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Raising Elk



     Elk are classified as wildlife animals, even if they are commercially raised in captivity.  Most states have a registry of all the elk breeders; some require a license to keep elk and other species of wildlife.  You need to contact the state agricultural office and notify them that you have elk; ask them to send you the requirements for raising elk in the state.  Elk can be blood typed to ensure that they do not have any red deer hybridization in their genetic background.   Because the elk are raised for food products (meat and antlers), the same requirements for Food and Drug regulations apply to elk as to cattle.  Drug withdrawal times, drugs and products only approved for food producing animals and complete record keeping systems are required.

     An 800# elk will eat up to 2?3% of its body weight daily in food.  Hay should be an elk’s main diet.  We prefer alfalfa hay, which has 2x the protein, 5x the calcium and 5x the Vitamin A of grass hay.  If you decide to pasture your livestock on fescue grass, please contact us regarding the possible endophyte problems.  Elk are not naturally accustomed to grain.  Aggressive bulls will crowd out the other bulls and eat too much grain at once, causing a condition for a possible enterotoxemia death.  We do not advise feeding over 1# of grain per head per daily under normal conditions.  For pasture stocking rates use approximately the same pasture rate as for cattle; this may be 25% higher than normal, but it is better to leave the grass 6″ tall than to have it cut off at the ground.  (We have pasture fertilization, management, etc. information at the clinic if you desire).  A mineralized salt block is recommended, as is fresh water at all times.  We are not in a copper deficient area, but the northwestern part of Colorado does require copper treatments if the feed/salt does not contain copper.  We do recommend a copper bolus once a year in our area, if there is no other source of supplementation.  Each area of the country is different in the nutritional problems seen.  Some areas have selenium deficiencies, others do not.  Parasite problems can also variable within each state.

    For a facility of moderate size, we advise a 3 or more pastures for rotation, 1?3x holding pens/sick pens and an indoor working area.  The cost and efficiency of the handling facilities will be dictated by the size of the herd; squeezing of the elk is almost essential for their safety.  Cattle facilities are not safe for elk; the elk hydraulic chutes, drop chutes, or squeeze doors are desired for working them.  As with any livestock, adequate management and facilities can vary between each farm.  Elk become very quiet and easy to work with once the lighting is limited inside the working facility.  There are various handling methods and designs that are adequate.  When handling elk, remember that they are still wildlife and are very afraid of humans.  Be gentle in working with them.  Deer or an elk?type fencing is required at the requirements of the state you live in.  We advise an 8 foot high fencing.  Working areas should be of solid panels.  Working elk with the horse and cattle type panels can cause broken legs.  Elk are amazingly fast at striking out and kicking backwards.

     For vaccinations a 4-8 way Clostridium vaccine is advised yearly, especially if you feed grain.  We also recommend Leptospirosis, even though it is very rare in this area.  Anaplasmosis, bluetongue, E. coli, BVD and other killed vaccines may be needed in some area.  As with cattle, injections sites and muscle/meat blemishes need to be considered; within reason and safety for the rancher.  The neck is a preferred site.  Do not plan to vaccinate cervids when we test your herd, this will interfere with the tuberculosis test.  You can vaccinate the cervids when the veterinarian reads the TB test 72 hours later.

     In our area deworming 1?2x a year is adequate.  Periodic fecal exams for roundworms, cryptosporidiosis, coccidiosis, lungworms, tapeworms, etc. are advised.  Ivermectin and the other dewormers will only remove the roundworms and maybe the lungworms.  In some areas the meningeal worms can be a concern and cause brain problems, even death.  The external parasites of lice, mites and even occasionally grubs can be found.

     Elk are required to undergo periodic tests for brucellosis and tuberculosis, according to state regulations.  Travel to another state may require other tests, such as blue tongue and anaplasmosis.  Colorado elk are required to be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) if any member of the herd dies for any reason, even slaughter.  Call us if any 1 year old animal dies.  We prefer to collect brain samples within 24 hours.

     All new elk additions to the herd should be quarantined for 1 month.  Then place these new animals next to the herd you desire them to be with.  Always give the new groups enough room to be comfortable.  Too close of crowding of any species enhances fighting, medical problems, etc.  Bulls should not be placed with other new bulls during rutting.

     One bull per 20?30 cows is advised.  A younger bull should not be over utilized, and some older bulls are capable of handling 40?50 cows (which we do not advise).  If you use a clean up bull, then record the dates of changing of the bulls for genetic records.   Bulls do not mature till 4?5 year of age.  Cows should be bred no sooner than 450# or 75% of her mature weight; or usually about 1 1/2 to 2 years of age.  Like cattle, you must consider the genetic potential of the bull.  Velvet quality, antler weight, temperament or disposition, and body weight (or gain) should be considered in choosing a bull or cow for placement in the permanent herd; mentioned in decreasing order.  The rutting season is in the fall, from September till late November in this area.  Place the bull with the cows a month before rutting, to get him accustomed to his harem.  You can also leave the bull with the adult cows year round.  Fertility testing of bulls is possible, which requires a tranquilizer to perform the collection.  Rarely do the cows have trouble calving, in comparison to cattle or sheep.  If a cow is in mild labor over 4 hours, or hard labor over 45 minutes, a veterinary exam is indicated.  We do advise checking on all elk twice a day during this birthing period.  The calves are born later in the summer, usually starting in July.

     After the calf is born, we advise a vitamin A and antibiotic injections.  The navel should also have chlorhexidine or iodine applied.  To ear tag a calf, you should use a system to ensure so that you can visually sort a young heifer from a bull.  In cattle the left ear is advised for tagging the heifers, and the right ear for bulls.  Individual recording keeping of the animal, its parents and its body weight, temperament, etc. should start now.  Vaccinations do not start till 2 or more months of age, unless otherwise directed.  An animal does not have the ability to respond to a vaccine till 4?6 weeks of age, thus vaccination of newborns can do more harm than good (unless it is with antiserums).  At least 2 vaccinations should be given during the first year, then only once a year thereafter.  With care an elk can live to be 20 years old.

     The calves should be left with the cows till in the fall.  Weaning is usually at around 175?200#.  Ensure that the calf is eating a creep feed or hay before weaning; we prefer hay for all elk.  If you have an orphan, we advise goat milk as a replacer.  You can adapt a calf to suck on a live goat to reduce the labor cost with raising orphans; although constant monitoring twice a day is still advised.  These goats need to be tested for brucellosis, Johne’s disease, TB, etc. to keep up the accreditation of a TB or Brucellosis free herd.  Undiluted, canned evaporative milk can also be fed to orphan elk.       

     In essence treat elk the same as other livestock and herbivores, except be cautious with the feeding of grain.  We have many handouts regarding the general care and feeding of livestock.  Elk are ruminants, similar to cattle and sheep.  Bulls raised by hand are not advised to be in the normal reproduction herd, due to possible aggressiveness and/or imprinting on people.

     Elk are mainly raised for the velvet.  In the Pacific rim countries, this velvet is considered an aphrodisiac.   Routinely the antlers are cut at 60?75 days into velvet; this may vary with each individual animal.  There are a lot of criteria for cutting the velvet, and most are visually learned experiences.  Antlers may weigh out at 20?30 pounds per elk, and 7 pounds of velvet per antler is desired for Grade A.  Grading also considers calcification of the antler, bulbing at the royals, etc.

     If you have a healthy elk that is to be slaughtered we recommend that you call us first.  Saving plasma or serum from this elk may save the life of a newborn which has not ingested colostrum.  We can process this serum where you can freeze it for up to 3-5 years, and give orally to a newborn under 18 hours of age.  Any transfer or sale of livestock in Colorado requires a bill of sale, and a call to the brand inspector’s office.  All premises where livestock are kept are to be registered with the USDA;


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic