Minnesota is No. 1 in farmed elk, but can't keep up with demand

Minnesota's herds of farmed elk might be the largest in the country, but they're not large enough.

Demand for elk meat and other elk products is at an all-time high, according to Brenda Hartkopf, executive secretary of the Minnesota Elk Breeder's Association. Elk farmers are bombarded with orders.

"Our members are getting more calls for meat than they can fill," she said. "We just don't have enough meat around."

To streamline the buying process in a tight market, the association launched an elk-specific website. Along with information about elk, nutritional details and recipes, the site maps every elk farm in the state and lists the ones with products to sell.

The USDA Census of Agriculture lists 141 elk farms in Minnesota, raising upwards of 4,200 elk. Minnesota produces the most farm-raised elk of any state.

Still, elk breeders can't keep up with the demand for their product.

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Chronic wasting disease which was first identified in Minnesota in 2002 in a farmed elk from Aitkin County, has been handled with better safety regulations, Hartkopf said, and no longer discourages buyers.

With beef prices rising, many consumers find elk meat a better option. A pound of high-end grass fed beef burger costs about the same as a pound of elk burger, she said.

As demand for elk meat increases locally, Hartkopf said less meat is harvested thanks to a growing demand abroad for another elk product.

Marrow is harvested yearly from inside the velvety antlers of bull elk. It's sold, mainly to buyers in China to make elk velvet health supplements. According to Hartkopf, it's that marrow that drives the elk market.

Hartkopf runs Splendor Ridge Elk Farm near Howard Lake with a herd of 170 elk. She said her herd produces about 500 pounds of antler marrow a year. Five years ago, it sold for $20 a pound. Today, it sells for $40.

The $20,000 is enough to prompt Splendor Ridge, and many other elk farmers to keep more bull elk for the yearly antler harvest, rather than butchering them for the meat.