to do something with my five acres that was a little different than normal so we started raising elk,” Carley says. He adds,” if you have a small amount of land and want to do something productive with it, elk are a good choice.”
Elk are predominately grazers, eating grasses and legumes. Carley says they can forage but he gives his alfalfa, corn, oats, and supplements. Elk consume more in the summer and males and females do require different diets slightly, so separating them is a good idea. When asked if the cows can live together Carley told me, “They live together just like women.”
Sue Keith, co-owner of Creek’s Edge Elk Farm with her daughter Stacy Handy, has 13 elk on 30 acres. They choose to raise elk to complement their dairy cow business. “Since we both like animals and have a gift for working with them, the elk seemed to be a good fit.”
Keith says that raising elk is quite easy and that elk require very little care. “We feed once a day and in the winter we give them round bales of either second cutting hay or baleage. In the summer, they graze all the time. We feed oats and commercial elk feed once a day. And of course, they always have fresh water. “
While the elk do have varying personalities Keith does not consider them pets. “There’s no going in and petting them,” she adds. “They are curious and suspicious at the same time. The cows are pretty aggressive and protective of their babies. The babies will play and frolic like goats and chase each other around the pasture.” She says that they never go in on foot, only on a tractor to stay safe.
In their experience, customers can’t get close enough to the elk to make them part of a petting or feeding station on the farm. “They will strike out with their front feet when feeling threatened.”
I would imagine some individuals could be trained to approach the fence and take feed, but Keith says her herd is very suspicious of strangers, which is especially true when they harvest one or two for elk meat. “The whole herd is cautious for at least a week.” And I wouldn’t blame them.
Keith would recommend raising elk to those with large animal experience. “Elk react and think differently than beef or dairy cows. If not handled correctly they can easily hurt you or themselves,” she says. Those with patience and a calm demeanor would be a great fit for raising a herd of these alternative agriculture animals.
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.