Business

At Antler Elk Ranch in Ely, elk are used to the fullest extent

Family owned business began operating in 2001

Two elk in a field at Antler Ridge Elk Ranch in Ely on Tuesday, Apr. 10, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Two elk in a field at Antler Ridge Elk Ranch in Ely on Tuesday, Apr. 10, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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ELY — At Antler Ridge Elk Ranch, off Rogers Grove Road east of Ely, Chris Thuerauf and his father Bob have discovered more than a few uses for the big animals they raise.

“We bought our first animals in March 2001,” Chris Thuerauf said. “We had gotten out of hogs and we wanted to continue raising livestock.

“There are multiple markets for elk. It’s not just a meat animal or a grazing animal. We can market their antlers several different ways. We can market the breeding stock and we can market the meat.”

Antler Ridge also sells to trophy ranches.

“If anything is butchered for us, we sell the leather from the hides. Elk have two ivory teeth, just like an elephant tusk. We pull those and sell them.”

And the bones of the elk? Those are sold for dog bones.

“These are raw bones and are very healthy,” he said. “They are cut and frozen. It’s not an overprocessed product.

“Most of the antlers are cut into pieces and sold as dog chews. Every antler that we get from our bulls each year is sold one way or another.”

Antler Ridge Elk Ranch is one of about 20 elk farms in the state, down from a one-time high point of about 160, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The farms reported a total of 957 head of elk in January.

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“When we got into this, the main way to move animals was as trophies or breeding stock,” Thuerauf said. “It was almost unheard of to butcher.

“There were some people doing it for themselves or a neighbor. It was not a normal practice.

“No packing plants were taking elk for meat.”

Thuerauf said the elk breeding industry was booming in the 1990s, when there was a strong Asian market for velvet antler as a food supplement and nutraceutical.

“Velvet antler is the whole antler before it calcifies,” he said. “It’s kind of a meaty substance with blood flowing through it. It was cut off at 65 days of growth and frozen. It usually went to China or Korea.

“There were people raising 100 bulls just to cut off their antlers. Then the buyers cut off the American suppliers cold turkey and the price dropped from about $100 a pound to as little as $5 a pound.”

Thuerauf said the buyers were able to get velvet antler cheaper from New Zealand and Russia, where elk bulls were tranquilized before their antlers were cut off.

“They also didn’t want the bulls to have their antlers because they were coming into town and destroying things,” he said. “They were making money and didn’t have to worry about the antlers again until the following year.”

When the velvet antler market declined, elk owners needed to shift to another market for their investment.

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“We started processing animals and selling red meat,” Thuerauf said. “We were hitting small-time markets — six or seven a week — and it just exploded.

“People want red meat, they want it very lean and they want meat that is healthy and tasty. It is very low in fat and cholesterol, and high in iron and protein.”

The Thueraufs sell their meat and other products directly to customers, at Dan and Debbie’s Creamery in Ely and each year at the Downtown Cedar Rapids Farmers Market in the spring and summer months.

“Everything is processed at Bud’s Custom Meats in Riverside,” Thuerauf said. “If a customer wants something out of the ordinary, they will cut it for us. We had a customer who would order rib-eyes with the bone in them, and Bud’s would prepare 20 of them.”

Chris’s wife, Emily, provides recipes for customers to use elk meat. She also educates them on the proper way to cook elk meat.

“You cannot cook elk the same way that you cook beef or pork,” she said. “The process is different.

“I add lard or olive oil to a pan if I am cooking it on a stove. It also cooks faster because it doesn’t have all the fat to heat up.

“If you cook it too long, you might as well chew on your shoe.”

Emily said elk can be substituted for beef in many recipes without a difference in taste.

“If I made sloppy joe’s with beef and elk and I didn’t tell you, you would not know which is which,” she said. “We have had body builders stop taking protein powder because they can get what they need eating elk steaks, and it costs less than the powder.”

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Chris said he eventually would like to expand his herd, but it has become increasingly harder to secure new animals because there are fewer ranches and fewer breeders. The elk farmers that went out of business sold their herds and they are not being replenished.

“When we started out, I could make one or two phone calls and get 30 animals,” he said. “Now, I might make 30 calls and be able to get one animal.

“We have the land that can be fenced to hold more animals. Finding them is another issue.”

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