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Elk Profile

by Ray Hansen, content specialist, AgMRC,
Iowa State University,


Profile revised November 2006.



Rapid expansion of the elk industry over the last two decades does not reflect the fact that commercial elk production has been taking place in North America since the late 1800s.

Recent growth during the early 1990s was fueled by an increasing demand for antler velvet. The market is also supported by additional elk products such as meat, leather and other related goods. There is also continued demand for elk production for sport-hunting purposes and for breeding stock. In the late 1990s, difficulties in the Asian economy drastically reduced the demand for exports of antler velvet. 

During this same time frame and continuing into the present, the industry faces major concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). In 2002 Korea, the industry's primary importer of velvet, closed its borders to velvet trade over concerns of CWD transmittance. Unresolved issues related to CWD continue to frustrate and stall anticipated industry expansion. Proactive and preventative measures have been put in place to minimize the risk of disease transfer, but the economic impact has already dropped prices significantly. CWD infections of domestic and wild herds have been confirmed in 13 U.S. states and two providences in Canada. Since the disease was first discovered in domestic herds in 1997, extensive testing of domestic herds has resulted in less than 30 positive results. In these cases, a combination of quarantining or depopulation has been used to control further infestation. The CWD issue will likely continue to be a dubious cloud over the industry until agreement on control over regulatory issues is resolved and clarification on the interaction between domestic and wild herds is fully researched. Nationwide efforts to address CWD are accelerating rapidly and changing regularly. In many states, transportation and transfer of animals is being highly restricted and monitored.

Commercialization of elk and deer span the world, with the heaviest concentrations in New Zealand, China, Russia, United States, Canada and Germany. In 2000, an estimated 1,200 elk ranches with more than 70,000 elk were located in the United States.



Velvet antler is the driving force behind industry growth. Antlers are a renewable product that can range in price from $30 to $100 per pound, with a mature bull producing 15 to 40 pounds of velvet annually. In Asia, velvet has been used for more than 2,000 years as a natural remedy for a variety of remedies including reducing inflammation, improving body metabolism, enhancing immunity, healing damaged tissues and improving blood--liver and kidney function. It is also regarded as a potent aphrodisiac. The product is often sold as a powder or exported frozen for processing later.

Genetically sound females commonly bring between one and five thousand dollars; bulls typically are valued at about half that of the females. With movement restrictions, these prices have dropped dramatically in just a few years.

Elk meat is considered a premium venison. A single serving has less than two grams of fat and less than 150 calories, which is considerably leaner than comparable beef cuts. Compared to beef, elk meat commands a premium price.

Sport hunting has increased the demand for trophy animals on hunting preserves.

Natural by-products such as leather and other antler products such as jewelry and decorative accessories for the home also add value to the total animal.

Competitive Products and Intensity

Prior to the slowdown created by CWD, the industry was considered in a growth stage with easy entry into the business and relatively open access to markets. Many producers opt to sell product through grower organizations or reputable brokers who accumulate volumes of antlers large enough to export or sell into domestic processing facilities.

If and when concerns about CWD subside, North America will be in a build-up phase for herd numbers for at least another decade. As the industry matures, there will be additional separation in the price of breeding stock based on genetic and reproductive traits deemed favorable in the commercial herd. As total herd numbers are increased, prices for breeding stock will continue to remain elevated.

New Zealand and China are large producers of velvet antler and will continue to be a competitive threat to North American production because of their absence of CWD.

Although there is no proof of transmission of the disease to humans, the perception and uncertainty that hangs over the industry does impact markets. Korea has banned imports of elk and elk products until further testing and research proves that transmission does not occur via muscle cuts and antler products.


Government Regulations

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) implemented a CWD program in 2001 that purchases positive and exposed elk from CWD-infected herds. The program also increased surveillance and diagnostic testing for CWD, and training for producers and veterinarians. State regulations to address CWD vary and should be confirmed with the appropriate state agencies. Many states have restrictions on animal movement both in and out of state without certification and inspection. All positive herds are under state quarantines. Several states have also implemented testing programs for monitoring wild animals harvested or found dead. Currently, there is no live animal test or vaccine for CWD.

State and federal regulations related to inspections, processing, and marketing apply to elk as they would with all other meat products.

In 1999, elk antlers were put on a list of commodities covered by the GSM-102 export credit program, which helps expedite trade in several Asian markets.

Profile written December 2005 and revised November 2006.

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