Americans and Europeans are eager to put elk meat on the plate but it is difficult to attract producers back to the industry
If one word could summarize the state of the Canadian elk industry, it would be “shortage.”
American customers are desperate for elk meat, but Canadian ranchers have been unable to satisfy the de-mand as elk numbers plummeted over the last decade.
Ian Thorleifson, an elk rancher from Minnedosa, Man., said one of his American clients would double his order if more Canadian elk were available.
“I shipped 400 head to one processor in Chicago last year. He said he could’ve taken, easily, twice that many.”
However, finding 400 elk on the Prairies is not an easy task. Thorleifson has taken out newspaper ads in Western Canada this spring, seeking elk or elk meat to ship to the U.S. market.
However, he’s not optimistic and expects to deliver only 250 elk to the Chicago processor this year.
Thorleifson said the elk industry is suffering from a problem that plagues many other sectors of agriculture: a lack of people.
“It’s quite a similar situation to cattle. There’s more people getting out than there is getting in, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We (in Manitoba) have lost around 70 percent of our producers in the last 12 years…. There are 21 producers that have animals…. Of those 21, there are really only four or five real commercial operations in the province.”
Chronic wasting disease and federal regulations designed to prevent the spread of CWD have pushed dozens of producers out of the elk industry over the last decade, said Thorleifson, who is president of the Manitoba Elk Growers Association.
“It (CWD) is still there and not going away. It’s a significant damper on movement of animals…. And limits our access to markets,” he said.
“(But) we’re doing our best to negotiate the worst of that away.”
Randy Wehrkamp, a Saskatchewan elk producer, said earlier this year that the relationship between elk ranchers and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which enforces CWD regulations, is toxic.
“If you should be so unfortunate to have chronic wasting disease, regardless if you are a source farm or a trace-out farm, you can expect certain things to happen. You will immediately be quarantined,” he said.
“You are treated as though you don’t have any rights. Unfortunately, the general attitude is we are guilty rather than presumed innocent.”
Cindy Ewashkiw, an elk rancher from Leduc, Alta., and a member of the Alberta Wapiti Products Co-op, said demand for Canadian elk meat is robust in the U.S. and Europe, despite the challenges of CWD.
“It’s not an issue because we test for it (CWD),” he said.
“It’s the safest meat out there. We’ve been testing 100 percent of our (elk) heads for CWD.”
Elk meat prices have risen dramatically as Canadian supply dwindled.
Thorleifson said U.S. buyers are paying US$4 to $4.50 per pound for elk carcasses on the rail, which is double the price from five years ago.
He said most of the elk meat exported to the U.S. is consumed at high end restaurants.
“Chefs have discovered they can do amazing things with elk because it’s got a good rich flavour but takes other flavours as well,” he said.
Ewashkiw said European demand for elk meat is much larger than in the U.S., but Canada no longer has sufficient production to supply that market.
Thorleifson agreed, saying European demand for “wild” meat is massive.
“If you look at the volume of New Zealand venison that goes into Germany alone, it’s something on the order of 80,000 tonnes per year.”
Prices are strong now and have been for several years, but Thorleifson said it’s difficult to attract new elk farmers or convince former producers to return to the industry.
Sorting out CWD regulations is essential, but elk industry leaders also need to promote the profitability of elk production, he said.
“We need to show people that it (demand) is not just a little blip,” Thorleifson said.
“The biggest thing is (people) just don’t have the confidence if they make that major investment that they’re going to be able to stay in long enough, without government interference, to pay everything off and make good money.”
Gerald Sam, who heads the Alberta Wapiti Products Co-op, said elk producers already in the business have to do their part to rebuild Canada’s herd.
“We need to get people putting the bulls in with their elk,” he told an Alberta Elk Commission meeting earlier this year.“
I know there are farms in Saskatchewan and Alberta that are doing nothing with their animals. Put the bull in. There is a market out there…. We will buy them.”