Taking elk farming to heart
written by Sophia McDonald | photography by Anthony Castro
The animals grazing at Brenda Ross’s 52-acre Molalla property looked peaceful enough. Then out of nowhere, one of the 9-foot-tall ruminants reared up on its hind legs. A sweat gland near its eye flared open, and its nose and towering antlers pointed to the sky. The pale brown elk began punching its neighbor—now also on two feet—with its powerful hooves.
Oregon elk are wild and mean
This wild behavior does nothing to diminish her obvious affection for her eighty permanent residents. Later on, as she reached her hand through the fence to groom a bottle-fed elk named J.J., she explained that she loves nearly every aspect of raising elk for meat. “There’s not a day I don’t pull into the driveway and say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
She used to pass by the ranch on her frequent walks around town and think, “Please God, one day can I have a property like that?” When a for-sale sign showed up, she mentioned it to her husband, who suggested they make a low-ball bid. It was accepted, and they soon moved there with their four children.
The family initially kept cows in order to retain their ranching rights, but Ross knew that wasn’t what she wanted to do long term. In fact, every suggestion from others seemed wrong.
The call of the wild
To decrease the chances of cross-breeding or spreading disease to wild elk, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department issues fewer than a dozen permits for elk ranching. All of them were taken when Ross inquired about them. So she started calling permit-holders to see if they were thinking of leaving the business.
Eventually she reached a gentleman who was dying of cancer. He was willing to sell on one condition. “He told me, “I have a bottle-raised elk I dearly love. If I sell you my farm, can she live out her life?’” Ross assured him she would honor his request. Soon afterward, she had her first herd of elk.
Managing elk is a far cry from keeping more domesticated animals like pigs or sheep. They can weigh in excess of 950 pounds, and they’ll attack anything they perceive as a threat. Ross stays out of her fields unless an elk needs assistance. When she must enter the pen, she uses a tractor to herd the elk into a confinement chute. She’s had a few close calls in the twelve years she’s been raising them. But she’s never regretted her decision.
The business of Oregon elk ranching
Ross slaughters twenty to thirty young elk per year. Each animal weighs between 400 to 450 pounds when it goes to the butcher and yields about 200 pounds of meat. Ross takes orders for meat beginning in May and often sells out within a day.
The family keeps some of the meat, and Ross holds on to the antlers so she can make jewelry and dog chews. Multiple racks also hang in her barn, an homage to the animals she loves and a reminder to frequent visitors that although these animals may look friendly, appearances can be deceiving.
Elk ranching isn’t a big business in Oregon, but it does fill an important niche. Selling wild game meat is illegal. Anyone who wants elk but doesn’t hunt has to buy it from someone who ranches. According to Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are nine commercial elk farms with about 320 animals.
Game meat can be hard to cook, so there are a few things to keep in mind when preparing it. The meat only contains about 1 percent fat, so Ross advises cooking it in something moist, such as chili or gravy.
Game will quickly become tough if it’s overcooked. Keep elk extremely rare by using it in cold-smoked tartare from chef Jacob Way at The Barberry in McMinnville. A mustard seed sauce gives it some extra kick.
Ross likes ground elk because it’s so versatile. Try it in hamburgers topped with a blueberry and fig compote with the recipe from Dick’s Kitchen in Portland.
Chef Scott Dolich with Portland’s Park Kitchen uses sweet and savory ingredients in cocoa-braised elk shoulder. Serve it with sides of braised red cabbage and horseradish sour cream for a warming winter meal.