Brandon, Minn. — Kaye Zebarth is an “antler farmer.”
She and her husband, a Douglas County veterinarian, raise domesticated North American elk. Last season their herd produced 1,300 pounds of velvet antler, a traditional Asian folk medicine. Just a few years ago, the crop would have fetched more than $140,000. Today, it is worth a tenth of that.
Faced with plunging velvet antler prices, Minnesota elk producers are turning their attention to selling meat. “If we don’t, our industry is doomed,” says Zebarth, president of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.
AURI and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are helping state producers explore markets for elk meat. The research will help Minnesota’s newest livestock industry diversify, says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director in Marshall. It could also lead to new processing or marketing ventures.
Antler medicine sparks an industry
American elk, hardy deer native to North America, have been farmed in this country for a century. But it is only in the last decade that elk numbers have risen substantially, says Brenda Hartkopf, a Howard Lake producer and executive secretary of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.
Before 1985, Minnesota had about two dozen elk farms. “The industry really took off in the early ’90s,” Hartkopf says. Driven by strong demand from Korea, velvet antler prices soared, topping $100 a pound in 1993 and 1994. Prices for breeding animals “went through the roof.” While the frenzy lasted, blue-ribbon cows brought as much as $20,000; prize bulls brought up to $100,000.
Between 1991 and 1999, more than 230 Minnesota farmers started raising elk. Hartkopf and her husband, for instance, got into the business in 1992. They began with three heifer calves, which they built into a herd of 130. Like other growers, they were attracted to elk farming by the prospect of high returns, relatively simple management, and the intangible yet powerful allure of the beautiful half-wild creatures. Now, the state’s 264 elk farmers have nearly 11,000 animals behind fences, according to the Agricultural Statistics Service. That makes Minnesota the country’s leading elk producer.
Velvet demand softens
Profitability in the expanding elk industry depended on velvet antler sales and breeding, says Zebarth, a former schoolteacher who got into the elk business in 1990 and now oversees a herd of 360.
But in 1997, the economic downturn in Asia dried up demand for velvet antler. Prices collapsed to about $20 a pound. They slid even more when Korea banned American velvet imports because of an outbreak of chronic wasting disease in Colorado herds.
About the same time, the elk industry adopted artificial insemination, which sharply cut demand for bred females and calves. Artificial insemination did boost semen sales, however. Last year, the Zebarths sold $150,000 of semen from their four-year-old bull, Oak Point Jesse — a world-champion antler producer named for Minnesota’s governor.
Because the elk industry is still in the stock-up phase, Zebarth expects the market for elk genetics to remain strong. But in the long run, she says, “meat has to be the foundation of our industry. We can’t just sell breeding stock to each other and survive. We’ve been slower to recognize that, maybe, than we should have been.”
Looking for customers
Currently, about 15 percent of state elk producers sell meat, Hartkopf says. Last year, 270 head were sold for slaughter in Minnesota, according to the Ag Statistics Service. However, Hartkopf estimates Minnesota producers now have the capacity to supply about 100 head a month for slaughter — roughly 360,000 pounds of meat a year.
To develop markets, state producers formed the Minnesota Elk Cooperative last spring. The co-op is now surveying retailers, wholesalers, meat distributors, food service companies and restaurants to measure interest in elk products.
As the Minnesota elk industry matures, “we have to make sure demand for meat grows along with the supply of animals,” says Larry Winter, an elk producer from Princeton and a past president of the Minnesota Elk Breeders. Winter started raising elk in 1993 and now has a herd of 270. He sells velvet antler, hard-antler bulls for game farms, breeding stock and semen. Recently, he began slaughtering animals for meat.
Winter and other industry leaders are convinced elk meat could have broad appeal. Farm-raised elk is lean and tender, lower in fat and cholesterol than skinless chicken. Hartkopf says consumers find it less exotic than alternative red meats such as ostrich or emu. “It’s not such a foreign thing to eat — a lot of people have tried elk. That’s a big advantage.”
Both Hartkopf and Winter direct-market meat and say demand is strong for prime cuts, which sell for up to $20 a pound. “Everybody wants steaks, and that’s the most expensive cut,” Hartkopf says.
The bigger challenge is selling burger and trim, which account for about 60 percent of the carcass. This fall, Winter started marketing elk jerky and sticks made from his excess ground meat. “If we’re going to be in the meat business,” he says, “we need to sell the whole animal.”
Bullish on elk
Domestic elk faces tough competition from imported red deer, which is less expensive. “New Zealand exports a significant amount of venison to North America — about 1,100 tons a year,” Hartkopf says. “The market is there, but it’s being served by New Zealand.”
Despite these challenges, producers are optimistic about the elk industry. Zebarth expects the velvet antler market to rebound, although “I don’t think we’ll ever again see the prices we saw in the early ’90s.” Meanwhile, the industry is developing benchmarks to assure high-quality, uniform meat products.
Most important, she says, state producers are committed to establishing markets for meat. Winter agrees: “That’s the number one thing we need to grow the industry.”