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:
- Regardless of age or gender the best animals to process for meat are animals that have recently gone through a rapid growth phase - an improvement in body condition with an increase in body fat. With that fact in mind, a producer can calculate which elk would be best at various times of the year. If any elk is "put on feed", which does not necessarily mean straight grain, but involves feeding adequate quantities and quality of highly palatable and digestible food for a month or two, it will be a prime candidate for meat.
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.
- Young elk gain weight rapidly until they are at least eighteen months old if feed and management are good. Anytime up to that age is perfect but calves under a year of age are very tender, mild in flavour, and quite veal-like which is a very desirable product for some consumers, but not flavourful enough for others. In order to successfully market them to the restaurant trade, they must be processed using a “venison” style of cuts, which is different from the North American “steak” style of cutting. Calves are also more nervous and flightier and must be handled very carefully or they can have a high incidence of blood splash (small hemorrhages) in the muscles after slaughter.
- Much has been made of the stress that precedes processing and its impact on meat quality. There is no doubt that the less stress, the better, but the key to minimizing negative impacts on meat quality is excellent management, including optimum body condition and calm, quiet, and efficient handling.
- The animals going for processing should be sorted into one group at least a week before the processing date so that they are pre-socialized and not fighting for dominance during loading and transportation.
- Time in the trailer and holding area is minimized. There is absolutely no benefit to meat quality from an overnight stand in holding pens or standing in a trailer or pens waiting to move to the knocking area.
- Animals are never overcrowded during hauling. If elk are loaded to the point that they feel “packed in" and cannot stand comfortably they mill and jostle around in the trailer which increases their stress levels. One tell-tale sign that they were overcrowded is that they have rub or raw patches on their rumps on each side of the tail.
- Processing plants are designed to have adequate facilities for unloading elk and handling them so that they are not further stressed or "on the fight" prior to processing.
- Plant employees must be familiar with and able to handle elk properly without any roughness, to reduce stress and bruising.
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.
- The rate of cooling applied to the carcass significantly affects tenderness. Problems have been identified with the meat industry standard which is to use blast chilling (cold air) to reduce carcass temperatures to close to 10C as soon as possible. This causes “cold shortening” of the muscle fibres and reduces tenderness.
- The optimal cooling method is to hold hanging carcasses at 60C for 24 hours and then lower it to normal cooler temperatures.
- If a processor chooses to age elk meat longer than 72 hours, that ageing of lean carcasses such as elk is best done in heavy-duty vacuum packaged bags. This approach will overcome some of the negative impacts on tenderness mentioned above, however, there is a risk of developing the “coppery” flavour noted previously. Elk is optimally aged in primal cuts in such bags between 10 and 14 days at normal cooler temperatures. As a carcass, it is hard to go much past 7 days in the cooler without unacceptable moisture loss and loss of carcass weight.