Documentation of domesticated elk in North America dates back to the mid-1800’s, with Oregon and Montana recording specifics of those who bred and raised elk behind fence. These writings include information on the farmers, the husbandry and the source of these elk. Many of the elk farmed between 1892 and 1967 were wapiti relocated from Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. In the early 1900’s, interest in raising elk expanded form those attracted by hobby farming to those serious about domesticating elk as an alternative agriculture. During this same time, USDA published a Farmer’s Bulletin indicating correspondence with 16 elk producers in 14 states and recording management plans for wapiti. The author noted farming elk was a promising field for breeding for profit.
North American elk, otherwise known by their Shawnee Indian name as wapiti, are considered by some taxonomists to be the same species as red deer. Their height reaches four to six feet, with antlers often towering a full five feet above. These are the largest and longest of all cervid antlers, exhibiting fewer points than red deer, but thicker and longer antlers with a throwback appearance during late velvet growth.
A bull elk will weigh 700 to 1100, while females reach only 500 to 700 pounds the term wapiti is derived from the Indian name for the large white rump patch distinctive to this group.
Elk sport a light tan coat in the summer, with the legs, head and mane region a deep chocolate brown. Their coat grows darker with grey covering the lower part of the body.
Elk are intermediate browsers so they eat twigs and tree branches. In the wild they will feed on aspen treebark for its high copper content. Grasses and legumes will be sufficient during the summer months, but a pasture quality decreases quality hay and supplemental feeding may be necessary.
Elk need twice as many calories in the summer as they do the winter to achieve the best velvet weights and calving percentages. Be aware though that a diet consisting of only grain will be harmful to elk, causing bloating and foundering, and possibly death.
Elk are hardy animals and disease resistant. Those diseases that do affect elk are much like those found in cattle. A program to control parasites and disease is a necessity.
The parasites that will most affect your herd are worms, lice, ticks and liver flukes. Tests for elk currently include tuberculosis, brucellosis, anaplasmosis, and bluetongue. A typical test required for interstate movement is called a “4-way test”, and includes anaplasmosis and bluetongue. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is also a concern for elk; although there is no live animal test yet, obtaining a signed CWD-free herd statement when purchasing elk will help to guard against this disease in your herd.
Elk can crossbreed with sika and red deer. Breeding begins in September and can last into February or March if the hinds do not conceive. Most 18-month-old cows are capable of breeding if they are at least 430 pounds.
After 247 days or just over 8 months of gestation, cows will give birth, usually to a single calf. They are spotted at birth, and then lose these spots after three months.
Like all cervid males, elk become aggressive during the rut. Their belligerence has destroyed fences and harmed many people, so it is important to be cautious.
Bulls are capable of breeding at two years of age, but should be three years old for best success. Elk become quite vocal during this time, and their calling, or bugling, can be heard at long distances. Males will herd together a harem of several cows for breeding, running off younger, smaller bulls. Bulls can service 20 to 40 cows.