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Published April 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Elk farm is booming business near Windom

WILDER — The sixfoot-high fences are the first indication that some atypical livestock are residing on land south of Wilder. Impressive shaggy heads — yet to shed their winter coat but sprouting the beginnings of new antlers — perk up as a vehicle approaches, no doubt giving pause to unsuspecting passersby.

By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe

WILDER — The sixfoot-high fences are the first indication that some atypical livestock are residing on land south of Wilder. Impressive shaggy heads — yet to shed their winter coat but sprouting the beginnings of new antlers — perk up as a vehicle approaches, no doubt giving pause to unsuspecting passersby.

This is Taylor Elk Company, an enterprise owned and operated by Don and Sharon Olson. The Olsons have more than 300 head of elk in various pastures on this particular farm place. Their son, Perry Olson, has a similar operation, Minnesota Elk Company, also in the vicinity.

For Don, who owns a large trucking operation, Fortune Transportation, with offices in rural Windom and New Mexico, raising elk is a “stress reliever.”

“Basically, I grew up on a dairy farm, and as a kid growing up, you watch all your friends having a good time playing ball and goofing off, and you’re too busy baling hay and doing farm chores,” he reflected. “You can’t wait to get off the farm. So you grow up and move off the farm and do other things … and you can’t wait until the time when you can buy a piece of land in the rural area and go back to the farm.”

Don purchased the land south of Wilder about 15 years ago, realizing that it wasn’t well suited for crops with lots of hills, trees and ravines.

“I was in Alaska and ran into this guy who was raising elk in Wisconsin,” Don recalled. “I’m an outdoors guy, so I came home and did the research.”

Since Don bought the land on the same day his eldest granddaughter, Taylor, was born, he named the new enterprise after her and initially purchased two elk cows.

The foundation herd of 36 cows, established in 1996, has grown to a herd of about 250 bulls and 100 cows. While raising elk has similarities to raising cattle, there are some fundamental differences because elk are still essentially wild animals.

“The animal husbandry part of it is very similar to cattle,” compared Don. “But you need an 8-foot fence opposed to a 4-foot fence, and you need better handling facilities for safety. … Elk are so much quicker. In handling them, their instinct is to run away from you just about all the time. … The bulls get very aggressive in the fall, if they’re around the cows in heat. You don’t want to get near the calves in springtime — the cows have that maternal instinct to protect them.”

Elk are basically a grazing animal, and they will also eat fresh tree leaves and branches.

Their diet is supplemented with hay

during the winter and with other types of feed at critical stages.

“This time of year, we’re feeding the bulls oats and minerals because they’re growing antler,” added Don. “We cut the cows back (on feed) for calving time, because an overweight cow is going to have trouble birthing. There’s a seasonality to it that’s a little different.”

Markets here and abroad

Cattle are raised primarily for meat, but that’s not the case with elk. Other parts of the animal are even more highly prized.

The Taylor Elk Web site details some of the elk products available:

We can ship elk meat and velvet capsules. We can provide animals for you slaughter needs whether it be a single animal for your family or a truckload for your commercial needs. We can provide raw velvet antler for you commercial needs, too. If have needs for antler, we have hundreds to choose from, and we will ship elk ivory teeth as well. If it can be produced from or by an elk, contact us and we will do everything we can to accommodate your needs.

Since the male elk sheds and regrows its antlers every year, antlers are a renewable resource — and a valuable one, particularly in Asian markets. When ground and ingested, often in capsule form, the antler is purported to help with a variety of ailments and is also considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures.

“I’ve actually been to China, Korea, to see the markets,” said Don. “It’s nice to see where it goes.”

In the United States, patients who have an ailment such as a sore shoulder expect immediate relief for their problem when they go to a doctor. In Asian countries, a more holistic approach is taken, Don reported, adding that herbal and alternative medicines are much more widely accepted, too.

“Over there, when you go to a doctor for the same injury, he’ll tell you to bring in your wife and kids, and the doctor will talk to you for two hours, will sit and evaluate everything. Eventually, he’ll give you a prescription and tell you to do this for three months. It’s a whole wellness, lifestyle change. When I was in a pharmacy in Korea, there was this big wall full of boxes, each containing ingredients, and elk antler is one of the items that’s supposed to be in that prescription. Its primary uses are in children and the elderly — for muscular and tendon development and for arthritis and to help with blood flow, circulation.”

Don has also noted expanding markets for velvet antler in the U.S. and Canada.

Governmental regulations and disease outbreaks in other types of livestock have affected the opportunities for selling elk breeding stock. A herd must be “closed” for five years in order to ship animals to another state, and the required paperwork is almost overwhelming.

“My son and I are in the same situation because of the distinctions the states have. We can’t move animals between our two farms. … We do a lot of things together, like baling hay, but the herds are kept separate, and it’s two different financial entities,” Don explained. “I made an application to New Mexico to import elk and hand-delivered it, but it was almost 400 pages. It had every death record for every animal for five years.”

One of the largest markets for the Olsons’ elk is the shooting market — selling shooter bulls for hunting in the fall.

“The main shooting is in Colorado; limited in New Mexico, Missouri, Tennessee, New York,” he detailed.

The Olsons belong to a Minnesota elk marketing co-op, which helps to promote their products. Minnesota elk meat can be found on the menu at select restaurants, including one located in the Marriott hotel in Orlando, Fla. The animals that are slaughtered for meat are generally the nonantler-producing bulls and noncalf-producing cows.

“It’s a wholesome food,” Don promoted. “The meat marbles on the outside of the muscle tissue, as opposed to beef, which marbles on the inside, so it’s very lean. We sell to places like Cabella’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse. We can slaughter at a place in Sanborn, Minn., but it’s primarily done in Cannon Falls. The guy there went to the effort to get certified for the European Union.”

Seasonal pleasures

In the weeks ahead, the animals at Taylor Elk Company will shed their scraggly winter coats, and their antlers will become more prominent. The elk will also get more active with the arrival of warmer temperatures.

“The thing I enjoy most is my cow-calf operation,” Don reflected. “Having calves in the spring — that’s what it’s all about. We’re about a month from calving. Elk breed with the moon. The equinox in the fall is the peak of breeding season for elk, so then they calve around Memorial Day.”

The Olsons artificially inseminate about one-third of their herd each year, bringing in different blood lines for various antler traits.

The springtime brings another sort of activity to the farm — visitors. Don welcomes a few tour groups, including students from agriculture classes, preschools and senior organizations, as time and circumstances allow. Safety of visitors and animals is a prime concern.

“I have a couple bottle-fed cows that will come right up to the fence, and they get a charge out of that,” he reported.

The fall can be a noisy time on an elk farm, as the males use a buglelike call to attract the females.

“The elk bugling, that starts about the middle of August, and they’ll bugle until about Thanksgiving,” Do said. “There’s no better sound than hearing an elk bugle. I practice my elk bugling with mine before I go out hunting — every year that I draw a tag (for the elk hunt) out west.”

But the hunting season is many months away, and Don now looks forward to seeing his herd soon feasting on the spring grasses and delivering a new generation of elk to roam the land south of Wilder. It’s that sight that makes the challenges of raising elk all worthwhile.

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