Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed
When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.
But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.
“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”
“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.
Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.
But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.
At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.
Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.
“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”
With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.
There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.
“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.
Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.
Not Too Tame
Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.
Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.
“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.
Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.
The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.
But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.
“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.
Call of the Wild
Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”
In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.
Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.
“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.
Southern Things to Think About
Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”
It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”
Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.
“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”
“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”
If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.
“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”
The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.