Raising Elk in Minnesota
Like many farmers, Brenda Hartkopf likes to look out her window and gaze at the livestock she and her husband Lance raise on their Howard Lake farm. What’s somewhat unique is the type of livestock—elk.
The Hartkopf’s Splendor Ridge Elk Farm is one of roughly 70 dedicated elk farms gracing Minnesota’s landscape–from as far north as Baudette to as far south as Windom. The state proudly stands as a national leader in this unique agricultural sector.
“We stumbled across elk, actually on the radio,” Brenda recalls. “What intrigued us about elk were all the things you could do with them. It wasn’t just about breeding stock and meat. The antlers brought a whole new element to products that you can market. Plus they eat about one-third of what a beef cow would eat.”
In the 1990s, the couple dreamed of owning a farm, but they knew taking over one of their parents’ dairy farms wasn’t feasible for their young family.
The duo soon put a plan in motion to begin raising the majestic animals in 1993. Today, the couple’s farm boasts descendants of some of the first animals they raised. In fact, some of the bulls are named after the couple’s three grandsons. “It’s kind of a family affair,” Brenda says, laughing.
ELK CARE AND FEEDING
The Hartkopfs’ herd ranges in size from season to season but averages around 150. The cows are bred each fall and give birth to calves each spring. The bulls and cows are kept in separate 5-to-7-acre enclosures.
Elk meat is sought after because it is leaner than beef and farm-raised elk has a more consistent flavor than wild elk. In fact, one of the Hartkopfs’ 200-plus customers makes the trek from South Carolina to their farm each year. Demand is so high that they can’t fulfill all the orders that they receive in a season.
The taste of the meat depends, in part, on what the animals are fed. Elk are fed differently depending on the season of the year and their sex and age. Younger cows get more grain than older cows, which are better able to maintain their weight. Breeding bulls are also fed more grain. Calves are fed grain until they are about 16 months old. Hay is fed year-round. Brenda Hartkopf says they don’t feed the elk grain in the winter months when the animals’ metabolism slows down. Supplemental minerals round out the elks’ diet.
When the bulls mature at around 5 years of age, they weigh up to 1,100 pounds and stand up to 5-foot-6 at the shoulder, according to the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association website. Cows are slightly smaller, reaching a weight of up to 600 pounds and at 4 or 5 feet at the shoulder, when they mature around the age of 3 or 4.
To maintain strong genetics, the Hartkopfs use a combination of standard breeding as well as artificial insemination. “We were one of the first farms to start artificial inseminating elk in the mid 1990s,” Brenda explains. “We’ve actually gone to an about once-every-three-years cycle because we have bulls that we’re drawing semen on and selling, so we don’t artificially inseminate as often, but we do like to bring in new blood lines through artificial insemination.”
The Hartkopfs breed the animals carefully to bulls with wider antlers or longer antlers. “Every year, you’re waiting to see the fruits of the planning,” she says. “The fruits of your planning start to show themselves in July when the bulls’ antlers grow out.”
MORE THAN MEAT PRODUCTS
Because farm-raised bull elk are kept in paddocks together, their antlers are removed each fall to keep the males from hurting one another over the winter. The Hartkopfs leave two to three inches of antler on each bull. Starting in late March, the antlers begin to regrow. By late summer, the antlers can weigh as much as 40 pounds.
“You can go a day without seeing them in June or July and when you go back out to the pasture they have made remarkable progress. Just in a day or two, it grows so quickly, especially on the older bulls,” Brenda explains.
The velvet antler, which is actually the inside core of the antler, represents another income source for elk farmers. “That is really powerful stuff and it’s actually only second to ginseng in traditional Chinese medicine,” Brenda says.
The elk velvet antler, which is harvested from the antlers that are removed, is a popular alternative medicine product that is said to help with the pain of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and other joint disorders, according to the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.
Hard antlers are a third product that’s sold in pet stores as a popular dog chew.
The Hartkopfs also harvest semen from the bulls and sell it to other elk farmers. Artificial insemination enables farmers to introduce new blood lines into their herds without transporting bulls from farm to farm.
LOBBYING FOR ELK FARMERS
Chronic wasting disease (CWD), which affects the brains of some hooved animals, including deer and elk, is a source of concern for elk farmers.
To prevent its spread and also to protect the safety of farm-raised elk, the state of Minnesota requires 8-foot game fences around all animal enclosures. The fences prevent white-tailed deer from mixing with the elk.
The Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, which advocates and educates about the business of elk farming, focuses much of its efforts on CWD rules and legislation. A representative from Minnesota is also working at the national level to revamp the CWD program standards.
“Advocacy is a really big part of keeping folks in business,” adds Brenda, who has worked for the association since 1998. Lance Hartkopf is also vice president of the association.
A STRONG LEGACY
During their 30 years of raising elk, the Hartkopfs have seen the number of elk farms swell from 40 in 1993 to 300 in the early 2000s. The current number is down to about 70. More than half of those farmers have been in the business for more than 20 years.
The Hartkopfs still find great enjoyment in elk farming. “It’s the joy of watching the animals every day out your window. I mean, we raised them for 30 years, and they still inspire us,” Brenda says.
To learn more about Splendor Ridge Elk Farm, visit sprelk.com.