Minnesota summers are short, and for the state’s elk population, that’s just fine.
“They love the cold weather,” said Gary Smith, who keeps a herd of about 40 on his Elk Haven Farms just south of Farmington. At temperatures of 20 below, even though there is plenty of shelter, he’ll often find them in the yard, “with an inch of snow on their backs,” he said.
The calves, he said, “play king of the mountain on the piles of snow.”
When Smith enters their pen, the females and their young come running and make squeaking sounds. It means they are hoping to get fed, he said. The bulls come pounding up from the pasture, their antlers in various stages of regrowth.
“They’re pretty easy keepers, except that they get a little hard on the fence,” he said, pointing to a couple of spots where an elk had stretched the wire and stuck its head through.
Smith, the only elk farmer that he knows of in Dakota County, raises elk at a time when many farmers in Minnesota have given up.
Smith attributes that partly to wild fluctuations in the market. About 20 years ago, velvet elk antler could fetch $100 a pound. Velvet antler has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years for arthritis, rheumatism or joint problems, even libido issues. However, about five or six years ago, when reports surfaced that CWD (chronic wasting disease) might get into the antlers that people were ingesting, the price plummeted into the upper teens.
“That knocked the heck out of the market,” said Smith, who started raising elk 12 years ago. “It’s taken until the last couple years for people to relax.”
While no evidence shows CWD can transfer to humans, people are still wary, and as of yet, no test for the neurological disorder exists for live animals. Brainstem scans are used to determine if an animal is infected, and velvet antlers, the young, furry antlers before they harden, are cut off when the animal is still living.
Elk numbers in decline
When prices dropped, Smith started getting rid of his bulls. However, the price for velvet has inched up over the past few years. This year, it jumped up $10 to $38 a pound.
According to Brenda Hartkopf of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, the number of elk farmers is in serious decline, both nationally and statewide. The number of elk on farms was about 13,000 in 2005, and while she believes Minnesota still leads the nation in elk production, according to July 2014 statistics, there are now only 4,203 elk in the state on 141 farms.
Smith has several friends who have gotten out of the business. “When you go to the state convention,” he said, “not too many people are there anymore.”
Hartkopf attributes some of this to the amount of paperwork and testing. Every time an animal is butchered, the farmer has to send a sample of brain stem to the university. While elk farmers are eager to comply, in order to make sure they are selling safe products, the extra work can be frustrating.
“That does continue to be the fly in the ointment,” she said. “It’s one of the things that is so sad about this whole thing.”
“It’s always been there,” said Smith, of regulations, “but they’ve stepped it up more. A lot of farmers didn’t want to deal with it.”
Also, there is always the possibility of the nightmare scenario, an infected elk, which requires shooting the entire herd. About five years ago, a herd of 1,000 head near Rochester had to be destroyed.
“It’s very devastating for a farmer,” said Hartkopf. “The emotional toll is incredible.”
‘An expensive hobby’
For most elk farmers, it’s always been kind of a hobby.
Smith, who has lived on his family farm since 1947, always farmed part-time. After he retired from his job at a local refinery, he visited an elk farmer in the southern part of the state. It inspired him to visit an elk auction in Cannon Falls and attend a seminar, after which he ended up buying some seed stock.
It’s only within the last couple years, though, that he has seen any return.
“It’s gotten to be kind of an expensive hobby,” said Smith.
Hartkopf estimates the median age for elk farmers is somewhere in the 60s. She and her husband started raising elk two decades ago, when they were in their late 20s, and “we were the exception rather than the rule,” she said.
“Young people don’t have an interest in it,” said Smith.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance journalist.