Supplying a Hunt Ranch With Elk
Most hunting ranches or wildlife estates have a production farm attached that grows bulls and surplus cows for harvest but very few produce all they need. That need creates opportunities for elk producers to raise and sell bulls. Creating a long term stable relationship with one or more hunt ranches is the best strategy to develop. You learn what the operator and his clients are looking for which, of course, will vary somewhat, but usually there will be some predictability and stability in what they prefer. Looking at the images in this chapter, you can see the wide variation in antler confirmation and type. That gives the producer a wide range of options, but the one option that cannot be ignored is good management! Follow this guide:
Optimizing Elk Antler Production
Efficient antler production is not something that just happens in spring each year. It is a potential that is developed and maintained in elk bulls, starting with their genetic makeup and established during their years of growing into productive bulls. Concentrate on “developing” your bull calves – every day of their early lives!
1. Get cows bred early so that calves are born early. Calves born in May make much better use of summer pastures than July calves. Early calves wean more easily than their later-born siblings. Feed your cows free choice elk mineral (or use horse formulations, but not sheep or cattle) all winter, along with mixed grass/legume hay testing 10 to 14% crude protein on a dry matter basis.
2. Sort bred cows into calving groups based on their age (year of birth) in April. Fifteen to twenty cows per pasture if possible. Apply fly tags and pour-on Cydectin or Dectomax, and booster vaccinations. Calve in clean pastures with some shelter available – small patches of aspen trees are ideal.
3. Reduce stress in calving groups by stocking pregnant cows @ 2 acres/cow. Summer graze at a stocking density minimum of 1 acre per cow/calf pair, depending on pasture production. Rotate pastures when the grass is two inches high, graze new pastures at ten to twelve inches high - about every 14 to 30 days.
4. Produce high-performance pastures - in the Parkland area of western Canada, seed 5 lbs Fleet Meadow Brome + 3 lbs Kay or Okay Orchard grass + 3 lbs deep-rooted alfalfa (Algonquin is a good choice) + 3 lbs creeping rooted alfalfa (such as Heinrichs or Spredor) + 2 lbs alsike clover per acre. Fertilize 40 lbs N + 15 lbs P + 10 lbs K + 5 lbs of copper sulphate per acre. Keep pasture growing by clipping, grazing or mowing - No seed heads!
5. Flush elk cows prior to breeding- feed 3 lbs per head per day of 25% rolled peas and 75% barley with elk mineral in a minimum of 4 feet of bunk space per cow. Calves learn to eat supplements alongside their mothers.
6. Wean calves before the rut - between September 4th and 14th. August is too early. Separate bull calves from heifer calves at weaning, and pasture separately. Try to leave the social groups the same. Put a babysitter or two (healthy, old and quiet or bottle-fed cows) in with each calf group to supply some brainpower.
7. Feed calves 4 lbs per calf per day of 17% CP DM calf ration (oats & peas) along with 15 to 17% CP DM grass/alfalfa hay or lush pasture. Grow your calves, don’t fatten them! Feed grain in bunks off the ground to avoid parasite infections. Deworm with pour-on ivermectin and vaccinate with 8-way clostridia vaccine at weaning and vaccinate again in mid - October.
8. Weigh your calves every time you handle them. Weigh and treat for parasites again in late December - use Eprinex or Dectomax this time. Calves should weigh from 300 to 400 pounds at this weigh-in, having averaged 1 lb/day average daily gain since weaning. At this time reduce supplement to 1 - 2 lbs/head/day, and reduce CP levels to 10-14% CP DM.
9. Place a grumpy old herd bull (antlers cut off) in with your bull calves. He will round them up and boss them around and virtually eliminate pecking order arguments. This seems to suppress the endocrinological (hormonal) cycle and delays pedicle and antler growth. The best antler is always grown on green grass.
10. Pasture spiker bulls separately. If pastures lack quality or quantity, feed adequate supplements (as you would in winter) to ensure continued growth and healthy pedicle and antler development. Fly tag in early May. Remove hard spikes in August before the rut. Separate from all breeding activity unless you want to risk using an exceptionally well-developed spiker on a few females.
Give your rising two-year-old bulls the very best care and attention!
- Boost feed supplement beginning in March and continue right through summer and the rut. Feed spikers 5 lbs/head/day of 14-16% CP DM calf ration in bunks with 6 ft of space/ elk.
- Ensure spikers recover body condition post-rut by feeding 7 lbs/head/day of 14% CP DM ration (oats/peas/mineral ration) with six feet of bunk space each and free choice grass/ alfalfa (green and leafy) hay testing 14 to 16% CP DM.
- Give all your bulls a Christmas vacation! Managing as described above should put your rising twos in fine condition by Christmas. Then work with their seasonal cycle of reduced appetite and intake during the winter. Continue to provide green and leafy hay, mostly grass, and reduce supplement to a couple of pounds per head per day until about March 21.
- Boost the feed again in mid-March, slowly increasing the oats/peas/corn/barley/mineral ration (at 12 to 14% CP DM) to a maximum of 10 lbs/head/day by early April. Feed more than once per day if you can afford the time.
- Monitor high energy ration feeding by observing manure consistency and hoof growth. Manure should remain lumpy, not loose. If bulls become lame, hooves appear to be growing too long, or manure becomes loose, back off on the energy. High energy rations are not dangerous if they are introduced or increased slowly.
- Keep protein levels lower. Balanced antler growth rations should not exceed 16% CP DM, including forage. Excess protein is excreted in urine resulting in burns to the penis sheath or vulva.
- Record, record, record! Note button drop dates, calculate approximate cutting dates, carry those with you as you observe antler growth and record notes as the optimum date is decided. After harvest, tag antlers, record weights, “dry-down” amount, and any other comments you might have regarding conformation or any comments you hear from the antler buyers. Use those records to cull, cull, cull. We need to eat and sell elk meat, and that is where your poorer producing animals must go. Production at an early age is a very good indication of production in later years.
- Select the hard antler candidates by tine length or grow them out and compare. If a bull is well below average for both velvet and trophy production the choice to eat him should be easy.
- Maximizing antler production means maximizing voluntary feed intake. As bulls continue ageing the secret to success stays the same - Excellent management! As an excellent manager, you must balance the goal of optimum antler production with costs, profits and the health and longevity of your elk.
- Continuously improve your genetics. With excellent management in place, your primary limiting factor will be the genetics in both your bull and cowherds. Given the rate at which productivity is increasing in elk farming, you should have very few older animals in your herd. Yes, keep a few “supercows” who consistently give you the best offspring, but consider that those offspring should be even better than the super momma. Read current publications, attend conventions, competitions and other learning opportunities, travel widely and keep up with the best new genetic combinations and production techniques. Never stop learning and improving!
Your goal should be to produce a harvestable animal in as little time as possible. Many producers now have their bulls scoring 400 inches by 4 years of age, consistently, with the top end at 400 + by 2 years of age. This offers three major advantages:
- Your costs to produce revenue are significantly reduced.
- Your herd stays genetically and reproductively young. You are always improving production and performance and consequently working with your best.
- You maximize avoidance of CWD, which has a long incubation period before problems arise.
Total inches are not the only characteristic hunters are looking for in a trophy rack. Their ideal may be a completely “typical” rack, like the 7 x 7 below:
Or they may have a budget, and the highest amount they wish to spend gives them a fine wall mount: (Figure 6 below). The best selling packages currently include a bull that scores between 360 and 400 inches, selling for $6000 to 15,000 all-inclusive.
Management of Males in Hard Antler
Managing bulls in hard antler is not difficult, especially if the group is a stable cohort of similar age that came through the velvet growth and hardening season together.
When a producer decides to market trophy elk, the choice may be to not velvet all their top bulls in order to see full hard antler capability as the ultimate expression of their genetic potential, or for viewing pleasure and promotional work. Actually seeing and measuring what they produce is important in assessing the right asking price and to give you a story to tell.
As the velvet skin covering shreds, elk need suitable material (trees, shrubs, etc.) or rubbing posts to clean and colour their antlers. Promotional photography works best at this stage and if the bull is not going to be sold for harvest this year then the hard antler can be removed prior to the rut.
If antler is to be carried through the rut it is advisable to separate bulls into their breeding groups well in advance. Never mix antlered and non-antlered animals at any time. It is a mistake to introduce a new individual into a stable social group. Despite apparent paddock quietness, the farmer must treat antlered bulls with great respect and caution during the breeding season as their character can change on a whim and there is potential for an accident or worse at any time.
The cutting of hard antler requires more caution than with velvet antler removal simply because the bull is more aggressive and the activities of roundup and handling magnify that aggression, particularly in the company of other animals. The head restraint is crucial and once mineralization is complete the antler takes time and effort to cut. While there is no significant pain sensation the buildup of heat in the bone during cutting may cause discomfort and mild tranquillizing is appropriate.
Antlered spikers, animals with post velveting regrowth of small spikes, or partially formed antlers should have these removed as soon as they are stripped and before any transport. The stress and proximity of others in close quarters invariably create fighting, damage, and often death from punctures.
As the rut approaches a choice must be made. If animals are to be sold and transported in hard antler they should be moved just prior to antler stripping, in properly designed trailers with one per pen with plenty of headroom and loading width. The antler tips must be formed and hardened, or damage may result.
Figure 10 shows the interior of a trailer specifically designed for hauling bulls. Note these desirable features in a trailer:
- Height – at least eight feet tall
- Roof is reinforced and smooth to protect both antlers and trailer top
- Width is at least 7.5 feet, better at 8 feet
- Fenders are sloped and made with no sharp corners
- All bolts and hinges are round head, no sharp projections
- Several separate compartments
- Doors are full width to avoid trap corners
- Overhead “ram” air vents, one per compartment for good airflow
- Vent slots high up on the sidewalls.
- Rear door must be a heavy slider, not a roll-up
- “Piano” hinges and double locks on every door.
Before you start hauling any bulls, talk to an experienced transporter, and ensure the trailer you use is adequate for safe, humane use.