November 26, 2004 at 7:27 a.m.
The Lindstrom couple are elk farmers, one of a growing number of producers in the state. They have raised and sold elk for breeding and meat since purchasing their first cow in 1996.
That first cow, “a 1996 model” as Paul refers to it, is still part of a herd that currently includes 16 elk. The Eleys would like to see a herd of around 20 animals for optimum breeding.
The original cow was already pregnant when it came to the Eley farm and joined eight other calves they purchased to start their herd.
Two of the original calves are still part of the herd and have now bred calves of their own and one of the original calves is now a mature bull on the farm.
Before the Eleys started in elk farming, Paul had been on an elk hunt in Montana. After growing up on a farm and previously raising pigs, the couple knew having more animals wasn’t a step into the unknown.
Their minds were made up after spending the weekend with friends on their elk farm. “We had quite a few friends who raised elk,” Paul said. “Today we have even more friends who do it.”
The couple divided their 26 acres in half, with 13 being fenced off for the elk herd.
In the last eight years, the Eleys have thoroughly enjoyed raising the animals, appreciating them for what they are. “They are interesting, educational and a magnificent animal,” Paul said.
While Dorothy names each one and speaks to them as though they were any other household pet – the original cow is named Isabelle, nicknamed Mama Izzy – the Eleys both respect the elk as wild animals.
“Some of them will let you scratch between their ears, others would just as soon knock you down,” Paul said.
As Dorothy drives around the farm in a golf cart, most of the elk will walk over to the eight-foot tall fences to greet her. She talks to each one lovingly by name, as they wait in anticipation of one of two daily feedings.
Elk are mainly grazers like cows and deer, but the Eley elk are fed a hay, alfalfa and grass protein feed in their fenced areas, as well as twice daily feedings of a mixture of oats, corn and pellets inside the barn. “Our elk are spoiled,” Dorothy said. “Most only get fed once a day.” Elk also eat trees and bark.
The farm has a barn for the elk to come into at feeding time, but ordinarily they stay outside the rest of the day. “They love the cold,” Paul said. Elk, like most wild animals in northern climates, grow thick coats each year to protect them from harsh winter temperatures. Paul said the elk seem to revel in inclement weather like freezing rain, fog and snow.
Cows are normally bred in September or October, so calves will be born anytime from May to July. The Eleys decide during the year which cows will be separated with which bulls during breeding season. “We don’t always breed all of our cows in a year,” Paul said.
Once a calf is born, it is vaccinated and tagged with two separate tags, or as Dorothy says, “two forms of ID.” The tags indicate that the animals have been vaccinated and registered with the Minnesota Bureau of Animal Health, as required by law.
The part time hobby of elk farming is not inexpensive. Although prices for elk breeding stock have decreased since the Eleys started farming, prices are still typically in the range of $3,000 to $6,000 for each animal. Paul said because of the high costs and labor involved with taking care of elk, it is definitely not simply a hobby. “It’s something you have to really concentrate on doing,” he said.
Costs for feeding and keeping vaccinations up to date for elk are also expensive. The Eleys work with a veterinarian from Brandon, Minn. who travels nationwide to administer to elk herds. Paul said he is well-known as an expert in elk health care.
The farm must also retain detailed records of each animal, including vaccination records and dates of transfers. A transfer is recorded anytime an elk comes to the farm or leaves, whether it is sold for breeding or butchering.
The inevitable day always comes when the Eleys know it is time to sell one of their herd. Typically their elk are sold for meat, but the couple has also sold animals for breeding to other elk farmers.
Animals are processed when they are generally between 300 to 335 pounds. It is never an easy day for the Eleys when they have to say goodbye. “I get a little twinge sometimes when they’re gone,” Dorothy said.
The Eleys typically don’t advertise elk meat for sale because word of mouth generally is enough for the small amount of meat processed each year. There may be years where they don’t process any animals. “We take private orders from people, so it kind of depends on how much people want at any given time,” Paul said.
Any type of farming is usually easier when you enjoy the end product. The Eleys cook a lot with elk meat and both agree it is the best meat you’ll find. “It has no fat, it’s very lean,” Paul said.
They have a hard time trying to compare the taste of elk meat to other meat or even venison. “It has its own taste but it’s wonderful,” Dorothy said. Paul added that it’s hard to educate people about elk meat because it is such a dark meat, very close to the color of liver.
Within elk communities, even a small herd like the one owned by the Eleys has a hierarchy. At the Eley farm, there is the alpha bull, which generally either sits or saunters around the center of its fenced area, keeping all the elk in view as well as watching for predators.
In the other pen, there is the herd cow, in this case Mama Izzy, who controls the herd. “She can call them in from anywhere, I don’t know how she does that,” Paul said.
None of the elk have ever found a way out of the heavy steel fences, but when they feel like fighting, the bulls show their strength. A tour of the farm shows a few places where fence wires have been bent or bowed out from the trauma of antlers plowing into them with the force of two or three football linemen.
Dorothy said two big bulls engaged in a fight recently that they were sure would end in them killing each other.
Most of the time, the elk herd is content to graze and keep an eye out for Dorothy at feeding time. They even play, especially as calves. “It’s fun to watch the calves because they do a little dance that I’ve only seen elk do,” Dorothy said.
The Eleys are registered as an elk farm with the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association and the North American Breeders Association, under the name Lakes Trail Elk Farm.
The farm must be available for yearly inspections and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) testing is required on each animal that dies on the farm or is butchered. The Eleys also submit samples for voluntary tuberculosis testing of their elk.
Paul completed training at the University of Minnesota to learn how to collect samples for CWD testing and both Eleys regularly attend statewide and national conventions and seminars focusing on health and safety issues of elk farming.
Paul said elk farming isn’t difficult, but they enjoy spending a little more time with their herd than the average farmer. “You do what’s required and there’s very low upkeep,” he said. “Our upkeep is a little more because we spend more time with them.”
For more information on Lakes Trail Elk Farm, call the Eleys at 257-4023 or for information on elk farming, go to the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association Web site, www.mneba.org.
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