Mama, let your sons grow up to be elkboys

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – June 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

While most cattle ranchers this spring are sweating out 69 cents a pound for their cows, Marty and Karen Stallings could command upwards of $5 per pound or more for critters grown on their Wet Mountain spread.

Cows on the Stallings ranch eat about one-third of what other ranchers’ cows eat; their entire 65-head herd is pastured on 40 acres. They are hardier than most domestic stock, less vulnerable to disease and able to withstand extremes in temperature and climate.

The animals raised by Marty and Karen are not some type of exotic breed — in fact, they’re indigenous to this montane environment. But, oddly enough, late each spring the bulls sprout velvety horn that can be sold for $65 a pound to foreign markets.

Actually the horn is not horn at all. It’s antler.

The beasts are Rocky Mountain elk.

Marty and Karen started their Rocky Mountain Elk Ranch about four years ago in this rolling mountain country steeped in the tradition of cattle ranching. The ranch sits at about 9,000 feet elevation in Junkins Park between Wetmore and Westcliffe.

They converted a former cattle ranch to suit the needs of elk ranching by putting 40 acres of the 900-acre holding behind eight-foot-tall, high-tensile, woven-wire fence, and developing a system of runs by which they can drive the elk into their specially equipped barn for weighing, veterinary work, and antler harvesting.

Later this spring, Marty and Karen are hoping their herd will swell to 99 animals, when 34 pregnant cows drop their spotted calves.

The decision to go into the elk-breeding business was made by the couple after careful consideration of options available to owners of small ranches. They saw the price of cattle dropping and the price of feeds rising. They saw cattle growers trying to adjust from marbled fat to low fat.

“The cattle people are trying overnight to breed out what they spent centuries breeding in,” says Karen. “It’s tough.”

Elk meat, on the other hand, is naturally lean. Fat content of six ounces of domestically raised elk burger is a mere 1.8 percent, compared with ground beef at 26.6 percent and skinned chicken breast at 9.3 percent, according to USDA statistics.

So the pair embarked upon the elk venture with the full knowledge that their enterprise could be profitable, though it might cause some conventional cattle ranchers to consider them daft.

“Elk ranching is new and cattle ranchers are skeptical,” says Marty. “On the whole, the only thing we have noticed from other ranchers is that it’s new and they are just watching.”

At this point, the elk industry in the United States is in the herd-building stage, and is likely to remain there for nearly a decade. Thus, very few elk in North America are raised for meat consumption, says Marty. Since American elk growers are not in a position to supply the market demand, most elk meat consumed in the United States is imported from New Zealand.

The main opportunity for North American elk ranchers at this point in time is supplying breeding stock for other ranchers, while building their own herds toward a point at which they can sell surplus animals to the meat market.

In the past year, Rocky Mountain Elk Ranch sold 10 animals to other ranches for breeding stock. “We’re trying to grow the herd and peel off some for cash flow,” says Karen. Ultimately, she says, they intend to sell elk for meat.

In addition, Marty and Karen added a new herd sire to their breeding program in January with the purchase of a burley bull named “Moonshine” at the first-ever National Western Stock Show elk auction. The elk auction grossed $182,200, second only to the buffalo sale at the National Western, says Marty, who coincidentally is serving his second term as president of the North American Elk Breeders Association. “Moonshine” topped the National Western elk sale at $16,500.

Another opportunity for elk ranchers is the sale of velvet antlers, which are commonly used for making holistic medicines in Pacific Rim countries. Antlers, when they first sprout from the bulls’ heads, are covered in velvet and remain so until the bulls polish their prongs for the rut, in late summer and fall.

Elk ranchers use a humane and virtually painless method to remove the antlers before the elk rub off the velvet. A large bull may produce more than 35 pounds of antler per year, which can be sold for around $65 per pound.

The elk eat alfalfa hay, which Marty and Karen grind to keep the animals from picking out the leaves and leaving the stalks to waste. The elk also are fed a grain-based supplement complete with vitamins and minerals, specially formulated by an elk nutritionist at a Western Slope grain mill.

“Our growing season is so short we have to supplement the feeding nine months a year,” says Karen, who notes that good-quality grass is available for only three months at the ranch’s high altitude.

The grain supplement is designed to offset nutritional deficiencies of the hay. In addition, the elk are fed aspen-tree bark, which the ranchers say is common to the diet of wild elk and is rich in copper.

Elk ranching may not be the answer for all cattle growers, but it’s something ranchers who are looking to diversify might want to consider, says Marty. He says that ranchers with small acreages may be able to turn a profit easier with elk, due to lower feeding costs and higher-price marketability. But he notes that startup costs — especially the state-required eight-foot-high woven-wire fence, and the cost of the animals themselves — can be higher than cattle growers are accustomed to shelling out.

For Marty and Karen, however, the benefits of elk ranching certainly outweigh the costs.

“Different things suit different people,” says Marty. “We just like elk.”

For more information about the Rocky Mountain Elk Ranch or the North American Elk Breeders Association, call 719-783-2055.

Hal Walter prefers wild elk meat to the domestic at his surrounded enclave in the mountains of Custer County.