North Dakota Elk Growers
American Elk Product Foundation

The Status of the Elk Meat Industry in North America

As noted in Ian Thorleifson's 1998 article, "History of Elk Farming in North America," the past 20 years have seen a dramatic pace of development in the elk farming industry in North America. Before the 1970s, there were very few commercial elk farms in operation. The rapid growth was spurred by contact with Asian buyers of velvet and other products and by the knowledge of the success of cervid farmers around the world, particularly that of New Zealand farmers in raising red deer.

The success of New Zealand and its Game Industry Board in marketing its red deer and elk/red deer hybrid products around the world has been a model for the United States. Elk breeders hope to duplicate New Zealand's growth in the meat industry, for example. According to the New Zealand Game Industry Board's 1998 annual report, almost 900 tonnes of venison were exported to the United States, at a New Zealand value of almost $18 million. Industry insiders see this as an indication that the market is there, awaiting the growth in numbers of elk that will support a thriving meat industry.

Venison consumption in the United States has more than doubled since 1992. Unfortunately, U.S. producers of elk are not the principal suppliers; New Zealand supplies about 80% of the venison consumed. But by making the assumption that venison can capture up to 3.5% of the beef market, it is estimated that potential future growth in domestic U.S. venison consumption may reach as much as 8 times its present level (Michigan Captive Cervid White Paper, 1999). There is room for the projected U.S. supply of venison in such a market.

Although there appears to be a healthy demand for the product, lack of a consistent supply large enough to satisfy that demand has hindered development of the meat market. A brochure published by NAEBA in 1996 said that the industry needed to increase numbers to over 150,000 to support a meat market. If that is true, we now have the supply needed because current estimates are over 153,000. NAEBA's conservative estimate is that over 100,000 domestic elk are farmed or ranched in the United States. The last numbers from Canada indicate that over 53,000 elk are farmed there. It is expected that these numbers will increase by at least 15 to 20% each year.

However, it will probably be a few years before the elk population and marketing and processing arrangements have reached the necessary levels to consistently satisfy demand on a continent-wide basis. That has not stopped individual producers from achieving high profit margins in specialty markets. Elk is being sold to wholesalers as a farmgate product, by mail order, or into specialty markets such as gourmet restaurants, delicatessens, and health food stores. Producers market prime cuts and specialty products such as snack sticks and jerky in their gift shops and catalogues and on their Web sites. Furthermore, some states, provinces and regions have worked to set up channels for the processing and marketing of elk meat. The Alberta Elk Association, for example, is assisting the Northern Alberta Elk Meat and By-Product Marketing Group with a feasibility study and meat market development. The American Elk Products Board (AEPB) is laying the groundwork for the industry in the United States. The AEPB has formulated guidelines for raising meat animals and has spearheaded the implementation of USDA cutting standards. Distribution channels are being cultivated, and processing locations are being identified.

As the population of domestic elk continues to expand in the United States, along with the inevitable need for producers to market bulls not suitable for the trophy or velvet market, the day is dawning when the projected supply of elk meat will be able to meet the demand. The preliminary steps initiated by the AEPB and other organizations will ease the transition into a profitable meat market.

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