Antler grows from the tips of the various tines and main beam. It has a corresponding gradation of tissue types moving down the antler from an undifferentiated cell growing mass, changing to a cartilage matrix, honeycombed cartilage and finally to calcified cartilage and early bone formation at the base. Such differentiation is shown in the traditional Oriental antler grading system - a system that reflects both price and pharmacological properties (Figure 2 and Table 1).
After casting off the old antlers, the skin of the pedicle grows over and heals the wound left by the discarded antler. Mesodermal cells, derived from the skin or the pedicle or both, multiply and differentiate to make antler tissue. Hyper plastic fibroblasts deposit collagen at the point of growth of the antler, forming a well-vascularized and innervated mass on the pedicle. This growth continues in the outermost layers of the tip. Differentiation of cells into chondroblasts and chondrocytes associated with the formation of cartilage begins in the portions closest to the antler base. Growth is very rapid; an elk antler is capable of growing more than 2 cm in a 24 hour period. The antler continues to enlarge by the differentiation process at the tip and by an elaboration of fibrocartilage underneath those portions.
The process of antler ossification (bone formation) occurs through a process called modified endochondral ossification, where cartilage is formed and then changed into bone rather than the normal creation of bone by osteocytes (cells that make bone). Antler cartilage becomes bone, not by osteoclastic (cells that eat and remodel bone) resorption and subsequent bone deposition by osteocytes, but by becoming directly converted to bone through the build-up of mineralized material within the cartilaginous matrix.
The chondrocytes (cartilage cells) at this point become larger and exhibit reabsorbing activity, leading to the formation of trabeculae (bands of connective tissue) and the sponge-like reticulum (network) characteristic of the antler core. This reticulum is then strengthened by osteoblastic activity, laying down bone on the surfaces of the trabeculae. This activity eventually leads to the hardening of the entire mature antler progressively from the base upward to the tip. The thickening of the trabeculae and narrowing of the sinusoidal blood channels eventually result in the apparent death of the bone, creating the typical hard antlers.
Mineral requirements for antler growth exceed those for skeletal growth. Elk antlers grow at approximately 100gm/day, while skeletal growth occurs at about 34 gm/day. Mineral for antler calcification is partly satisfied by bone resorption. At times of peak demand, skeletal bone is less dense. The ribs likely contribute the most mineral and the loss from these bones has been termed "physiological osteoporosis". There is little doubt that the diet provides a greater portion of calcium and phosphorous for antler growth and mineralization. However, supplementation of these elements beyond optimal levels does not increase antler growth beyond genetic potential in farmed elk.
Velvet Skin Shedding
Coincidental to advanced antler calcification, the skin covering the antler begins to die. The exact mechanism of velvet shedding is poorly understood but there is no doubt that blood vessel changes initiate the process. This is under hormonal control directed by changing daylight length. Velvet shedding occurs at the same time as testosterone levels are rising and administration of additional testosterone will cause premature shedding of velvet antler. Testosterone may cause constriction of antler arteries or there may be interference in tissue metabolism by testosterone resulting in tissue death and the biochemical events leading to arterial constriction. Either way, testosterone stops antler growth and promotes the hardening of the antler.
In early spring (March, April) the hard antler, or the "buttons" from velveted stags, are cast. (Figure 4). Casting is also under hormonal control. When the testosterone levels in the bull fall below a threshold, the events of antler shedding and regrowth are initiated. The base of the antler consists of skeletal bone that appears to be continuous with pedicle bone. The union is certainly secure enough to withstand the forces of gravity and impact from fighting. The line of future separation, called the abscission line, is indicated by a narrow transverse band of tiny blood vessels. Osteoclastic (bone-eating cells) activity across this abscission line between the dead bone of the antler and the living bone of the pedicle is responsible for the separation of antler from the pedicle.
Eventually, enough bone is removed from the junction that the antler separates from the pedicle. There are some behavioural indications that pain is associated with this separation. After casting the ingrowing skin-derived tissue fuses with the mesodermal tissue from the blood vessel channels of the pedicle to give rise to a developing antler bud under the scab covering the pedicle. With increasing age, a portion of the pedicle is lost at each casting and in older animals, new antler growth will start at almost skull level.
Processed Elk Products
Elk tails. Elk have small tail glands.
Dried leg tendons and sesamoid bones alongside dried tails.
Packaged antler tonic.
Antler capsules filled with powdered antler .
Dried and sliced EVA.
TCM prescription from pharmacy.
Antler competitions are a useful and financially rewarding part of the elk farming industry. They are great social events for everyone, plus they allow breeders and buyers to compare the relative genetic merit of various breeding programs. They serve as an effective marketing tool. Winning a class at a velvet or hard antler competition immediately adds thousands of dollars of value to your bull. With this kind of value involved, there is a lot of pressure on judges and breeders alike. What kind of criteria do they use to guide their evaluations?
For hard antler, the industry uses a slightly modified system based on the Safari Club International measuring standards for cervids. For velvet antler, the North American Elk Breeders Association and other industry groups have developed systems for judging antlers, with input from hundreds of people from all around the world. When antlers are entered into a competition the rules require that a photograph is supplied to identify the bull, and some proof of age of the bull is also required.
Weight is the most important criterion (Figure 14). Beam circumference is measured next, measured as you would a hard antler. Now the judges begin, and the process becomes more subjective. First Uniformity and Symmetry are assessed and awarded points on a scale. Balance of mass is important, as the top part of a velvet antler may be worth up to ten times more than the bottom part.
Calcification – the conversion of cartilaginous tissue to the bone - is the most difficult and subjective aspect of velvet antler judging, but along with weight, this is the criterion awarded the largest number of possible score points. The total possible number of points is rarely awarded, partly because most producers are prepared to sacrifice a couple of points for Calcification in exchange for a couple of pounds of weight. The balance between weight and quality is the biggest struggle in the antler business. How do the judges assess the degree of calcification?
They look at several criteria:
- The appearance of the top - how far is it grown, how large and advanced is the bulbing, webbing or tune development;
- The roundness of the tip of the brow tyne, compared to the roundness of the second (bez) and third (trez) tynes. Pointed tines suggest greater calcification has occurred;
- Appearance and density of the cut base - the colour of the middle and outer ring, all relative to the point at which the cut was made (how close to the pedicle);
- Diameter and shape of the beam - the larger the beam, the longer you can grow out the top, plus consider the development of grooving in the bulb, and a circular or oval shape to the top;
- All of the above are considered with the age of the bull in mind. Younger bulls can not usually be grown out to the same extent as older bulls.
Damage is the final criteria. This may come in many forms, none of which we want to see, for example, skin tears and “banana peeling”.
With all these criteria considered, the judges compile the results. The crowds assemble, the antlers are displayed, the results announced, and the winners start marketing semen and offspring.
Beyond the immediate marketing advantages, velvet antler competitions are a key part of our industry’s plans for genetic improvement. In the absence of EBVs (Estimated Breeding Values) for the elk industry, producers are left to do their own homework in selecting improved antler genetics. If we keep all our livestock at home, and never compare the results of our breeding and management to that of other producers, how will we ever move ahead?
Genetic selection has been demonstrated to have contributed approximately 35% of the dramatic improvement we have witnessed in antler production, both in North America and New Zealand. 65% of that improvement is due to management, nutrition and environmental effects. Remember that what you see at the competitions are the results of years of work, planning and management. That bull may not be “prepotent” – he may not pass on his genetics to his offspring well. To get
the same results, you need to know more about that bull’s family and history and emulate the program that produced him.
Cutting Antler for Competitions
Now that you’ve decided to get ready to compete, the first and most important decision is not when you should cut, but rather ... should you cut? With 12 hard antler classes in each competition, producers really need to assess whether they are looking at a good velveting bull or a better representation of a hard antler bull. Once you get the hang of it, it ’s an easy decision to make.
Is the velvet short and stocky with good beam measurement which gets progressively larger as you move higher up the beam?
Or, does this head of velvet lack fantastic beam but have long brow, bez and trez tines with an obviously elongated heart piece? If it does, you should consider growing the bull out in hard antler and competing in one of next year’s hard antler classes. With great tine lengths and long beams, you may find that your bull is unbeatable in his hard antler class. If you decide to allow him to grow out remember to keep feeding him well so that his antler growth doesn’t fizzle out.
Buy a medium-toothed hand saw which will leave a fairly coarse cut, 8 or 9 teeth to the inch. Finetoothed saws give the cut surface a nonporous appearance that appears more calcified. Cutting height is crucial! The lower you cut, the more calcified the base of the antler will appear. Just before you cut the velvet pull some hair out of the bull’s mane with obvious skin follicles attached for DNA analysis.
Velvet your bull using the safe and humane velveting procedures described in detail earlier in this section. Be sure to “back cut” the skin on each antler to eliminate any chance of stripping a “banana peel” of velvet if a bull jerks his head at the last second. Other than a barely discernible back cut, there should be only one cutting plane on each antler base.
Freezing Competition Antlers
Immediately after harvesting a set of velvet antlers, wash off all blood, dust and foreign material. Take a soft brush and comb out any ruffled velvet. Affix your velvet tags and record the tag numbers. Place the set of velvet antlers in a freezer with the cut side inclined upwards far enough to prevent any blood from dribbling out of each antler. Place each stick of velvet on 4 - 6 inches of open-cell foam to prevent flat spots from freezing into the velvet. Ensure that the velvet does not touch any other antlers, the freezer bottom or sides. Do not wrap the antler; wrapping the bottom of the antler compresses the velvet hairs, which hurts beam circumference measurements. Wrapping can also seal velvet cuts with blood and ice, giving velvet judges more difficulty in determining accurate calcification scores. Extra effort in handling velvet antlers will maximize presentation scores during the judging process.
Return in 24 hours and weigh each antler if it is frozen solidly. To prevent any sublimation (loss of weight by ice evaporation), place each antler in a garbage bag. Suck all remaining air out of each bag with a vacuum cleaner, before sealing with duct tape. Place a two-gallon pail containing one gallon of food-grade antifreeze with two dozen floating ice cubes in each freezer. Large walk-in freezers allow for more air exchange, resulting in increased sublimation or antler shrinkage, so many competitors use smaller 20+ cubic foot chest freezers. Monitor your freezers twice daily.
Velvet Antler Transport
Elk farmers are an innovative bunch, having transported competition antlers in anything from smaller reefers down to velvet wrapped up with ice in sleeping bags or furniture blankets. The preferred method is to place an operating horizontal freezer in the back of a pickup. For trips longer than an hour or two, most producers plug their freezers into a small, gas-powered generator. Take along some spare gas for those longer trips. If you have a walk-in freezer and choose to transport competition velvet in a chest freezer, plug it in the night before your trip to cool it down to freezing temperatures. Finally, pack each antler individually with lots of foam padding to prevent the antlers from rubbing and chafing each other.
Before you leave for your local competition, ensure that you have all your competition antlers with their appropriate pictures and inventory or registration forms to assist in the age verification process. The entries must be NAEBA registered at any level for entrance into the international competition.
The standard age verification process of a NAEBA registration or inventory record or a state or provincial inventory certificate will suffice for the preliminary competition. However, producers interested in future EBVs for antler production should consider some level of NAEBA registry, as that’s the likely database for EBV calculations.