By Jennie Zeitler
Ken Arnzen’s Oak Knoll Ranch began with white-tailed deer 22 years ago. What was intended to be just a hobby evolved into a successful elk raising operation in partnership with Dennis Suelflow and Springbrook Elk.
“We were just going to have the deer as pets,” Arnzen said. “But the next year when I got into elk, it was not easy raising the two together.”
Since the deer were more high-strung and more difficult to test (a requirement), Arnzen kept the elk.
Suelflow acquired his first elk 21 years ago. His and Arnzen’s elk operations existed separately for a number of years. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that they discussed working together.
“We realized it would be easier to separate the cow/calf and the bull operations,” Arnzen said. “It just makes both of our operations easier. We work well together.”
Different colored ear tags are put on the animals shortly after birth, enabling their owners to tell them apart.
Suelflow maintains the cow/calf end of the operation with 22 head currently, while Arnzen has 50-60 bulls at his location. Both places are a few miles north of Sauk Centre.
In the wild, the bulls live in bachelor groups most of the time. Suelflow and Arnzen found that the bulls were hard on fences while trying to get to the cows.
“The bulls used to lose about 30 percent of their body weight running along the fence trying to get to the females,” Suelflow said.
“During the one-week window when the bulls polish their antlers, they are razor-sharp,” Arnzen said.
“It used to be worse, but even with no females here, we lose at least one bull every other year or so,” said Suelflow. “A female with a calf is just as dangerous as bulls during the rut.”
“More people have been injured by cows than bulls,” Arnzen said. “They are wicked with their front feet.”
Both ranches are inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) annually. All fences must be eight feet high. Animals must be tagged properly with visible ear tags.
“The Department of Natural Resources used to take care of inspections before the USDA took over,” Arnzen said.
Any time an animal is moved from one place to another, the state must be notified within 24 hours.
Arnzen is in the process of selling some bull elk to a buyer in Colorado. They must be purity tested, tuberculosis accredited and brucellosis tested.
“With cattle we could just load them up and move,” Arnzen said.
“The longer you’ve been in testing, the cleaner the herd,” said Arnzen.
Their elk have always been chronic wasting disease-free.
Suelflow and Arnzen sell their animals for meat, breeding or to shooting preserves.
Demand for certain products fluctuates, so where the elk are marketed changes.
“In the beginning, I got into it for breeding,” Suelflow said. “But the demand for more healthy meat has risen. We’ve sold meat to people in the Twin Cities and in Alaska.”
One year, the two sold antler velvet for $100 per pound. A few years later it sold for $7 per pound. In 2013, they sold it for about $30 per pound.
Ninety percent of the bulls are sold to shooting preserves now.
“Ten years ago we couldn’t leave the industry if we wanted to and sell 50 cows,” Arnzen said. “Today, I could pick up the phone and they’d be sold tomorrow.”
Selective breeding has been used at the ranches for the last 10-15 years to increase antler size.
“During the past four years, we’ve had a bull with antlers more than 450 inches every year,” Arnzen said. “Those bulls are usually sold to shooting preserves. We keep any females from those bulls for breeding.”
“We’ve never lost money at it,” said Arnzen. “We’ve at least broke even in slow years.”
“It’s a sideline that we both enjoy,” Suelflow said. “It’s fun to go out and look at them.”
“Chores take about 10 minutes a day,” Arnzen said.