Elk is tasty, healthy, Wisconsin-raised meat

Dan Higgins
Rick Ewert feeds his elk at Hemlock Hills Trophy Ranch in Medford.

MEDFORD - I was wondering if I would hear the call. I mean, I knew I would see elk. Even as we pulled in the long driveway of Rick Ewert's homestead just southeast of Medford I noticed the tall fences cut into the woods of his backyard.

Still, I wondered.

Then, as my boot landed in the half-frozen mud and before the first puff of white breath disappeared into the nearly freezing early November afternoon, I heard it.

The bugling call of elk.

Then a bugling response.

Then another bugling response.

Ah, mating season. The bulls are bugling, kind of a high-pitched squeal ending in a grunt sound, to let the cows know they're fit and to let other bulls know they're ready to fight to establish dominance. 

I'm hardly the only person interested in the call of elk. Ewert says it's one of the first things people ask about when they find out he raises the large creatures.

"They usually ask about the bugling, because that's kind of a neat thing," says Ewert. "Of course, after two months nonstop it gets a little bit old. But it is neat."

Rick Ewert holds up a pair of elk antlers at Hemlock Hills Trophy Ranch in Medford.

Elk meat is in demand and the market for it is growing, thanks largely to its combination of high protein with low fat and calories. You can find it at brewpubs in the form of elk burgers. It's trendy enough to make a dish at modern cuisine restaurants. And this year, you can even order a bowl of elk stroganoff at Lambeau Field during Packers games.

Fascinated by the elk after visiting a ranch, Ewert began raising his gang 10 years ago, in part as a trophy hunt operation that has since moved to primarily a meat-producing business, Hemlock Hills Trophy Ranch. He sells elk meat through his website.

Today he has 15 of his 110 acres fenced for elk at home. He has 10 of 68 acres fenced at another location, with the remaining land used to grow crops used as feed.

At times Ewert says it can be difficult to keep up with demand for the meat, most notably ground meat for burgers. 

Terry Diedrich says he has 100 elk and 200 bison "roaming the pristine green grass valleys and woods," at his Navarino Valley Elk & Bison Ranch in Shiocton, but high demand does create a challenge.

"We actually are faced with a shortage of animals," says Diedrich. "I have pulled together a few other local rancher sources to meet demand. They raise the animals for my market demand and expansion of sales."

Diedrich started elk ranching in 1992 because he thought the "idea of farming elk was unique and sounded like a great future farming opportunity as more consumers looked for healthier meat proteins raised all naturally." No hormones or chemicals, says Diedrich, are used in his farming operation.

Annual sales have increased 30-fold since that first year.

It may seem counterintuitive that it would be hard to meet demand when the animal you're shipping off to be processed typically weighs 500 pounds and produces about 350 pounds hanging weight. That is, until you factor in the life of the elk.

Rick Ewert feds his elk at Hemlock Hills Trophy Ranch in Medford.

Cows, elk females, generally give birth to just one calf, and Ewert says it's usually three years before he will send elk to be processed.

Proof that some foods are worth the wait.

"It's a very good, highly sought-after meat. Nothing like whitetail venison type meat; it's not gamey," says Ewert. "It's more toward your high-end beef."

Not gamey, high-end beef — that's pretty much the same description you get from Diedrich. 

Having tried several elk burgers, elk pastrami and elk stroganoff, I'd say that's a fair description of the meat. It really has its own unique flavor. Kind of a bison-deer-cow mashup. 

Spicy elk burger at Titletown Brewing in Green Bay.

Lean, it eats like red meat but with boneless, skinless chicken breast nutritional values. A 100-gram (about 3.5 ounces) portion of elk delivers 31 grams of protein in just 166 calories and 3.8 grams of fat.

The catch? It is priced like high-end beef. (See slow growth above.) You're not likely to find elk burgers or sausage for less than $10 and entrees start around $20. When you can find it on the menu.

Because of its red meat qualities, it is versatile — though most often you will encounter elk on menus in the form of burgers.

Eateries that serve elk on the menu include: Titletown Brewing, Green Bay; 1919 Kitchen & Tap, Lambeau Field Atrium, Green Bay; Mackinaws Grill & Spirits, Green Bay; Sconnie’s Alehouse & Eatery, Schofield; Blue Heron Brewpub, Marshfield; Odd Duck, Milwaukee; and Stone Arch Brewpub, Appleton.

If you've ever had a hankering for elk at a Packers game, you're in luck this year.

Though, if you're cooking meat at home, heed the advice of the experts.

"People will ask if it is a dry meat," says Diedrich. "I point out to them that the moisture content per gram compared to beef is actually higher, but because of the low fat content, the moisture cooks out faster when cooking at too high a temperature. Elk is best prepared with lower heat allowing the meat to cook without drying out."

There's also the bacon route. One item offered by Hemlock Hills is an elk chop wrapped in bacon ($21.95 per pound). Pan fry to a medium-rare temp for what Ewert says is "probably the best thing you've ever had."

Elk is also available in the form of brats, bacon and snack sticks. There are whole tenderloins and ground meat options. If trying a elk burger or steak isn't adventurous for you, order elk liver or elk heart. If you're lucky. Those items get a "subject to availability" line in the description and Ewert says are the fastest selling items.