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Emus and ostriches and elk, oh my

Unusual livestock give district farmers new markets and profits.

September 1, 2001


Emus and ostriches and elk, oh my

When one drives through the rural Midwest, it's commonplace to see cows, sheep or pigs, without causing a gawker slowdown. Yet when passersby see a llama or ostrich trotting along a fence, it may be reason enough to pull over and even capture the rare occurrence on film. However, if alternative livestock farms and their markets continue to grow, these incidents won't be so unusual, and neither will finding a wider array of products at butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants.

In the Ninth District, novice and experienced farmers are developing niche markets for alternative livestock such as emu, ostrich, llama and elk. In addition to meat, some animal byproducts, for example oils and antler velvet, provide ranchers additional revenue sources.

Oh, give me a home

The alternative livestock market in the district got its start with buffalo. Prior to roaming into the buffalo business, Francisco Knopik, owner of Whispering Spirit Meat in Manning, N.D., was a hog farmer for 25 years. After he experienced the ups and downs of the hog market, he opted to raise buffalo in 1992. His original goal for this year was to sell 50 of his 85 head of buffalo, and he now expects to surpass that goal. "The market for our product is increasing all the time," Knopik said.

Gail Griffin, executive director of the Minnesota Buffalo Association has raised buffalo for 11 years. She switched from raising cattle because buffalo require less time, and the buffalo market, "is an American market so there is much more control in pricing and we're not competing with imports."

The Minnesota association has about 125 members, and as of October 2000, the state had about 8,000 buffalo, said Griffin, who owns 40 of the large, hairy creatures. The average price for a calf is about $300, and Griffin predicts prices will go up next spring. "Meat sales are growing rapidly, and I see that continuing. ... The Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the strongest as far as developing new markets."

Big bird

Not all members of the alternative livestock niche have four legs. Birds are big business for Audry Watson of Lake City, Minn., who has raised emus for five years. Watson and her husband both have other jobs but hope to make emu ranching their main business in another five years, if the market stabilizes. They sell mainly to individuals in Minnesota, although many breeders have been shipping overseas because of this year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The Watsons market oil, meat and eggs from the five-foot, 150-pound birds. Ground meat sells wholesale for about $3 per pound, and steaks $5 to $13 per pound depending on the cut. One emu averages 30 to 40 pounds of meat, and birds must be 15 months old before they're butchered.

In addition to emu meat, Watson sells the oil to a distributor who supplies manufacturers of shampoos, lotions and pet products. "Emu oil is a very good emollient, most like the oils in human skin, and pure emu oil has anti-inflammatory properties," Watson said.

The ostrich is another flightless bird gaining popularity, but has had some growing pains as an industry. From 1996 to 1999 U.S. farmers produced in excess of the market demand. As a result, the number of Midwest ostrich farmers declined from 1,000 to about 150 currently, according to Charlie Sheets, marketing director for the Ostrich Producers Co-op of the Midwest, which includes the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Improved marketing efforts turned demand around, however, Sheets said. "We could [sell] five times what we're doing now with our existing producers. ... But people are skittish about raising too many birds at one time."

Because farmers have intentionally held back on production, a pent-up demand for ostrich products has grown, Sheets said. The co-op's research indicates there is a market for roughly 450,000 birds a year in the United States, with the Midwest alone at about 100,000 to 150,000 birds. Minnesota and Wisconsin are the biggest ostrich-producing states in the region, with about 250 ostriches coming out of Minnesota and 200 from Wisconsin. The Dakotas each produce fewer than 100 birds each year.

Currently, the biggest market for ostriches is Taiwan, which buys 2,200 Midwest ostriches a year, followed by US restaurants. "We educated the chefs in the restaurants about the product six years ago, and they're really promoting it," said Sheets. "If I could get my hands on an extra piece of ostrich meat to sell at a restaurant, I would have it sold in five minutes." The average price of a 12- to 14-month-old ostrich is about $200.

Dan Thorpe, an ostrich farmer in Kandiyohi, Minn., has 50 birds and sells the meat, skins, eggs and feathers. He earns the most from the meat and hides, which are used for boots, belts, hats and handbags. In 1997, the ostrich market crashed and hides were worth $50 or less; they now go for $150 to $200 each.

Although the industry is growing, Thorpe is not ready to rely solely on raising ostriches to support his family. He continues to work two days a week at the post office, and his wife is a teacher. He said the market is currently stable, and he expects prices for hides to remain stable and meat prices to rise. Average price for ground meat is $3 per pound, $10 per pound for steaks and $5 for roasts. He sells to grocery stores, a national food co-op, restaurants and individuals.

Specialty exotics

Not all exotics are raised with butchering in mind. Some are raised for the circus, others for movies and a few purely for recreation.

Norris Berg, president of Llamas of Minnesota, sells about 25 llamas each year for $350 to $7,000, depending on the animal's quality. Raising llamas is not his full-time job—he said he'd have to get more animals to be a full-time llama rancher. Berg estimated there are about 250 llama farms each in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and he sells to clients in surrounding states. "The market is down [from] 10 years ago, but it is down to where people can afford them," he said.

Meanwhile, Dave and Carla Knecht of Bowdle, S.D., have 10 llamas they use for hiking trips. "I've seen female llamas sell for $200 to $20,000, depending on the blood line and the wool quality," he said. The Knechts are slowly getting out of the llama business because "the llama market is like the stock market. I haven't been able to figure it out," he said.

Instead, the Knechts, who operate Tip Top Exotics, are focusing on camels and reindeer. Knecht said their Bactrian (double-hump) camels are the biggest moneymakers for the couple, who began raising them five years ago. Fair market price for an adult female is $1,400, about $14,000 for a baby female and $5,000 for a baby male. "They're so expensive because they are so rare," said Knecht about the camels native to China. They currently own eight females and two males, and sell to zoos, circuses, rodeos and individuals—their biggest clients.

The Knechts began breeding reindeer a year and a half-ago as an experiment and now own four males and four females. On average, calves sell for between $2,000 and $2,500.

Elk—the other venison

Minnesota has the largest elk industry in the United States, according to a survey released by the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service in July, with approximately 11,000 elk and 264 elk farmers in the state. In Minnesota, the $26.6 million industry is relatively new, with nearly 71 percent of farmers beginning to raise elk within the past seven years, the survey said.

The North American Elk Breeders Association estimates there are 150,000 to 160,000 elk farmed in North America. Association records indicate there are more than 191 elk farms in Wisconsin with an estimated 4,050 elk. As of June, South Dakota had approximately 80 elk rancher members of the state's Elk Breeders Association, owning 2,250 animals.

Brenda Hartkopf, executive secretary of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, said elk farming started in the 1970s in the United States and came to Minnesota in the late '80s. Hartkopf and her husband got in the business in 1993 and currently have 120 elk, with plans to add another 32 next summer. The Hartkopfs sell elk to people breaking into the industry and to breeders looking for a new bloodline and, starting this year, they plan to sell elk meat. Raising elk is relatively inexpensive at about $1 a day, she said.

A byproduct of the elk is antler velvet, which the animals produce annually. Its price has fluctuated wildly from $12 a pound to $120 a pound over the past 20 years and is currently at $30 per pound. Velvet is harvested in the late spring and early summer, and a bull produces an average of 20 pounds of velvet annually. The velvet used to go to Asian markets but the economic hiccup in Korea affected velvet prices, said Hartkopf. "It is a blessing for North American velvet growers that the Korean market did fall, so we can try to create a demand for a market here," she said.

Hartkopf's elk velvet is processed in Canada and sold to General Nutrition Center stores. It is used in a supplement called natroflex, which is 100 percent elk antler used for treating osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, hard antlers are sold for decorative uses at $10 a pound, Hartkopf said.


Alternative livestock farming faces some unique challenges. In a ballot measure last November, citizens in Montana voted in favor of Initiative 143, banning ranchers from conducting fee shooting (also known as canned hunts or harvest operations) in which a hunter pays to shoot a captive animal. The initiative also put a moratorium on new permits for alternative livestock farms within the state. Current alternative livestock owners cannot pass their livestock on to others, even after death. The initiative includes all cloved and hoofed ungulates, such as deer, big horned sheep, mountain goats, moose and the most controversial animal, elk. Buffalo are not included. Although existing ranchers can still sell elk meat and velvet, alternative livestock owners are filing suit against the new law citing it as unconstitutional.

As in all political issues, there are supporters and naysayers. This initiative is no exception. Strong supporters include the Montana Wildlife Federation and individuals like Gary Holmquist, chairman of Sportmen of I-143, who says the initiative was developed because of disease issues, like chronic wasting disease (CWD), and unethical hunting.

Those against the initiative, such as Montana attorney and elk rancher Mark Taylor, argue that not enough research has been done to conclude that CWD is a problem among elk farms. He also argues that fee shooting added about $3 million in spending to the state. Taylor is among those filing the above-mentioned lawsuit.

Montanans are not the only ones affected by the law. Kelly Pepple, board member of the North American Elk Breeders Association, who makes three times as much money raising elk compared to beef cattle, said, "I-143 dramatically affects the elk industry in Minnesota. It reduces the market."

Neighboring states have varied opinions about whether I-143 could become the law of the land. Wayne Edgerton, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources agriculture liaison said, "Of course it could happen. ... We're very concerned about CWD." Currently, fee shooting is not allowed in Minnesota.

Other states are tracking the Montana law. South Dakota State Veterinarian Tom Cline said elk producers there need to be worried about I-143. "There's always a possibility that a similar proposal could come to South Dakota," he said.

Larry Schuler, North Dakota state veterinarian, said he doesn't believe an I-143 will happen in his state, pointing out that the state Legislature defined elk as a domesticated animal two years ago. In Wisconsin, where canned hunting for white-tailed deer and game birds is legal, State Assistant Veterinarian Robert Ehlenfeldt said he did not anticipate such a bill on the immediate horizon.

Despite the controversy surrounding raising elk, the bulk of the alternative livestock industry continues to charge, rear and peck onward toward broadening their markets.

New sights in the Ninth District

Imported from its country of origin, Australia, into the United States from 1930 to 1950, the emu is the world's second largest bird. Only 10 inches tall at birth, the adult emu stands 5 to 6 feet tall and weighs up to 150 pounds. Adults have brown and black feathers—some with a bluish neck. They live to about 30 years and can run up to 40 miles per hour.

Elk is a large species of the deer family. Calves weigh between 30 and 40 pounds at birth, while mature bulls weigh from 800 to 1,000 pounds and cows 600 to 800 pounds. On average most cows will have their first calf at age 3. Cows and bulls reach physical maturity at 4 to 5 years.


Bactrian Camel
The Bactrian camel has two humps, Native to the Gobi Desert in Asia, it is now domesticated around the world. Camels are adapted to desert life—nostrils that close; few sweat glands to prevent water loss; double eyelashes to protect their eyes from blowing sand; and broad, flat feet for walking on sand. A fully loaded camel can work for two days without drinking water.

Reindeer are semidomesticated caribou. Although similar, there are some fundamental differences from their wild cousins; for example, reindeer are shorter and stouter. It is believed reindeer have been domesticated in Eurasia for at least 7,000 years, longer than the horse. Female reindeer typically reach reproductive maturity as yearlings and may stay productive until age 15. Bulls usually don't breed until they're 3; their life expectancy is about 8 years. Reindeer and caribou are the only deer where males, females and calves produce antlers.


Ostriches are the largest living birds in the world. Native to Africa, mature males stand 6 to 9 feet and females 5.5 to 6.5 feet. Adults weigh between 150 to 330 pounds and reach maturity in 2 to 3 years. Their life expectancy in captivity is 30 to 70 years. Males have white and black plumage, and females are grey. Ostriches run 30 to 50 miles per hour.

Llamas, a member of the New World camelid family, are thought to have originated from a common ancestor that came across the Bering Strait land bridge. They stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh 250 to 300 pounds at maturity. Females mature at 2 years, males at 3. Their average life span is 20 to 25 years. Llamas come in a range of colors—brown, black, red, white or a combination. Males are referred to as studs, females as crias (baby in Spanish).


Bison are herd animals. In the wild, bulls will separate from herds or bachelor groups and join with the cow herd only during breeding season. They have a highly structured social pecking order, determined by seniority, the herd, size and age. Cows can reproduce from age 3 up to 20 years. Bull calves can be finished at 1,100 pounds by 24 months. Bison consume 1.5 percent to 2 percent of their body weight in feed every day just to maintain body weight.