History of Elk Farming in North America

Many North Americans think that farming deer or elk is a radically new idea. In fact, deer have been farmed for thousands of years in various parts of the world. Written records describe intensive farming techniques for deer in Mediterranean and Asian countries well before the birth of Christ. In North America, elk (wapiti) were kept as farmed livestock in Pennsylvania in the late 1800’s, and in 1910, USDA Bulletin #36 noted the suitability of elk for farming. In spite of this knowledge, the industry really did not develop until more recently.

The past twenty years have seen a dramatic pace of development in the elk farming industry in North America. Before the 1970’s, there were very few commercial elk farms in operation. “Game farms” raised and sold live animals, but these operations were more like zoos rather than commercial farms. The impetus to begin commercial development came from contact with Asian buyers of velvet and other products, and from the pioneering efforts of farmers from around the world, but particularly New Zealand farmers. North American farmers realized that a large unsatisfied market existed for elk and the many products derived from those animals. The challenge was to establish management systems and political environments that would allow efficient and profitable production.

Management systems for farmed elk in North America were not difficult to develop. Elk were native to most of the west and central half of the continent and proved to be easy to domesticate and adapt to a farm environment. The New Zealanders shared husbandry skills and knowledge with North Americans, with further information provided by Europeans, Asians and South Africans. Most of these first elk farmers were already accomplished stockmen who then adapted the techniques learned in other livestock industries to the new strategy.

The first commercial farmers in the early 1980’s obtained livestock from the wild when permits could be issued by the wildlife agencies, or purchased from zoos and game farms. Once the high quality and desirability of North American elk antler was established, markets for velvet antler were developed, primarily in the Asian community, and for aged bulls on the established hunting farms in the United States. The industry strengthened, and the market for breeding stock boomed. This good fortune, unfortunately, precipitated the most difficult times the industry has faced. Science had not kept pace with the development of the industry. Large numbers of live animals were moving all across the continent with minimal control or testing. Techniques used for detection of various diseases and parasites in other species were directly transferred to elk and other deer without assessment of their efficacy or accuracy. As a result, Tuberculosis was diagnosed in farmed elk in the late 1980’s. The discovery of these health problems was sufficient bad news to the industry – but the reaction of opposition groups was much worse.

The development of commercial elk farms in North America had been strongly criticized by some wildlife, hunting and environmental advocacy groups. The United States and Canada share a history of exploitation of native wildlife that endangered the survival of many of those species. By the late 1800’s, uncontrolled commercial hunting had reduced the wild bison and elk to remnant populations in Western North America. Fortunately, a few forward – thinking people began taking steps to preserve these remnants. Michel Pablo, A Montana rancher, and Samuel Walking Coyote from the Milk River area of Alberta both captured and began raising bison.

At the same time, prominent conservationists Howard Douglas in Canada and William Hornady in the United States stimulated some conservation groups, led by Theodore Roosevelt among others, to demand systems of wildlife conservation be put in place. These protection systems, built on a philosophical base of public ownership of wildlife, are a source of great pride to many North Americans. To their credit, these systems have served wildlife well. Populations of most native North American species are healthy, providing viewing and hunting opportunities to rival any other part of our world.

Many passionate supporters of these systems saw any commercialization of wildlife as a threat to the survival of the protection systems and to the wildlife species themselves. Although many proponents of conservation could accept commercial outfitting for trophy hunters, they opposed any form of wildlife ranching. They predicted the introduction of dangerous diseases and parasites, genetic pollution of existing stocks with imported and escaped farm animals, increases in illegal harvest as legal pathways for production and sale were developed, and decreased profile and support for wild populations as farmed populations increased. The appearance of Tuberculosis confirmed, in their minds, all of their predictions.

This perception led to a period of active lobbying in some jurisdictions for the complete eradication of all farmed cervids and an end to the elk and deer farming industries. In the face of this opposition, prices and demand for breeding stock dropped substantially in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The industry was hurt, but pioneering elk farmers were not at all prepared to quit. Several Provincial and State Associations had been formed in the early 1980’s, but these pioneers quickly realized that National organizations were needed to focus their lobbying, research and industry development activities.

In 1990, Rush Johnson, an elk farmer from Missouri, organized a meeting in Denver of seventeen keen supporters of elk farming. That core group then recruited several more supporters, and each of them contributed $2000. of their personal funds to establish the North American Elk Breeders Association (NAEBA). The first convention of NAEBA was held in Kansas City in spring, 1991, with about 450 people in attendance – less than one year after establishment! NAEBA is now a powerful and well-respected promotion and lobby group, with over 1400 members in 1997.

In the spring of 1992, representatives from all across Canada met in Saskatchewan to form the Canadian Venison Council (CVC). The CVC is a council of representatives of all the elk and deer farming Associations in Canada. This organization became the vehicle to carry the messages of the Canadian industry to the federal government. CVC representatives met with the Canadian groups who were in opposition to the industry at the time to discuss their concerns and to develop possible resolutions.

Both NAEBA and the CVC have been instrumental in resolving any difficulties the industry has faced. They have also accepted, along with many other farmers, the forced destruction of thousands of their livestock as part of the measures taken to rid farmed livestock of Tuberculosis.

Although this was a difficult time for our industry, the net result was a strengthening of every aspect of management, and a hardening of the commitment of North American elk farmers to see that industry succeed. Industry – supported research continues toward improvement of disease and parasite detection and management techniques.

With these ongoing programs, and the development and broad acceptance of the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Deer has come acceptance and support of the elk and deer farming industry throughout most of North America. Most Provinces and States now have active elk and/or deer farming associations that work with their local members in developing management practices and expanding markets.

Elk farming in North America is strongly based on the market for velvet antler as a food supplement and nutraceutical. Production of unprocessed antler is estimated to have surpassed 150,000 pounds (70,000 kilograms) in 1996. Good markets also exist for meat and for hunting opportunities. These strong markets, plus the limited availability of breeding stock, have pushed the prices of livestock to unprecedented levels. These prices are now beginning to demonstrate the increasing sophistication of the industry, as prices paid for lower quality stock are decreasing, and conversely, higher quality stock is selling for higher prices. As knowledge of productive capacities and efficiencies increases, the spread of prices paid will continue to increase, with more valuable genetics maintaining their price advantage.

Elk and deer farming industries have established in many countries around the world. Several species are raised, varying with the climate and target markets. Population numbers are shown in the following table:

World Populations of Farmed Elk and Deer, 1997

Country Number Predominant Breeds Uses 1998 Velvet AntlerĀ (tonnes, green)
New Zealand 1,400,000 Red deer, elk, fallow deer venison, antler 350
China 1,000,000 Red deer, elk, sika antler 200
Russia 400,000 Elk, red deer, sika venison, antler 180
United States 250,000 Elk, red deer, fallow & others venison, antler 45
Australia 180,000 Elk, red deer, rusa, fallow venison, antler 10
Germany 150,000 Red and fallow deer venison
Korea 112,000 Elk, red deer, sika antler 40
Canada 98,000 Elk, reds, fallow and whitetails venison, antler 45
Mauritius 60,000 Rusa deer venison
England 30,000 Red and fallow deer venison
Eire(Ireland) 28,000 Red deer venison
Scotland 20,000 Red deer venison
Taiwan 36,000 Sika, sambar, red deer antler 15
Sweden 35,000 Red and fallow venison
Denmark 30,000 Red and fallow venison
France 30,000 Red and fallow venison
New Caledonia 20,000 Rusa venison, antler 1
Vietnam 15,000 Sika deer antler 5
Malaysia 15,000 Red, fallow and Rusa venison, antler 5
Thailand 5,000 Sambar and red deer venison, antler 2
Norway 1,000 Red deer venison 2
Totals 3,915,000 898


These population numbers include only the elk and deer intensively managed on farms enclosed by high fences. They do not include extensively managed deer such as the reindeer of Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Lapland nor the hundreds of thousands of deer and antelope maintained for hunting and meat production in Texas and south African countries.

In North America, elk farming is well-established over most of the historic range of elk, from Alaska to Florida, and Nova Scotia to Arizona. Current estimates for numbers of elk farms and farmed elk total 800 farms and 35,000 elk in Canada, and 1,200 farms and 70,000 elk in the United States. The estimated value of the livestock plus the dedicated facilities and fencing on these farms is currently over one billion U.S. dollars. It is interesting to compare the wild populations of elk in North America to these farmed numbers. Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the most recognized North American naturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries, estimated that as many as ten million elk roamed our continent at their peak of population. By the early part of the 20th century, only about 100,000 remained. Conservation efforts have restored those wild populations to about one million animals in all parts of North America. Most of that population growth has taken place in the last twenty years – at the same time as farmed elk numbers have grown to their current levels!

The future is very bright for the North American elk farming industry. Opposition groups have been soothed by improved management and production techniques. Markets that existed long before industry development have still not been satisfied and well-organized promotion and marketing campaigns will ensure that market development continues. In a quick two decades, elk farming has become an integral and highly profitable part of North America’s agricultural economy.


Source: Ian Thorleifson