By Clifford Mitchell

Many factors have influenced the evolution of agriculture.

Perhaps freedom to choose has impacted it the most. Having the knowledge and ability to seek the most profitable avenue has led many producers to arrive at different destinations.

Over the years as agriculture has progressed, many alternatives that have been born to bright ideas have grown to profitable enterprises. Ideas also have been poorly laid out, but promised a tremendous upside, only to fail in the end.

Domestic elk production seems to be a pretty viable enterprise and is becoming more common throughout the Midwest.

Near Bellwood, NE, Don and Diane Birkel along with Don's son, Kent, and his wife, Tracy, are in the beginning stages of domestic elk production, making the transition from beef cows.

"We are selling the beef cows gradually," Don Birkel says.

The Birkels decided to make this transition because elk offer several different marketing avenues to turn a profit and are relatively easy to manage.

"We can make a profit on the elk through velvet, breeding stock, recreation and meat. With our beef cattle, we were pretty much limited to breeding stock or meat," Birkel says. "We can raise two to three elk on the same acreage we can raise a cow."

"Elk are a lower maintenance animal, but they are very curious," says Diane Birkel, executive secretary of the Nebraska Elk Breeders.

Facilities are the first limiting factor of the elk business. According to Don Birkel, the fence is $1.35 per running foot. Price is the second limiting factor.

"The demand for the breeding stock limits the growth of our industry. We should get better returns on our investment," Birkel says.

Of the four potential markets for elk, producers are seeing dollars returned from breeding stock, recreation and velvet--the meat market is not quite established.

"There is an Federal Drug Administration-approved slaughter house for elk in Dannebrog, but there is more demand than supply," Birkel says. "Since the U.S. imports a lot of Red Deer, the market is established. We just have to grow the herd to meet the demand. It probably will be eight to 10 years before we see a major meat market."

The hunting and velvet markets somewhat go hand-in-hand. Since there is only a small market for cull bulls, the recreational market offers the greatest profit potential.

"There is a huge demand for challenging hunts," Diane Birkel says. "The recreation market is a place to market male animals."

Genetics is what ties the velvet and recreational markets together, by breeding for one it creates another marketing channel.

"By breeding for the trophy, you also will produce a lot of velvet, which gives us two ways to make a profit," Don Birkel says. "One day, we might be breeding in one herd for antler, the other for carcass."

Most velvet is marketed in the Asian market and, with their depression, velvet prices have somewhat suffered. As these countries rebound, so will the price of velvet.

Birkel explains the elk will drop their antlers in mid-March. The velvet is harvested 60 to 70 days later from the new antlers.

"It is harvested in the velvet and then processed into capsules," Birkel says. "The velvet has to be harvested before calcification can begin."

The velvet has many different uses. As the price continued to drop, the Birkels had their velvet processed into capsules for human consumption.

"It relieves pain and discomfort from arthritis. Pure antler is somewhat of a natural pain killer," Birkel says.

Management of domestic elk herds in Nebraska is regulated by the state Department of Agriculture, with specific regulations concerning brucellosis and tuberculosis.

"It takes three years to become an accredited herd," Birkel says. "Breeding stock from an accredited herd will bring a premium."

The Birkels purchased their first breeding stock in 1997, and it has been a learning experience ever since, with the elk and Mother Nature teaching valuable management skills.

"We just kind of wonder if elk don't retain some immunity from their days in the wild. We learn something about them everyday," Birkel states.

Planned mating seasons have been developed for a lot of animals in domestic production. In beef cattle, managers can manipulate a calving season to best fit their market scenario, but the elk follow the season they have known for centuries.

"Elk will breed only the last part of August until mid-November. They will calve in May, June and July," Birkel says. "A beef cow will calve in a storm. Elk will wait to calve until after the storm."

During calving, the nutritional program is very important for the elk herd, but may be for different reasons than it is when calving the cow herd.

"There is very little calving difficulty associated with the elk," Birkel says. "Most people who have calving problems are too kind to their elk and feed them too much."

Artificial insemination is another tool the Birkels are starting to rely on to help better the genetics within the herd. Birkel explains to AI the elk, they use a seeder to start the process, then they get their hormone shot and are bred 60 hours later.

"The demand for seedstock is really high and it is driving prices really high," Birkel says. "We have to get some named breeding stock. We need sire and dam recognition, because the desirable traits are carried on both sides of the pedigree."

Unlike in beef cattle, AI in virgin elk heifers does not work real well, according to Birkel, and each new crop of heifers has to be managed differently.

"We have to have a different breeding pasture for each new crop of heifers and breed them to unrelated bull to start a new line," Birkel says.

Expansion is the key word around the Birkel operation, with more beef cows shipped out and more acres under elk fence by this summer.

"I want to have 30 acres fenced by this summer. In the future, I would like to have about 85 acres fenced to run about 30 pair," Birkel say.

With the profit potential seen in the elk business and the different market outlets that are available, the Birkels see a bright future in the elk industry.

"Even though the demand for seedstock still is high, we are seeing a lot of competition. Breeders are breeding elk that can produce more pounds of velvet at a younger age," Birkel says.

Birkel believes the meat market might be the final piece to fall in place for the industry to reach its full potential. He also thinks the breeders could have a huge effect on the future of the industry during this growing phase.

"We are going to have to have a meat market. We have to get rid of our culls, so we don't have animal overload," Birkel says. "Until the demand for seedstock starts to decline, breeders are going to have to be very selective and cull the lower quality animals."

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