LAKE CRYSTAL (AP) -- Selling calves is a profitable business for Daryl and Yvonne Simon and their business partner, Bev Herda. It's so good that they've sold four already -- and the calves haven't been born yet.
Welcome to the profitable world of reindeer. Don't make plans just yet to buy yourself some breeding animals.
Like many other agricultural-based businesses, it isn't for everyone, says Daryl. The reindeer can cost $2,750 for females and $1,500 for males -- and those are the young ones. Older cows sell for $3,500. Then there are the costs for the 8-foot-high fence required by state law, plus, of course, feed and hay.
"But if it was easy to get into, everyone would be doing it," Daryl said.
The three operate Crystal Collection Reindeer, one of the 10 largest reindeer farms in the nation even though their herd numbers only 24 including reindeer of all ages. They started eight years ago, originally looking for some animal to bring diversity to the Simons' small Lake Crystal farm, where the three raise and show Arabian horses.
"We thought about ostrich when that was going strong but they were so expensive," Daryl said. "We thought about elk and buffalo, too, but I don't have enough land for that. We called a guy up and thought maybe elk was the way to go. We went to his place and he had five or six reindeer. We thought that was something you could do at Christmas time. We thought the sales would be better because of its potential."
It's become a diversified business. Besides broodstock sales, the three bring reindeer to display at holiday events and parades. The antlers become artwork when Daryl sands, buffs and creates necklaces, candle holders, clocks and more. And the business is expanding. A catalog is under development for the antler artwork and plans are under way to change the Crystal Collection Reindeer web page, filled with reindeer facts, four times a year to focus on the reindeers' changes throughout the year.
About the only thing they haven't considered in their marketing efforts is reindeer meat.
"If the other markets would fall, we might consider it," Daryl said. "But not right now."
The reindeer, their care and the value-added business it's developed, is a full-time job. But the threesome maintain full-time employment away from the farm. Daryl is a physical education and health instructor at Nicollet High School, a position he's held for 32 years. Yvonne is a field service representative working in public relations for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association while Bev is admissions director at South Central Technical College in North Mankato.
The three-way partnership works well, Bev said. When one is gone, the others are there to take care of chores. "It's really, really great," she said. "You know what each other's schedule is and if Daryl and Vonnie are gone, I know that I can take care of the animals."
Despite their busy schedules, the three have traveled throughout the United States, including trips to Alaska, to buy breeding stock. They look for animals with well-shaped bodies including a well-defined but not large hind quarters and large antlers.
They've discovered that good antler growth is the result of genes and nutrition. They feed beet pulp mixed with water and a sweet, pelletized horse feed. Alfalfa is also in the diet but the reindeer prefer and will only eat the leaves. The stems, left behind by the animals, are fed to the Arabians, Daryl said.
Bulls drop their antlers from Jan. 13-15, Daryl said. That timing could be different on other farms based on nutrition and growing conditions. Sometimes, bull antlers are cut off for safety reasons.
Male antlers can weigh up to 35 pounds while female racks may go about 8 to 10 pounds, he said. Some larger racks have become foundations for coffee tables. Most antler art starts with 100-grit sandpaper and is complete once it's buffed and smoothed with 800-grit. Daryl dips pieces in a fine lacquer coating to protect them.
Although Daryl enjoys designing the pieces, he joins Yvonne and Bev in their love of the animals. It's spring at the farm and the first calves of the season have just been born. As they bear pails filled with a rolled oats treat for the herd, they watch carefully as a newborn gets its first drink from its mom.
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