Iron Corral Exotic Animals | Wisconsin Central
Iron Corral Exotic Animal Farm in Viola, a fun learning experience

Breeding of exotic animals is a fascinating and rapidly growing business in the US, especially as agriculture is becoming tougher and tougher and small farmers especially are looking for alternative pursuits that would employ their land and their equipment and enable them to maintain their homes. It is also a good pursuit if a farmer has marginal land for traditional livestock and agriculture. Sandy and Joe Cano run one in Viola in Vernon County, and are pioneers in the field.

April 19, 2006

While traveling along Hwy 131 in Vernon County, trying to make a bee-line back to Wausau after a full day out and about, we spotted some unusual animals in a farm environment out of the corner of the eye. We decided to stop for a moment to take a look. Here's what we saw.

By our count, eight llama, one pig, and far in the background, a dog. We will come back to that dog at the end of our story.

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And in this one, it looks like six elk.

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Having parked alongside the highway, we also noted a sign in the front of the main house that read, "Iron Corral Exotics, Joe and Sandy Cano."

As is normally the case, we had no idea what was going on here. On return home, we called the family and spoke at length to Joe and Sandy Cano, who were kind enough to send some literature.

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Joe and Sandy Cano feed one of their favorite cows, Holli. At the time of this photo, Holli was one of 55 elf in the Iron Corral herd. Photo scanned from Agri-View, Northcentral edition, March 7, 2002, page one.

In the main, the Canos raise the elk and llama to sell to breeders. Their farm is about 200 acres, located in the Kickapoo Valley, much of which consists of hills where the elk can roam and obtain some privacy. The llama also like this kind of environment, not needing a lot of fancy grazing land.

Breeding of exotic animals is a fascinating and rapidly growing business in the US, especially as agriculture is becoming tougher and tougher and small farmers especially are looking for alternative pursuits that would employ their land and their equipment and enable them to maintain their homes. It is also a good pursuit if a farmer has marginal land for traditional livestock and agriculture.

Breeding has drawn greater attention than products like meat and furs, at least at this point.

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Ranching elk has been done in the US since the mid-19th century, and ranching native species is as old as the country itself. The ranching of elk has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, particularly in the last decade. In 1990, 35 prominent elk ranchers came together to found the North American Elk Breeders Association, or NAEBA, to promote elk ranching as an agricultural pursuit. Headquartered near Kansas City, Missouri, NAEBA today has more than 1800 members from the United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. As an aside, Joe Cano is a founding member of the NAEBA.

The breeding of elk and the use of their antlers have been the major markets recently. There is research underway exploring the meat market. The game farm market has also grown.

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Use of the antlers is particularly interesting. This photo of an Iron Corral elk, presented on the NAEBA web site, shows what's known as antler velvet. A bull produces this velvet every year, and every year the yield increases. A mature bull can produce as much as 30-40 lbs of velvet. In the scientific field, this is known as elk velvet antler, or EVA.

EVA is an alternative medicinal therapy which is thought to have particular value treating arthritis symptoms, including rheumatoid arthritis. It is widely used in Asia, and has been used in places like Japan, China and Korea for centuries. In the US, it is considered more a nutritional supplement. It has excellent amino acid composition and mineral content, and may have great use in strength training programs. Many studies are underway in North America to assess the medicinal value of EVA.

Let's talk a bit about llama.

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Llama are members of the camelid family. Many of us think of them as animals that are mostly found abroad, but actually, camelids originated on the central plains of North America about 40 million years ago. They migrated to South America about 3 million years ago and became extinct in North America by the end of the Ice Age. The Wisconsin Glacier was the last glacier in North America and withdrew about 15,000 years ago. Many or most llama now in North America, we believe, have been imported from South America.

The llama is a first-class pack animal. They are easy to train and reliable. Llama hair is grease-free, light weight and warm. It is very popular with spinners, knitters, weavers and other crafts people and is seen as a luxurious fiber.

Both llama and elk are great for kids to observe at the many smaller, private exotic animal zoos that are popping up around the country.

Llama, having endured the harsh environment of the Andean mountains in South America, find the North American environment to be a good one. They are hardy, healthy, easy to care for, and remarkably disease free.

There have been some controversial health issues associated with elk, and deer. The major issue has centered on something called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a disease of the brain, somewhat similar to mad cow disease. Wisconsin's first case showed up in February 2002 among three deer in the south-central sector of the state, Dane, Iowa, Richland and Sauk counties. It has since shown up in Rock and Walworth counties in the southeast part of the state. As of April 2004, 470 wild deer have tested positive, almost all of which were in southwestern Wisconsin, to wit, the area of Joe and Sandy Cono's farm. A result has been a curtailment of Cano's elk sales. He has told us, however, that sales will soon be allowed to resume and he is ramping up his breeding. CWD has been a issue of enormous controversy in the state. There is plenty on the web about it.

Joe and Sandy love having visitors to their farm, and we encourage you to give them a call (608-629-5060) to arrange a visit. They love their profession and find great joy in sharing their experiences and showing their animals.

We'd like to close out by showing two other animals that brought a smile to this editor's normally grumpy face.

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Note the black pig hanging out with the llama. We have seen press clippings showing a black pig at this farm named "Hank," called by the Epitaph-News, a "pot-bellied" pig. That was in its June 22, 1995 edition. We don't think this is the same pig, but this fellow gets at least three squares a day or more to be sure! The llama simply ignore their pot-bellied friend.

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This is a zoom view from our first photo of the llama, so it is a bit blurry, but within the area where the llama hung was this dog. You can see in this photo he is on alert to our presence, though he appears outside the fense-line.

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You can now see he has lost his patience with our presence and is on the move, now within the fence-line.

Finally, a look at a beautiful group of llama, elk, and the surrounding countryside. Give Joe and Sandy Cano a call.

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