Bigger than Donner and Blitzen and Overshadowed by Whitetail
Don't Forget the Elk
What is leaner than beef, tastes similar to venison, and is the largest deer species in the world? It is elk, and it could be what’s on your local menu, too.
Come late fall the two species of deer that seem to grab the most attention are the whitetail sought after by Wisconsin hunters and reindeer as in those made famous for their work in helping Santa deliver some valuable cargo on Christmas Eve. Elk barely comes to mind.
But in Door County, brothers Jason and Andrew Staats have been growing the unusual livestock on their family’s farm in Sevastopol since 2002 when they purchased 14 elk and launched Rocky Ridge Elk Ranch, LLC. The elk live in a space that used to be the farm’s cherry orchard. The Staats keep the herd to about 22 head of elk each year. The elk are grown for their meat as well as for their velvet antlers.
While most foodies are familiar with the lean, farm-raised elk meat, the idea of consuming velvet antlers as a delicacy is a bit of a surprise. The elk antlers are shipped to Korea to be ground and used in freezedried capsule form or are thinly sliced as wafers with a texture similar to potato chips, explained Jason. Chock full of nutrients, ground velvet antlers contain protein, lipids, fatty acids, collagen, and amino acids, and may lower blood pressure, build muscle and reduce arthritis pain. Some liken elk antlers to an all-natural growth hormone. Velvet from the antlers is sold to East Asia markets for medicinal use, and in some cultures is considered to be an aphrodisiac.
Even though they harvest elk antlers, Jason and Andrew confess that even they have not given them a try. They do, however, know there is a demand for antlers, which was one of the motivating factors in starting up the business. In May and June, the Staats harvest the antlers by tranquilizing the elk and sawing off the antlers, which are then frozen. The antlers are sold to a buyer who travels the Midwest. It takes seven years for an elk to have peak antler growth and a typical set of antlers weighs approximately 15 pounds.
Lean Elk Meat
Elk meat is popular as a healthy meat source for its leanness and pleasing flavor versus wild game.
“The elk are not wild so the meat doesn’t have a gamey taste. It is a red meat with high nutritional value,” said Andrew.
Although it is grown locally, elk meat is not easily available for purchase in smaller quantities. The Staats have sold the meat locally if purchased as a whole carcass; sometimes several people will purchase one together and split the nearly 125 pounds of dressed meat. Several local butchers are set up to process the elk meat but the bulk of their animals end up at Crescent Meats, a food processor and meat market in Cadott, who is set up to handle the large elk that are not as docile as dairy cows and beef cattle.
Elk are beautiful animals but should always be respected for their strength. An adult elk can easily reach eight or nine feet when standing on their hind legs and an elk bull can grow to 1,000 pounds. Their size and strength means taking extra precautions— and building a big fence.
Each elk has its distinct personality. The head bull displayed his during this writer’s recent visit. He was clicking his ivory teeth, snorting and daring Andrew Staats to come closer to the fence. Andrew describes how the elk enjoyed tossing old Christmas trees—cathedral ceiling height trees— around like rag doll toys with their antlers last winter.
The Staats brothers admitted that their cooking skills were not honed enough to feel comfortable sharing recipes that feature elk meat. However, Jason’s father-inlaw, Craig Ceasar, is an elk meat fan and Jason vouched for his excellent cooking abilities. Ceasar was kind enough to share several of his hearty winter favorites for Edible Door readers to enjoy. If you cannot find farm raised elk meat near you, substitute beef or venison. Enjoy.