Steamboat Springs What better environment could there be for elk than Routt County's Elk River Valley? The surrounding hills are thick with the forage elk thrive on, and animals are abundant in north Routt County. But not all of the elk you'll see are wild.
Elk ranching has gained a hoof-hold in the valley that runs northwest from Steamboat before angling northeast into the river's headwaters in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
Spring is the most exciting time of year at an elk ranch the cows are due to give birth in mid-May and massive bulls like "Mr. Handsome" are rapidly growing their impressive antlers in the velvet phase.
"Look at Mr. Handsome," Judith Harrington enthused this week. "He has the strut. Not all of them have that strut. Not all animals carry themselves that way."
Harrington and ranch hand Richard Ridnour care for about 200 head of elk at the Harrington Elk Ranch, about 9 miles northwest of Steamboat Springs on Deep Creek.
Big bulls and their velvety antlers are what Harrington's operation is all about. When bull elk are in velvet their racks are not hard, calciferous bone-like appendages, but rather a living tissue. That tissue is highly sought after, particularly in some oriental cultures, as a remedy for arthritis and as a male-potency tonic.
There was a time, in the early to mid-'90s when carefully harvested velvet elk antler brought up to $100 a pound on Asian markets. But those prices were wildly exaggerated and the market sagged significantly when Asian currencies faltered in the middle of the decade, Harrington said.
Today, prices have moderated to a more realistic $30 to $40 a pound. A champion bull elk might yield 50 pounds of velvet a year, and 40 pounds would be excellent. The average mature bull will yield 30 pounds of velvet.
Even at the lower end of the range, Harrington said, raising elk for velvet is quite profitable.
"Nine-hundred dollars pays for a lot of feed," she observed. "I just want a stable market so I can plan. If (the price per pound) would stabilize at $50, I'd dance a jig."
Not far away in the Elk River Valley, the Kurtz ranch raises elk primarily for meat. Peter Kurtz said his 50 Roosevelt elk are in addition to 100 beef cows his family raises.
"I began raising elk to try to see if it truly was a viable business for small acreages," Peter Kurtz said. He pointed out that you can raise three elk on the same acreage required for one beef cow.
Kurtz is one of just three elk breeders nationwide specializing in pure Roosevelt elk, which are native to the Pacific Northwest and have heavier bodies than Rocky Mountain elk.
Kurtz said his goal is to grow prime elk meat similar to prime beef. He keeps three herd bulls for breeding purposes and slaughters young bulls before they turn three, and usually at two years of age.
The meat is processed at Mountain Meats in Craig and marketed as Yampa Valley Elk. Kurtz said that like many livestock markets right now, the prices for elk are not strong, and he believes it is premature to reach a conclusion about his elk viability project.
Daily feeding chores
On a Wednesday morning, Harrington and Ridnour were making the rounds of a half-dozen pastures in a John Deere tractor with an automatic haybale cutter on the back, and a bucket on the front.
Harrington used the automatic cutter to lay out a feed line for hungry bulls in one pasture, and bred heifers about to deliver their first calves, in another.
Ridnour rode in the bucket along with bags of feed that were doled out to the pregnant cows and the bulls, which are just beginning to show new antler growth. The feed mix included grain, corn, specially mixed alfalfa pellets and a healthy dose of sunflower seeds. The pellets are custom mixed by Snyder and Counts Feed and Seed in Craig.
As Harrington walked among the bulls she looked closely to spot which youngsters were showing the potential for massive antlers in the future, and which mature bulls have begun growing new antlers.
Because their antlers are harvested each spring, the elk do not go through the summer, fall and winter with impressive racks, but just the flat "buttons" which are left after their antlers are sawed off in velvet.
Harrington tries to spy which animals have rubbed off, or shed, their buttons, signifying that they have begun to grow new antlers.
"Number 825 lost a button," Harrington calls out to Ridnour, and makes a notation in the little notebook she carries in her pocket. In that way, she can keep track of when animal 825 will reach the prime phase for harvesting velvet typically within 75 to 80 days. The harvest must occur before any signs of calcification begin to show at the base of the antlers.
Harrington has an elaborate facility for harvesting the antlers. The animals are herded into a barn where a system of overhead catwalks and swinging gates allow elk ranchers to separate the bulls and lead the desired animal into a padded squeeze box where they can be held securely in place. Halters are also placed on the bulls to hold their heads steady.
"There's no doubt, the animals don't like coming in here," Harrington said. "But the animals are our first concern. You have a 900-pound bull in here and it's awesome." She and Ridnour even give the bulls a local anesthetic before sawing off their antlers.
All of the harvesting takes place under the strict guidelines of the American Elk Products Board.
Within the barn is a 10-by-10-foot freezer, where the velvety soft antlers are quickly frozen. Each "stick" as the pieces of harvest antler are called, is given an identification number. The ID number is intended to allow manufacturers to trace the origin of an antler product in case of a consumer complaint.
Ironically, the soft velvet on the surface of the antlers isn't used in the end product at all. The antlers are shipped to a processing plant where they are dried and the velvet is singed off.
Harrington points out that unlike some other animal products used in holistic remedies, shark fin for example, elk antler is a renewable resource that doesn't require killing the animal.
Although velvet antler is Harrington's primary focus, she also utilizes her elk in other ways.
When velvet antler sold for $100 a pound, selling some of her animals as breeding stock was her top source of revenue. This year, raising and selling trophy bulls to private hunting operations is the most important aspect of her business in terms of cash flow.
Because she strives to maximize production of antlers, Harrington is selectively breeding for big racks that would put a charge into any trophy hunter. They are the kind of trophies that are increasingly difficult to find in public and even private hunting areas, so many game ranches are purchasing the animals for their clients.
Harrington recently sold 10 bulls and 16 cows to a ranch in New Mexico that is building its herd. One of the bulls sold for $4,000.
Harrington said some hunters look down on private elk hunting ranches; they refer to them as "canned hunts." But she said when domestic elk are reintroduced onto a 1,000-acre or 2,000-acre ranch, stalking them and hunting them is good sport.
Harrington also plans to cull about 10 animals from her herd this year to be slaughtered for meat.
Harrington said elk steaks currently served in restaurants in Colorado are actually New Zealand red deer, a different product form Rocky Mountain elk.
She would like to see Colorado elk take over that market.
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