North American Elk farmers are still developing the business of a consistent supply of quality meat products for the food and hospitality trade. Elk meat may be sold as “elk” or as “wapiti”. There is a distinct advantage to selling as “elk” or “wapiti” rather than generic “venison”, since the supply of elk is more limited, and the name venison is commonly associated either with the variable quality of hunter-killed wildlife or with imported red deer venison.
Most of our current knowledge of venison qualities is based on information from New Zealand regarding red deer, but most of the information is applicable also to farmed elk. Wapiti meat has one distinct advantage over New Zealand red deer venison or Cervena in its texture. Red deer venison and particularly the New Zealand product has a much higher iron content than North American wapiti. This may be desirable from a nutritional standpoint, but that high iron/hemoglobin content along with their practise of “wet-ageing’ in vacuum pacs tends to make venison taste coppery and feel like the liver. Wapiti tends to be more like beef.
Meat from farm-raised elk easily exceeds the traditional limitations of the feral or wild shot product. Quality control specifications regarding the age of the animal, potential yield, and product specification can be selected on-farm with health status and “fit to purpose” guaranteed. The animals can then be provided for processing on a “just in time” basis for a fresh chilled supply of truly exquisite products to chefs and upmarket retailers.
Farm-raised elk is “new style” food – naturally flavourful, lean and tender. Its nature and quality are consistent with a mild but distinct flavour. Wapiti fits in with the food trends emerging in North America, including relaxed eating styles and ethnic eating experiences. People are willing to experiment with new products and wapiti is ideally positioned to override the nutrition and health concerns that have led to a decline in traditional red meat consumption. (Figures 1 and 2).
Producers must ensure that if the market emphasis is on leanness and tenderness the animals put forward for slaughter must qualify. They should be young (ideally less than 30 months of age) and selected for rapid growth rate and superior muscle conformation. Younger animals display the most desirable carcass composition. Mature elk can be appreciably fatter than live weight guidelines recommend (Figure 3). Farmers with that prior knowledge can stream this type of animal into the processed chain for value-added products such as sausage, salami, smoked hams, and processed meats where some fat may be an advantage.
Suppliers of farmed elk meat are fortunate that their product naturally fits the optimum nutritional profile of currently recommended diets. But education is needed to change the perception of hunted venison as a tough, dry, gamey, and inconsistent product. Appreciation for farm-raised wapiti is something most consumers need education and coaxing to develop.
Successful elk farming doesn’t stop at the farm gate. Support and promotion of the product and its versatility, quality and excellence, are as much a part of elk raising as quality feeding and handling. It is important, however, to distinguish the farming process from the product and its marketing.
Nutrient comparisons (Table 1, page 263) emphasize the obvious features, i.e. low in fat, “bad” cholesterol and calories. Protein levels are comparable to other meats. Elk meat is uniquely rich in minerals, particularly iron and phosphorus which, in turn, account for its rich dark colouring.
This nutritional bonus can be a disadvantage in retail marketing where consumers are used to bright red coloured meat, contrasted by (often trimmed) white fat. Farm-raised elk are reared with absolutely no added growth hormones or steroids, since elk are naturally effective producers of meat, and artificial manipulations negatively affect velvet growth and reproductive performance.
Based on the results shown in Table 1 and, in comparison to other foods, we can make these precisely worded “Nutrient Content Claims”. Elk Meat is:
While its nutritional advantages make it potentially valuable in a health-conscious, “heart smart” dietary role, most farm-raised wapiti suppliers are currently marketing at top of the range prices to the culinary hospitality trade. This strategy involves professional chefs and food distributors promoting the product and educating consumers until the volume of supply can satisfy the demand of retail outlets where use and preparation methods are more variable.
Because of its market positioning and relative scarcity, buyers of elk expect a consistently high standard of supply and product that meets rigid specifications in terms of:
These standards aim to set the farm-raised product as a superior product, separate from the traditional consumer perception of wild-shot venison.
The product must meet the highest standards of:
The marketing and quality control programs currently in place for New Zealand produced venison provide the benchmark for farm-raised wapiti in North America. Premiums are available for local products because of their identification, freshness and relatively uncomplicated supply route.
Competitive pricing against New Zealand products is a controversial issue for North American producers, many of whom have established direct links from the farm, through local processing plants, to end-user. They find that their returns have been eroded by a wholesaler-distributor operation based on a more consistent supply of imported venison. The current small size of the North American industry creates difficulties in formulating an integrated marketing plan, but its smallness is also an advantage in developing tight and profitable relationships individually with a host of outlets not available to competing importers.
Suppliers and processors together can concentrate on value rather than volume by reducing the variability in seasonal supply, adding value through knowledge of local and ethnic eating trends, and producing variations to suit. They can capitalize on education and communication by retaining full association with the product and slowly developing new markets for increased volumes.
As demand builds, competition based on quality and consistency should increase and enhance producer returns rather than competition based on price, which has a negative effect on producer returns. Therefore, the market position from the outset must be at the top end and elk farming systems and products must continue to be able to support that position.
Traditional demands for venison and game meats are centred on Western European and Scandinavian markets. With the advent of large scale elk and deer farming, feral (wild-shot) venison is being replaced by higher quality, farmed origin product. However, the market is rapidly growing with greater availability of products, and the taste and nutritional attributes of farmed elk and venison are being promoted.
New markets are rapidly emerging. North America has now displaced Europe as the largest consumer of elk and venison in the world, and S.E. Asia is considered to offer the most potential for expansion. Appropriate pre and post-mortem health inspection at dedicated slaughter plants allow health requirements and meat inspection standards to be met universally while allowing for kosher and halal acceptance as well.
It is vital that the distinction between farmed elk and wild-shot venison is preserved, to add to the associated perceptions of enhanced quality and consistency in standards.
In emerging markets quality production and top-end market positioning are the targets. Age at slaughter, quality hygiene standards, and the ability to consistently supply products are important. With this approach elk farmers worldwide, irrespective of their stage of industry development, enjoy a growing and appreciative demand for their high quality and healthful meat products in the enviable position of undersupply. In the world marketing of agricultural production, this aspect alone is a unique feature of elk farming and a significant aspect of sustained profitability.
Production and Carcass Data
Carcass quality, yield, and return are dependent on the weight and age of slaughter. Growth rates and seasonal influences define specific carcass weight limits for age and are modified by genetics and management.
In males, optimum slaughter weight for age is reached at 27 months. This is the ideal endpoint for premium meat and the cost of production. Variation within a group and between genders plus quality feeding through the seasonal changes allow profitable harvest from 6 to 30 months of age with producers able to target a specific weight and use these variables to extend the season of supply over a greater period.
Yields and Quality
Elk and deer can yield significantly higher ratios of live weight to carcass weight, and meat to bone and fat compared with beef and they yield substantially more from the higher value parts of the carcass - the loin or saddle, and hindquarters.
Body confirmation is virtually the same for all breeds of elk and red deer, although New Zealand research has shown red/elk hybrids show appreciably higher yields for loin and hindquarters at an earlier weight for age.
Venison quality tests, when based on physical testing of tenderness, juiciness and colour, and supported by consumer perception show there is an appreciable decline in tenderness in males older than three years. There is also a significant undesirable darkening of meat from older bulls.
Females produce excellent meat even at an advanced age if their body condition is good and they have been in a weight gain phase before slaughter. Cows show no change in quality from 15 months to 15 years. For both males and females, over-conditioning results in significant fat deposition, which is unpalatable, undesirable, and wasteful.
Research has shown there is some value to be added in grading for age and fatness. Bulls up to 38 months of age show no change in tenderness, colour, and texture but toughness and strength of flavour increase beyond that age.
Cows show highly acceptable quality at all ages if they have gone through a period of weight gain, although they are prone to over fatness.
Adult bulls are noticeable to grossly fat from the time of velvet harvest until the rut when behavioural characteristics and rapid changes in body composition make them unsuitable for quality meat production. The ideal slaughter period is from January to July, after recovery post-rut and as well they may be more appropriate for use in further processed products.
Trials on castration in red and hybrid stags and elk bulls have shown few advantages except that of modifying temperament during the rut. Growth rates are appreciably slower in castrated animals with loss of velvet antler production and fat content may reach unacceptable levels even at an early age.
Producing the Finest Farm Raised Elk Meat
European markets for venison and other cervid meats have traditionally been strong and sophisticated. Germany alone annually consumes hundreds of thousands of tonnes of meat from various breeds of deer. New Zealand has created a very efficient system combining wild harvest, farm production, processing, and transport to serve those European markets as well as developing markets in Asia and North America. In fact, the USA is now the largest single market for elk and venison in the world. Hunters have provided limited opportunities to sample wild-harvested elk meat, but these have not always provided the best quality product. This background has provided the challenge for elk farmers to learn how to raise and market the finest farm-raised elk meat.
Through experience and much transfer of knowledge from New Zealand and elsewhere elk producers are developing the required expertise, genetics, processing and marketing systems. Elk is a medium textured, rich tasting and tender meat that has very little intramuscular fat (marbling). In elk, fat is deposited outside of and around the muscle tissue allowing easy trimming and removal. Here’s some of what those producers have learned:
It is better, if the elk is somewhat down in condition at the start of the feeding period, to maximize the deposition of new tissue during the weight gain period. This type of management can make elk cows tender and tasty at any time of year, although they are naturally more likely to put on weight from June through to December. Top-quality meat can be produced from cows up to about eight years of age; much older than for most other types of livestock. Bulls naturally put on weight from late winter until the rut starts in September. After that date, they become very focused on concerns other than food and begin rapidly losing weight. Consequently, the best time period for processing bulls is in late spring and summer, a more narrow time period than for females. The optimum age for processing bulls is also more restricted. Generally, they must be two to six years of age to yield prime meat.
The best method of stunning has proven to be a captive bolt gun on the end of a handle (like an axe handle) about 3 feet long with a trigger at the handle end. These render the elk unconscious with a minimum of fuss and distress.