A few miles outside of Farmington on Route AA in Ste. Genevieve County is an unusual sight that draws the attention of motorists as they drive by.
Several elk graze placidly in a pasture along the road surrounded by 8-foot tall fencing. This stands out to local hunters — especially compared to the much smaller whitetail deer.
Kevin Hinkebein has been breeding elk for the antlers and meat on his ranch for almost three decades.
“I started raising elk in the fall of 1990,” he said. “[I] purchased a pair of elk from Rush Johnson, the founding father of the North American Elk Breeders Association. I joined the association in 1990, the year it was formed.”
This was the beginning of the Hinkebein Elk Ranch, and it has been thriving ever since. His operation has grown to 58 head of elk on roughly 20 acres of fenced-in pasture.
In the Farmington area, many people remember Hinkebein when he was working for the USDA Rural Development writing loans and grants as a program specialist.
After retirement, his main passion has been helping to develop the elk breeding industry, as well as marketing retail products for consumers.
“Elk meat is a very flavorful meat to sell to local individuals and restaurants and is a healthy meat,” he said. “It is low in fat and high in protein and iron.”
Hinkebein’s most popular product is aimed at the pet food industry.
“Currently, the dog chew market is growing tremendously,” he said. “Hard elk antlers are cut up for dog chews. Dogs of all sizes love them and they are very healthy. The antlers are full of natural minerals that a dog needs. They last a long time compared to other chews on the market.”
Hinkebein markets all of his own products through his Facebook page.
“The great aspect of elk is that there are several products derived from elk,” he said. “You have the breeding stock market, where producers continue to improve genetics for antler growth. Harvest bulls are raised for game ranches, and bulls and cows may be processed at [USDA] inspected processing facilities for meat.”
According to Hinkebein, Elk can yield a considerable amount of meat.
“The bulls average 800 to 900 pounds, and the cows average 550 to 600 pounds,” he said. “They dress out at around 62 percent.”
Hinkebein’s elk products can be purchased at several nearby locations.
“I sell elk sticks," he said. "A lot of the wineries used to carry them occasionally. They’re a lot healthier than a candy bar. Also, Midway (Bar and Grill) serves elk burgers.”
Aside from dog chews, the antlers have other uses.
“Velvet antlers have been used by Asian countries for medicinal purposes for 2,000 years,” he said. “Natural shed antlers are used for crafts.”
When fully grown, antlers can be an impressive sight.
“The mature bulls can grow antlers up to 60 inches," Hinkebein said. "Bulls will shed their 'hard antlers' around March and April."
Starting in September and running through December, the surrounding countryside rings with the sounds of bugling bulls. This is when the bulls are in rut, where in their natural state they travel miles to breed with females.
Fights often break out among bulls with the victor breeding females in the area. The bulls bugle and fight, however, the breeder selects which bull ultimately breeds with which cow to improve genetics.
“I have selected for animals that have style, balance, long tines and good confirmation,” Hinkebein said. “Antlers are scored the same as deer are. As bulls mature, the tines are longer each year, increasing the score.”
Elk were originally native to southeast Missouri.
“They used to be in this area, until the late 1800s," he said. "They were hunted out because they tasted so good.”
Hinkebein is no stranger to publicity — his story has appeared in printed form and on TV.
“Feast Magazine did an article on raising elk,” he said. This led to a showcase featuring his elk on Nine PBS in St. Louis.
Hinkebein Elk Ranch was once the scene of a huge tent and banquet setting.
“We had an event with the chef of Chaumette Winery,” he said. “We got together with five other chefs from the St. Louis and Cape Girardeau area. We had a big elk dinner back here in the field, it was kind of fun and unique.”
Hinkebein is very active in elk industry trade associations. He serves on the North American Elk Breeders Association's board of directors and is a member of the Missouri Elk Farmers Association.
Farmed elk in Missouri are considered livestock and are heavily regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. A stringent disease monitoring program has been put in place.
“I currently have a 15-year status [in the CWD] program,” he said.
CWD are the initials for Chronic Wasting Disease, a serious illness that can affect cervids. Cervids are the zoological term for deer, elk and other similar animals. Several counties in Missouri have deer populations that are affected by CWD.
“No farmed elk in Missouri have CWD,” Hinkebein said.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Chronic Wasting Disease is a condition where deer have degeneration of brain tissue causing symptoms of drooping head and ears, tremors, excessive salivation, weight loss, loss of coordination and then death. This disease can transfer to elk and can be a concern to breeders.
“Other diseases such as Brucellosis and TB must be tested for before movement,” he said.
Hinkebein closely follows the research involved with improving genetics and disease resistance. He lists several organizations that are involved including the North American Breeders Association, Elk Research Foundation, American Cervid Alliance and the Missouri Elk Farmers Association.
For those interested in Hinkebein's elk operation, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.