In the Midwest it’s not uncommon to see farms filled with cows, pigs, or even sheep, but it’s a little foreign to come across hills covered in elk.
Elk are slowly making appearances at restaurants and farmer’s markets around the state of Iowa.
I took a visit to one of the few elk farms in the state, then a local restaurant that prepares elk, to ask what prompted that decision. I also spoke with an expert about the health benefits of eating elk.
The Antler Ridge Elk Farm
It was 2001 when Antler Ridge started to raise elk on their ranch, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Owners Bob and Karen Thuerauf took a long time thinking about different forms of agriculture for their 40 acres of land.
They wanted something that would make money, and elk have numerous avenues of opportunites. Karen listed things such as selling them as breeding stock, selling the meat at the meat market, saving the hides and making leather, selling the two ivory teeth each elk have, making tables or lamps out of hard antler, using the hard antlers as dog bones or knife handles, using the velvet antler in pills for arthritis pain, using their hallow hair to put on bobbers for fishermen, and making belt buckles or clocks out of the buttons, which are the ends of the antlers that fall off every year.
They load up one of their deep freezers, which is packed full of different sections of the animal, into the back of their truck. Then, they take a trip to the farmer’s market, and plug the freezer into a generator.
Karen said there are no other elk farmers in Iowa who sell elk like they do at the farmer’s markets. They even have customers coming with coolers to be filled, or who want to make shipments of meat across the country.
“It’s exciting to see it grow, and have the same people coming back,” said Karen. “Some of them start to come with their cooler on wheels, and you think, ‘All right!’, it’s really great. We even have one lady who sends a big box to her parents every Christmas in Washington DC.”
Selling to Restuarants
When it comes to selling their meat to local restaurant owners, Karen says it’s not something that they do a lot of because they want to sell directly to the people. They do, however, sell their meat to the Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City whose specialty is the elk meatloaf.
Another restaurant in the area that uses elk is Vesta in Coralville. Their meat comes from another elk producer out of West Burlington, Iowa.
The owner, Seth Hershey, said that he wanted to go outside of the box with his menu items, and there is a gentleman he knows who raised elk, and so the decision was to have it on the menu.
One item you can find is the Elk Rueben.
The reasoning was, “[The gentleman] was doing a product he wasn’t selling a lot of, that was the pastrami,” said Hershey. “He was trying to do cold cuts, and I wanted to do something else with it, so, I like ruebens, and Elk Rueben it was then!”
The Nutrition Value of Elk Meat
One thing that Karen and Hershey both agreed on is that elk meat tastes a lot like beef, but is actually healthier and leaner.
Dr. Kathy Mellen, a Registered Dietitian and lecturer in the Department of Human Physiology at the University of Iowa said that elk is indeed a healthier option than most other types of meat.
“Elk is typically considered a game, or wild meat,” said Mellen.”And, the more an animal moves, and the leaner that animal, the leaner the meat. Meaning, less fat, and in particular with meat it’s the saturated fat that we are concerned about.”
The meat is lower in fat and cholesterol, and higher in protein and iron. The fat doesn’t marble through it like in beef.
Karen said that she uses elk meat in all of her recipes that ask for beef because of the similar taste.
The taste of the elk meat has a lot to do with how the meat is prepared as well. Because it is so tender and moist, Karen suggested to cook the meat at a low temperature to avoid a leathery product.
The Future of the Elk Industry
Elk meat is still a foreign thought to many consumers around the area, but because of the health benefits and increasing availability, it is something that could be making a known presence on menus and in farmer’s markets.
The Antler Ridge Elk farm owners said they love what they do, and have every intention to grow their business even more.
“It’s really a lot of fun, and it’s something different all the time,” said Karen. “It’s kind of funny when I walk though the stores, because you hear ‘Hey mom, it’s the elk lady!’ and all you do is laugh.”
Bob & Karen Thuerauf
194 Rogers Grove Rd. Ely, IA 52227
319.848.7653 or 319.360.3701
849 Quarry Road Suite 100, Coralville, IA 52241
319.33.VESTA or 319.338.3782
Kathy Mellen, Ph.D., R.D.
Department of Health and Human Physiology
E128 Field House Iowa City, Iowa 52242