Elk farming thriving in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, August 15, 2000

DELTA JUNCTION -- Scott Millers steps quickened as he led a group of visitors to the pen holding the best things on his farm. At the far end stood three bull elk, their bodies well-fleshed, the crowns of their antlers pointing skyward.

Theyre just wonderful animals to raise, said Miller, whose Misty Mountain Farms has 25 elk.

Deltas elk industry, which now numbers about 200 animals, has grown tremendously in the last five years. The area is now home to four of the states nine elk farmers and close to half of the states farmed elk.

Elk have been farmed since the mid-19th century but the industry has seen an increase in the last 20 years, especially in the last decade, according to the North American Elk Breeders Association. North America has about 160,000 farmed elk.

Elk are suited to Alaskas climate, are easy to maintain, and can bring income in a variety of ways: from horns and meat and as breed stock.

Its an efficient animal that works extremely well in the circumpolar north, said Carol Lewis, interim dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Agriculture and Land Resources.

The school might fund an alternative livestock program, Lewis said. Elk, yak and bison are beginning to look good as alternative farm animals, she said, especially in the north. All of these animals are farmed in Delta.

The animals are adapted to the climate, she said. Theyre very efficient to feed.

Its true. Miller could hardly contain his glee at how well he could manage his herd compared with his 230 head of cattle. Three elk can graze an area that usually would support one cow.

Miller said lambs-quarters, a wild edible weed, has been chewed to the nub in his elk pastures. The elk browse the fields in the summer. Miller feeds them hay and oats in the winter.

Theyll eat anything, said Marcia Ward, another Delta elk farmer. Ward and her husband, Bill, have nearly 175 elk, the largest herd in the state.

Elk dont have to be housed in a barn, Ward said. They stay outdoors year round and survive Alaska winters quite well.

Managing cow and pig manure can be a big job, but elks produce pellets that all but disappear in the field, Ward said.

The Wards arrived in Delta with 125 elk last spring, coming from Echo Lake, a small community on the Kenai Peninsula. The couple, which used to raise Angus cattle, has been raising elk for 12 years.

Elk farmers can pull a consistent income by harvesting the male elks newly grown horns, which are covered in velvet. Demand from Asian countries brings the farmers about $45 a pound. Each good bull can produce 22 to 40 pounds of velvet horn, which could bring in $1,800 a bull. The bulls horns can be harvested for about 12 years. Females dont grow horns.

The Wards and Scott Miller hope to harvest velvet horns from a portion of their herds this spring. The horns are harvested, cooled and wrapped like any meat product, Ward said.

Asians use the horn to counter blood disorders, growth problems and arthritis. The horns are dried and sliced into wafers or ground to be taken in gelatin capsules.

Miller said he takes the gelatin capsules to help his joints and touted its benefits to visitors on a recent farm tour sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service Delta District and the Delta Chapter of the Alaska Farm Bureau. The product is supposed to help produce collagen, a fibrous protein found in connective tissue, bones and cartilage, he said.

Asians also use the horns as an aphrodisiac, although it is not the primary use, Ward said.

Elk meat is also profitable, Ward said. Rocky Mountain elk being raised in Delta can weigh 700 to 1,000 pounds, with a dressed side bringing about $1,000, or about $4.50 a pound. She has seen elk steak sell for $14 a pound and people not blink at the price.

Ward also sells elk bulls and cows to other farmers as breed stock. She said a bull will cost $3,500 to 5,000, and sometimes more if the animal is exceptional.

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