Herald Journal Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, April 1, 2002

Hartkopf family earns honor for raising elk

By Lynda Jensen

They're good natured, hardy, and love Minnesota winters.

Who or what could this be? Try elk.

Nearly 95 of the sweet-natured beasts are being raised three miles south of Howard Lake by the Lance and Brenda Hartkopf family.

The Hartkopfs recently earned the Farm Family of the Year distinction given by the University of Minnesota for alternative farming related to elk.

The Hartkopfs were described as being "innovative and committed to farming," by the university. "They stand out from the crowd . . . because of their creative farming techniques."

The nature of elk

The difference between elk and other farm animals is apparent even from the road side, with the eight-foot fence that encircles the Hartkopf 34-acre property.

By nature, elk require little maintenance, and spend their time grazing with a supplement of oats and feed.

Elk consume about one third of a regular beef cow, Lance said.

The manure is also relatively minimal in comparison to cows, he said. As a result, there is little build-up of waste, he said.

"They're a very efficient animal," he said. "What they do eat, they use."

When elk give birth, they usually do not require very much help, he said. Veterinarian calls are generally few and far between, he said.

The Hartkopfs use artificial insemination, combined with natural breeding.

The few times each year that they are rounded up, either to administer shots or be de-horned, the elk are funneled through a slide and swing gate system.

No cattle prods are needed, even though the animals outweigh the Hartkopfs each by several hundred pounds.

Instead of a zoo during round up, the atmosphere is quiet and mild, he said.

A hydraulic lift is used to lift the animal off its feet, temporarily disabling it, until its horns are removed. There is no injury to the animal when this occurs, Lance said.

The only time animals are ornery is during the fall rut, he said.

Maintenance wise, elk are susceptible to most diseases that affect cows, Lance said. Some diseases include tuberculosis, which the Hartkopfs voluntarily test regularly for the state department.

Elk enjoy the Minnesota winters, although the summer heat is hard on them, Brenda said.

The Hartkopfs do not own or need a lot of equipment.

Marketing velvet

What do the Hartkopfs harvest from elk?

The answer is the antlers, although it is not related to aphrodisiac supplements, like many Americans may believe.

The interior of the antlers is valuable as a medicinal supplement for arthritis and other ailments.

This is a method followed by the Chinese for nearly 2000 years, and is enjoying a surge of popularity in the United States, stimulated by healthier trends.

Its exact effects are being tested, although there is a claim allowed by the Food and Drug Administration that denotes velvet antler as providing nutritional support for joint structure and function.

Other benefits claimed:

· arthritis and other inflammatory disorders

· immune system benefits

· increases energy, stamina

· inhibiting the aging process

Antlers are harvested before they grow full size. Harvest is during a period of growth when the antlers are covered with soft fuzzy skin, called velvet. This is actually where the term "velvet" was coined, Lance said.

Taking off antlers is not like de-horning a cow, where the horn is removed all the way to the skull, he said. Elk antlers are removed a few inches from the base, leaving a base called a button.

The animals would lose their antlers naturally every year, anyway.

Antlers are a renewable resource, and grow back every year at a fantastic rate.

The growing season for velvet lasts about 60 to 75 days. "In that amount of time, a male bull may product up to 50 pounds of antler," Brenda said. "Velvet antler is one of the fastest growing living tissues in the world," she said.

Once the antler is removed, it is frozen, taken to the processor, analyzed at a laboratory, encapsulated, and ultimately package for the consumer as a nutritional supplement.

There are four markets for elk:

· breeding stock

· antlers

· hunter preserve bulls, of which the domesticated variety is larger than the wild

· and the meat market

Elk offer red meat that contains much less fat than cows, because it lacks the marbling of beef.

Since domesticated elk are raised mostly on grass and hay, which is seasonally supplemented with grain, predominantly oats, it creates very lean tissue.

Then and now

The Hartkopfs hail from dairy farming backgrounds, and originally heard about elk farms on WCCO radio, Brenda said.

On the broadcast, they heard that elk antlers brought in $100 per pound (which is different today) an gave it a lot of thought, she said.

The Hartkopfs are heavily involved in the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association. Its web site is www.mneba.org.

There are 13,000 elk being raised in Minnesota on approximately 270 farms.

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