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Elk—a different kind of ranching

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It’s another case of what’s old becoming new again.

At one time, the boreal forests of Northern Ontario and Manitoba were filled with the haunting bugling of bull elk during the height of the annual rut each September and October.

Now, it seems, those long-gone sounds once again are being heard here, but this time the arena is one of fenced and tended pastures like those of Deb Cornell and Bill Darby.

The couple began this venture in 1995 when they purchased 21 elk cows in Owen Sound and a bull from Saskatchewan. Today, their Rainy River Elk Company numbers some 120 animals on their farm north of Devlin.

Perhaps the most obvious question is why. Why bring an exotic animal into what is traditionally beef farming country?

In the first place, elk are not exactly an exotic species. Until they were hunted almost to extinction in Ontario during the first half of the last century, there was a thriving population here.

Secondly, of all the members of the deer family, elk are ideally suited to be raised on conventional pasture land.

“Elk are primarily grazers,” explained Darby, district manager of the local Ministry of Natural Resources office who also is a zoologist specializing in deer. “They are the only members of the deer family that eat grass as a staple.”

The other members of the deer family—moose, caribou, and mule and white-tailed deer—live primarily on a variety of lichens, water plants, shoots, and flowers.

Cornell and Darby supplement the animals’ diet with a special feed consisting of rolled oats, barley, corn, and molasses.

Over time, the elk have become quite tame. They seem to recognize their owners and are far more alert and interactive than cattle. One cow in particular is special.

“Jenny” was one of the first elk born on the farm in 1995. She has become Cornell’s special pet and readily will approach the fence to have her ears and nose rubbed—looking and acting much like an enormous dog.

Cornell, who grew up on a cattle farm, said she wanted to try something different and elk seemed like the perfect choice.

“We wanted to farm some kind of livestock and after seeing elk in Alberta and Saskatchewan, we decided that’s what we wanted to do,” she remarked.

It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. Elk have had a troubled history in Ontario. Early in the last century, the native elk were blamed—wrongly, as it turned out—for liver flukes contamination in beef herds so the provincial government encouraged their complete annihilation.

By the middle of the century, they were gone.

Since then, a number of reintroduction projects have been underway, the earliest being in the Sudbury area during the 1950s. The reintroduction of wild stock continues, including an effort here in Northwestern Ontario, along with the commercial operations.

There have been times when the two have run head on, so to speak.

Two years ago, Cornell’s farm was visited by a wild bull elk during the height of the rut. Although sturdy fencing kept it away from her cows, her own breeding bull neglected his duties and spent several days sparring with the intruder at the fence instead of taking care of business.

“We ended up with a number of open [unbred] cows,” she said. “This had never happened before.”

Cornell said when a cow misses its heat, it will come back into heat in 17-21 days. That, however, means a late birth.

Had the wild bull succeeded in breeding her cows, Cornell said the consequences for her business could have been severe, since there is always the possibility her animals could pick up a disease or parasite.

“We spend a lot of money having appropriate status for export,” she stressed. “Our animals are tested for TB and brucellosis.”

Another concern over interaction between wild and domestic stock is Chronic Wasting Disease (see related story below), which might be passed through close contact or combat.

Cornell said she has taken stringent precautions to ensure her animals are completely free of this strange and serious disease, noting all of them are tested when they are slaughtered.

Since there is not yet any effective method for testing live animals, this must be done by sending the brains of the slaughtered animals to be tested.

Although the chances of CWD infection through contact with wild stock is slim, the public perception of the disease is, itself, a problem.

“I don’t have any concerns about CWD infecting my herd, except that it’s affecting the industry,” said Cornell. “Animal prices have gone down and it has limited antler exports to Korea.”

Cornell said while there are some issues between farmers and those who would like to see a thriving wild elk population, she feels the two industries can co-exist.

“I’m not opposed to the idea of reintroduction,” she said. “We’re pleased to see elk back in the area. I think we have room for both.”

Cornell said she has heard stories of wild elk causing problems for other farmers in the district by raiding their hay stocks. This has been particularly serious in Manitoba.

The problem, she noted, is the animals don’t necessarily stay where they are released. Since they are grazers, they will go to where grass and hay are available instead of staying in the bush where they were released.

Also, the MNR currently has insufficient personnel and equipment to deal with nuisance animals, but she feels that will change.

Elk meat has been described as something between beef and moose. Unlike in beef, almost all of the animal’s fat is stored around the muscle tissue instead of throughout it.

This makes it easy to trim—and leave the consumer with an extremely lean cut.

But there are other things about elk that make them particularly attractive for ranchers. Darby noted.

“With the growth of a global economy, there are a number of products from elk that can be sold around the world,” he said, adding the most popular of these is the antlers, or more specifically, the velvet antler.

Like most deer, the antlers grow and then are shed every year in mid-winter, but it is while they are still growing—in the “velvet” stage—that they have some interesting properties.

These properties have been particularly popular in China and Korea, where deer antler has been a part of traditional medicine for 2,000 years. In the 15th century, Russians began using velvet antler and today, there is a growing business there in red deer, which are similar to elk.

Darby said the soft antlers not only are loaded with minerals and trace elements, but also contain two types of natural growth hormones that appear to have powerful medicinal effects.

“We’ve been selling to China for two years now and to Korea before that,” he remarked.

The antlers are ground into powder and sold in capsule form, or mixed with other ingredients to make a liquid or lotion. It is said velvet antler has proven useful as a natural anti-inflammatory agent for treating diseases like arthritis.

It is also claimed to boost the immune system as well as increase energy, alertness, and the libido.

The antlers are harvested in the early fall just as they start to harden. The animals are herded one at a time into a special holding cell in the barn, where the antlers are removed and immediately frozen for later processing.

Cornell said the procedure is not particularly stressful for the animals and they are none the worse for it. In fact, it helps prevent injury when they are sparring.

“The antlers start to harden at the base, what we call the button,” she explained. “We freeze the area with Lanacane and cut them off above that.

It’s no worse than a trip to the dentist and far less invasive than dehorning cattle.”

Several of Cornell’s bulls are allowed to let their antlers harden, which then usually drop off some time in mid-winter. While these magnificent racks have no medicinal value, they do have other uses.

Cornell sends hers to a carver in International Falls, who makes pens, pencils, and keychains out of them. Elk hide also is used to make gloves, vests, and other soft leather items.

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