Elk producers find way to add value

A farm family in central Alberta adds holistic pet treats to the list of products they produce from their herd of 171 elk

HAYNES, Alta. — Russell and Joanne Gwozdz, along with their daughter, Rachelle, 23, run a herd of 171 elk at their quarter section Golden Willow Ranch in the rolling parklands of central Alberta.

The family is entering its 22nd year in an industry that has seen its share of volatility. They’ve grown attached to their elk and see them as more than just a dollars-and-cents business venture.

“It’s a relationship with these animals,” Joanne said.

“They help us. We help them.”

The Gwozdz (a name of Polish origin pronounced Gush) family believe the best way to ensure sustainability is through value-added processing.

Enter Super Dog Treats, their holistic pet snack supplement made with ground elk velvet antler. The bone shaped treat is produced at their on-site manufacturing plant, built into a converted 54-by-40 foot farm shop.

“We bought the company four years ago,” said Russell, a chemical technologist.

He said his family had been searching for an addition to their line of elk products when they discovered Super Dog Treats was for sale. The company was originally based west of Edmonton and recently relocated to Golden Willow Ranch.

Elk velvet antler is considered to have beneficial effects for a wide range of health problem, in both humans and animals, including joint mobility, lack of energy and arthritis. The Super Dog Treat recipe also includes such ingredients as dried saskatoon berries, apples, kelp, and sunflower lecithin.

“We have evidence that it works”, Russell said.

“People say their 13-year-old dog is jumping around like a puppy.”

Golden Willow Ranch also markets elk meat, breeding stock, semen, safari bulls, hard antler dog chews and elk velvet antler. Depending on the product, it self-markets online directly to buyers, as well as through stores, from the farmgate and at farmers markets.

Farmers market sales may be affected in the upcoming May to September sales season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gwozdzes received notice from the organization in mid-March stating it was on alert with further updates to come.

The couple got into elk in 1999 for a couple reasons.

“There was no money in beef or pigs”, said Russell, who ran a small herd of purebred Simmental cattle at his father’s farm near Eckville, Alta., farm while he attended Red Deer College and then NAIT. He also appreciated the cervid’s efficient feed conversion, calm nature and tolerance to the Canadian climate.

“And we didn’t want to raise kids in the city.”

Following graduation from college in 1985, Russell secured a position in his field at Nova Chemicals, an ethylene and polyethylene plant in rural central Alberta.

The couple married in 1993 and began to look for land close by. They bought in 1997. “This was a bare quarter when we moved here”, said Joanne.

“We planted about 5,000 trees.”

By then Joanne had quit her supervisory job at the Red Deer Courthouse to become a stay at home mom to their three children.

Russell, Joanne and Rachelle Gwozdz in their Super Dog Treat production facility, which was built into an existing renovated shop at Golden Willow Ranch. | Maria Johnson photo

The first elk arrived in January 1999, and the couple began to build their herd. From the start they’ve been primarily artificially inseminating with a goal to produce world class animals.

Unfortunately it was just a few years later when chronic wasting disease put a strain on the elk industry. Federal regulations designed to curtail CWD burdened producers further. Prices bottomed out to where many got out of the business.

The family persisted with the financial assistance of Russell’s off-farm income. The majestic graceful creatures also played a part in helping manage the stress.

“If you’re having a bad day, they calm you,” Joanne said.

After 20 years at Nova, Russell worked five years in the same field at Rahr Malting in nearby Clive and then operated his own steam truck for another half decade, all the while developing the ranch.

The days of working off the farm are now over.

“It’s time to stay at home”, he said.

In addition to the Gwozdzs’ home, there’s a variety of outbuildings on the farm, including a 40-by-40 foot barn housing a moveable wall and panel handling system and squeeze, corrals, fenced pastures and the Super Dog Treat manufacturing facility.

Over the years the Gwozdzes learned to manage the massive amount of documentation.

“Every animal is certified and traceable,” Russell said.

“I can trace back six generations.”

Those certificates of clear health are requirements to sell animals with many going south of the border, the Gwozdzs’ biggest market.

The family attended the 2020 Alberta Elk Commission annual convention in Edmonton in early March, and Russell said the underlying mood was one of worry over the sustainability of the industry.

“There used to be 500 plus elk farms in Alberta,” he said.

“Now we’re at 130. Only about 70 are active, driving the industry.”

Despite the depleting number of elk ranchers, Russell said there are still a few enthusiastic newcomers.

Like Golden Willow Ranch, many producers are working to add value to their existing operations.

With his chemical technologist expertise, Russell has future plans to look at ways to remove the middleman in the family’s sales of elk velvet antler and hard antler.

They’d like to make direct connections into the massive Asian market, where processed ground antler fetches $300 to $500 per pound, up substantially from the average $40 per lb. that they receive for the raw product.

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