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PRAIRIE COUNTRY: Things are a little wild on East Grand Forks farm

It's a pastoral scene on a mid-summer day as cows and bulls contentedly chew their cuds or chomp on hay as calves scamper about corrals north of East Grand Forks.

It's a pastoral scene on a mid-summer day as cows and bulls contentedly chew their cuds or chomp on hay as calves scamper about corrals north of East Grand Forks.

But things aren't always this tame at Grand Marais Elk Farm.

"Tagging calves is a little tough," said Brad Nelson, who owns the elk with partners Mike Horken and David Berg. He grins as he turns to his daughter, Kim, who confirms the understatement with a nod.

Even domesticated elk, the Nelsons explain, maintain their wily attitude toward people so chores such as putting ear tags on the calves are difficult in a couple of ways. First, it's hard to determine which elk calf belongs to which cow because the mothers won't rush over to their calves when humans approach or give any other indication that the calf belongs to them. Many times tagging becomes a waiting game until a calf finally gets hungry and nurses its mother.

It doesn't become a piece of cake then, either, as the protective mothers may send their handlers heading for the other side of the fence if their young are approached.

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"They're pretty defensive," Nelson said. "They'll charge you."

Growing business

Overall, though, raising the animals has become easier during the last eight years as the Nelsons have become accustomed to their wild ways. It's a good thing because their herd has swelled from three bulls purchased in 2000 to 70 head of bulls, cows and calves.

"We never figured this was going to get this big," said Brad Nelson. He and Berg decided to raise the animals because the meat and velvet markets were lucrative.

While the size of the Grand Marais herd has nearly doubled beyond what Nelson and Berg originally had planned, the number of domestic elk in Minnesota has declined in the past five years, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

There were 9,921 farmed elk in 2006, down from 10,966 in 2001. But the number of elk farms rose slightly, from 264 in 2001 to 280 in 2006. The elk meat market, velvet market and the sale of elk bulls to preserves has helped diversify the elk industry, according to the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.

Marketing

Grand Marais Elk Farm is a second business, for Nelson, a grain and row crop farmer; Berg, an insurance agent and livestock producer; and Horken, a Minnesota potato inspector.

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The men sell the elk antler velvet for about $30 a pound, the current market rate, to travelling buyers. This month they will sell about 200 pounds of the velvet which they harvested from 16 bulls. The velvet, which is purchased by buyers who sell the velvet domestically for pharmaceutical use and to Asian markets for an aphrodisiac, is harvested once yearly.

The elk antlers begin getting new horns immediately after the old ones are removed.

"It's unbelievable, how fast they grow," Nelson said.

Besides the elk velvet, Grand Marais Elk Farm sells meat in cuts from steaks to summer sausage. The animals are butchered in Barnesville, Minn., one of the few state-inspected facilities in northwest Minnesota.

Besides being inspected at slaughtering, live elk are tested once every two years for tuberculosis by a veterinarian.

Another career

Things like observing the TB testing, helping with calving and feeding the elk piqued 18-year-old Kim Nelson's interest in livestock and the East Grand Forks Senior High School graduate plans to attend the University of Minnesota Crookston this fall and major in pre-veterinary science and agronomy. She hopes to become a large animal veterinarian practicing on animals that include elk.

After working with the elk since she was 10, the younger Nelson has developed a fondness for them -- even though part of her chores have included helping build 8-foot fences.

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"I like the animals. Cattle are boring," she said.

Information on elk meat: Phone Nelson at (218) 791-1997; Horken at (218) 779-2510 or Berg at (218) 779-2344.

Bailey writes for special features sections. Reach her at (701) 787-6753; (800) 477-6572, ext. 753; or send e-mail to abailey@gfherald.com .

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