Antlers and antler harvest form the basis of traditional deer farming industries in China, Korea and Russia. There is considerable market potential in these and western countries with the recognition that the pharmacological and bioactive properties of prepared soft, or velvet antler, are real and diverse in many therapeutic and tonic medicinal applications.
Strictly speaking, the term "velvet" refers to the skin covering a growing antler. It describes the fuzzy texture provided by many fine hairs growing on the surface. "Velvet antler" refers to the entire antler when it is in the growth phase. At this stage, it is soft and lacks the mineralized characteristics of "hard antler" which is nothing less than bone. Frequently "velvet" and "velvet antler" are used interchangeably to refer to the antler in its growth phase. It is at this growth stage that the entire antler is harvested for drying and use in pharmaceutical preparations. The finished antler product from elk is therefore often referred to as "elk velvet antler" (EVA).
Velvet antler is an actively growing, cartilaginous tissue, which is supplied with a complex vascular and nervous system. The skin surface covering the antler is variable in colour and often very dark; black or dark brown in red deer and a distinctive light orange-brown, grey, or black in elk. The skin is covered by short hairs growing at right angles to the surface and the whole antler often has a greasy feel from sebaceous gland secretions.
Antlers grow from protrusions of the frontal bone called pedicles ”. The pedicles are the perennial source of the regenerating antler. They are permanent features of the skull that remain after the antler is cast-off every spring. In the following discussions, one must make the distinction between the pedicle and the antler because they have some important differences in physiology and anatomy.
Antler pedicles are initiated on the frontal bone of the skull under the influence of testosterone and begin to grow in males at three to seven months of age. Well-fed farm animals reach a threshold body weight early and begin pedicle and antler growth in the middle of the first winter. Around one year of age pedicles generally grow their first antler; usually, a single spike, although with advanced genetics and good nutrition, multi-branched spikes are increasingly common. A strong pedicle diameter at a young age may be an indicator of good antler potential, but not always.
The pedicle is distinguished from the velvet antler itself by a zone of transition in hair texture and colour called the “coronet”. In two-year and older bulls the coronet becomes more prominent and is the growing point from which the antler develops. Like the pedicle, it is extremely susceptible to mechanical damage affecting the growth and form of future antlers.
Tine growth follows a distinct pattern (Figure 1). Antler “tines” start as buds developed from the main beam and grow at differential rates compared to the faster growth of the main beam. The “brow tine” is the first branch of the main beam. The “bez tine” (pronounced “bay”) can be variable in size and position on the antler and can be absent either on one or both sides. This may not occur every year and it is important to have knowledge of the time of casting and the stage of development to properly determine whether an unusual bez tine is growing, or whether the “trez tine” is emerging (Figure 1 and Table 2).
The “bulb” or top of the growing beam is used as the major assessment of whether velvet antler is ready to harvest or not. Typically it thickens above the trez tine (pronounced “tray”) and will bulb out depending on age and the extent that “royal tines ” will branch off. An average growth period to this stage is 63 - 65 days after last year’s antlers are shed but is extremely variable and an individual feature (Table 1).
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.
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.
The effect of diet on antler growth and ultimate size continues to be a controversial subject with commercial producers. The role of metabolic energy and protein content in diets fed to elk bulls and the timing of their supplementation is often debated. The addition of calcium and phosphorous with other trace elements is included in the argument. Most scientists now agree that the addition of nutrients beyond the optimum needed for growth cannot offer results that are beyond the genetic potential of the individual stag. In other words, nutrition is important but it won’t make a good bull out of a poor one.
Hormonal control seems to be a more likely mechanism for the regulation of antler growth. Early studies on hormone levels were able to correlate the rise and fall of serum levels of various hormones with stages in the growth cycle. It seems reasonable that at least a few of these are implicated in antler growth.
At various times a variety of hormones including prolactin, luteinizing hormone (LH), and growth hormone have been considered as antler stimulating hormones. However, none of these have direct cartilage growth-promoting activity and in view of the fact that the developing antler is composed of cartilage, it is unlikely that they are primary antler stimulating hormones.
By looking at hormone receptor sites researchers can differentiate hormonal activity directed at the antlers from that which influences mainly other organs. For example, the absence of prolactin receptor sites and the abundance of sites for an insulin-like growth factor (IGF) is evidence for the relative importance of these hormones to antler growth ie. IGF is important to antler growth whereas prolactin is not.The fact that blood levels of testosterone are low during velvet antler growth indicates that testosterone exerts no direct stimulation to velvet antler growth. There are also very few receptors for testosterone in the growing antler itself. There are however testosterone receptors in the pedicle which leaves room for this hormone to exert some influence over the timing of events of the antler cycle. Receptor sites for testosterone have also been demonstrated in the fetal and neonatal pedicle which supports the idea that testosterone is needed to initiate pedicle growth, but not for antler growth.
1. Just prior to casting the pedicle enlarges showing a ring of swollen skin at the base of last season’s antler button.
2. Just after casting some minor bleeding may occur.
3. Brow tine bud formation, 14-16 days after casting.
4. Bez tine bud formation at approximately 30 days of growth.
5. About 52 days of growth. Strong brow and bez tine development.
6. Well developed 3 year old at approximately 65 days. Ready to harvest.
7. A good balanced elk “head” with exceptional “tops”. Cut about 70 days.
8. 3 yr old elk at 70-75 days. Close to becoming overgrown for this age.
9. Overgrown antler. See brow and bez tines.
10. 80 days of growth. Very overgrown.
The Role of Insulin-like Growth Factor and Growth Hormone
Growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) appear to be two factors involved in antler growth. Growth hormone in the bloodstream fluctuates seasonally, with the greatest amounts in spring, at the time of antler growth. IGF blood levels are also seasonal, with the highest levels in mid-spring and early summer.
Growth hormone from the pituitary gland is known to cause the release of IGF from tissues such as the liver. Studies of receptor site binding in antlers have shown the cartilage at the growing tip to be high in receptor sites for IGF but not to growth hormone. Since the blood levels for both of these hormones is increased at the time of antler growth, it can be surmised that the increase in growth hormone during this period causes the production of IGF and it is IGF that exerts influence on the antler tissue. Antler growth is therefore under the indirect control of growth hormone through IGF.
To definitively say that IGF stimulates antler growth investigators needed to demonstrate this effect on antler tissue. Tissue culture techniques demonstrate that there is a dose-related increase in the growth of antler cells due to the presence of IGF.
In summary, antler growth is controlled by hormones and growth factors. Growth hormone and insulin-like growth hormone (IGF) are the overall chemical determinants of growth, with chemicals such as nerve factor, epithelial growth factor, and bone growth factor exerting their stimulating effects on the corresponding tissue types at the local level. These hormones and bioactive chemicals, together with rich nutrient molecules like free amino acids, complex sugars and lipids, are responsible for the sought-after medicinal properties of elk velvet antler.
Somewhat artificial divisions can be drawn between the body ’s control mechanisms for the growth of the antler tissue and the mechanisms responsible for timing the annual cycle of antler development and loss. Hormonal control of these events can become confusing unless it is clear what specific process is influenced; a growth process vs a cycle event.
The annual cycle and timing of the events of antler growth, maturation, and loss (Figure 4) are ultimately determined by day length and mediated in the elk by the hormones melatonin, gonadotropins, and testosterone.
Photoperiod and Melatonin
The pineal gland at the base of the brain and its response to light is the modulator of mechanisms responsible for the control of the male and female reproductive cycle and the antler cycle. When the duration of daylight reaches a peak and the length of darkness is least, the pineal gland makes very little melatonin. As day length decreases and the period of darkness increases, the pineal gland responds by secreting increasing levels of melatonin. Melatonin production is greatest when day length is decreasing to the lowest annual levels.
The gonadotropic hormones come from the brain and act on the ovaries or testicles of the elk. They are luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Rising levels of melatonin act on the hypothalamus of the brain causing the production and release of gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (Gn RH). In turn, Gn RH causes the pituitary to produce and secrete gonadotropins. In particular, LH regulates the testicular output of testosterone which ultimately controls the timing of the antler cycle and the male reproductive cycle.
As day length decreases, testosterone secretion increases in response to rising LH levels and reaches a peak immediately prior to the rut. Thereafter, levels begin to decline until spring when a rapid decline in circulating testosterone is associated with antler casting. While testosterone levels remain low, new antlers begin to grow. When antler growth nears completion the testosterone levels are once more rising. High levels of testosterone are associated with hardening and cleaning of the antler, coinciding nicely with the behavioural need for antlers during the rut.
The Effects of Castration
The immediate effects of castration depend on the stage of the antler cycle. Castration while in velvet results in the permanent retention of the velvet antler. Castration while in hard antler results in immediate casting and replacement of the antler by velvet antler which will remain soft the following cycle and all other cycles. In some species of deer, castration can result in "peruke antlers" which are almost neoplastic abnormal antler tissue, resembling the peruke wigs of old English aristocracy. Therefore, the lack of testosterone prevents the hardening and cleaning of immature antlers and prevents retention of the hard antlers.
In an intact male, giving testosterone during the velvet phase results in premature calcification and cleaning of the antler. Administration during the hard antler phase results in the retention of the antler. Therefore high concentrations of testosterone promote calcification and velvet shedding as well as prevent the casting of the hard antler. Sustained high concentrations of testosterone also prevent the growth of new antlers.
Producing and Harvesting Elk Velvet Antler
The following broad features of antler growth are important for production and are significant for age, breed type and individuals.
It can be clearly seen that once the main bulb has creased there is rapid calcification of the lower tines, with little addition in weight in relation to the large drop in quality. The growth in antler length from stage 1 - 2 is significant in weight terms with little loss in quality.
It pays then to observe bulls on a daily basis once the beam has developed from above the tree tine. Older animals, with thick beamed antlers, can be left to grow out more than young animals or thin antlers.
That elk velvet antler is in demand and significant in pharmacology in Oriental culture is both an incentive and a bonus of this farm management operation. Velvet antler is a valuable food product and maintaining unequalled hygiene and welfare standards is important to international marketing and acceptance by the public. The annual growth and harvest of velvet antler offers elk and deer farmers an attractive product source and financial return but carries with it several management and welfare responsibilities that cannot be ignored.
Selecting the Right Stage for Cutting
Once the antler has reached about 55 days growth, the form and growth of the antler should be checked every two days at least, and preferably every 24 hours. The best time is in the early morning with the sunlight behind the animals as the hairs on the velvet skin form a halo effect and the flattening or division of the royal bulb can be seen clearly. If animals are grouped in smaller groups according to casting dates, then there is no need to pen and handle groups at different stages of growth every time.
In deciding when to cut, the most important indicators are your records from years past. Each bull is slightly different re: density, growth style, and pattern of calcification. Some must be harvested at a certain stage, others at a different point in development. The number of days since casting is a very useful guide, plus the shape of the royal bulb with its 4th and 5th tines, and the shape and character of the brow tine. The royal bulb should be just starting to "dimple" and divide in young bulls. In older bulls, the division might be as much as several inches, if you know that bull does not calcify early. The brow tine tips should be straight, round, soft and velvet-covered.
Ideal harvest time is when the tip of the royal bulb just begins to flatten, or in larger antlers, a small crease (0.25 - 0.5 cm) will appear in the bulb area. The bulb should be at about 80% of Figure 5 Ready to harvest—brow and bez tines turning up the height from the brow to the trez tine, above the trez. If, however, the brow or be z tines show signs of turning up and pointing, calcification has begun and the antler should be harvested irrespective of bulb development.
As a rule, younger animals must be harvested earlier, and only thick beamed antlers should be left to grow to the limits of royal bulb development. The farmer should not sacrifice quality for weight and as the task is to determine when the antler has reached maximum growth prior to the onset of rapid calcification at the base, he/she must observe the whole antler.
Bulls, particularly two- and three-year-olds should be thoroughly familiar with the pens and squeezes or restraints long before harvesting. Training to the handling system and pen familiarization can be achieved during early spring as they cast. With casting dates being recorded, it is appropriate to group animals (20 -25 maximum) according to casting date to allow easy assessment of the stages of velvet antler development before removal. Therefore, it is necessary to assemble only those animals ready for harvest over a 10 to 14-day period. Older animals will naturally thereby be grouped separately from younger and later developing bulls.
Elk responds well to a simple established routine. Conduct velvet antler harvest at a similar time each day with one or two handlers with whom the bulls are familiar. The task becomes nonstressful and efficient and large numbers can be handled under such a routine.
Overcrowding in pens is the primary source of antler damage, particularly in young animals due to rearing and boxing with the front feet, or with bulls being under crowd pressure, lowering their heads in large milling groups and suffering breakage. A spacious pre-pen entry pen allows ample room for quick drafting into smaller groups of three to five animals. Bulls should not be left on their own for extended periods as they easily become stressed.
Alley and entrances to squeezes should have enough width at head height to avoid contact of antlers with walls or entrances, and squeezes should be well-positioned in the handling system so that little effort is needed to encourage the bull to enter. Modular handling systems use the bulls' natural desire to move around corners. Subdued lighting in these pressure areas seems to help.
Pens should be thoroughly checked prior to the season for broken gates, latches, projections, and broken fence wires. Aggressive, nervous, or flighty animals should be culled as they can initiate further disruption in an established group.
Velvetting should be avoided in hot, unsettled weather or in the heat of the day or if rapid weather changes such as thunderstorms are forecast. Bulls are also likely to become upset by high winds. Visitors or outside disturbances during velveting should be discouraged and, above all, the procedure must be conducted with respect and regard for animal welfare. There are important legal and ethical requirements to be observed in antler removal techniques and producers always have a responsibility to observe these.
Elk farmers assume a deep responsibility in the harvesting of velvet antler, and it is significant that Canada has produced its own Code of Practice for farming of deer as an industry gold standard and is among the first deer farming countries to do so.
When done correctly with analgesia (pain control), antler removal is thought to be less stressful than common practices like ear tagging. While the actual amputation of the antler is rather simple, the peripheral activities of animal handling, restraint, and analgesia are frequently not. There is potential for harm to the animal and to the producer if these aspects of the process are poorly performed. The animal welfare concerns include inappropriate and harmful physical and chemical restraint, and inadequate local anesthesia resulting in a painful amputation of the antler. There are safety concerns over accidental human exposure to anesthetic drugs, and drug residues in animal products derived from treated animals. There are also legal issues over the acquisition, distribution, and use of veterinary drugs in the livestock industry.
Mostly among special interest groups, there is considerable public opposition to the concept of velvet antler harvesting, supported by speculation and an uninformed view of velvet antlers' properties and uses. As farmers, we take the responsibility to not only ensure that velvet removal is the most sophisticated and correct operation on farm but to understand and promote the product carefully and respect it and the welfare of the animals equally.
Elk producers wanting to harvest antler from their animals should seek training in the antler removal process through a recognized (by your provincial or state veterinary association) training program. The instruction should be comprehensive, dealing with the peripheral issues of animal handling and antler product storage as well as the actual removal procedure. The training will allow you to harvest antler under the indirect supervision of your veterinarian and obtain prescription drugs used in antler removal.
Physical Restraint for Antler Harvest
The ideal physical restraint device for antler removal is a hydraulic or pneumatic squeeze chute which allows the gentle but firm confinement of the bull with his head and antlers exposed for antler removal. Squeeze chute designs for elk are very sophisticated, with various padded and adjustable features allowing containment of the animal in a safe and comfortable manner. All but the most unmanageable animals of any species can be squeezed and held still without using sedatives. Older experienced animals tend not to panic as much as young stags while being held. All animals benefit from the application of a blindfold. The blindfold reduces random visual stimulation and has a definite calming effect on animals.
Most squeezes allow some degree of head movement. If desired, complete immobilization of the head can be achieved using a halter and lateral tying. A regular horse halter is adapted by attaching ropes to the rings found on each side of the noseband. When the halter is fitted to the animal and the ropes are firmly tied down to cleats on the squeeze, the head is held motionless allowing easier cutting of the antler.
In the recent past, the need for sedatives, halters, and sometimes suitable squeeze chutes was obviated by using electro-immobilization devices to render the animal motionless. Most early elk industry proponents of electro-immobilizing devices recommended first providing physical restraint with a hydraulic squeeze, and then applying the electrical device to the stag to prevent any struggling during antler amputation and to theoretically provide some analgesia. There is no question that electro-immobilization is effective for the purpose of restraint. However, this method of restraint is brutal, inhumane, and should not be used under any circumstances. It provides no pain-killing properties and is obviously painful in and of itself.
Britain has banned the use of electro -immobilizers for any species. The use of electro - immobilizers for antler removal is not permitted in New Zealand or Australia. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA)" finds the use of electro-immobilization unacceptable." The CVMA has taken this approach to the problem because there has been scientific evidence that the use of electro-immobilizers causes distress to animals on which it is used. Thankfully, the use of electro -immobilization for restraint during antler removal has largely been discontinued by antler producers in favour of "animal-friendly" hydraulic chutes.
Analgesia for Antler Removal
Prior to antler removal, some form of anesthesia must be administered to the animal so that amputation is painless and humane. Chemical immobilization with sedative drugs is not really the same as general anesthesia and even heavily sedated animals sometimes need additional pain control in the form of local anesthesia.
Presently, the only universally accepted form of pain control for de -antlering bulls that are not under general anesthesia is the application of nerve blocks to the antler pedicle using lidocaine or a similar local anesthetic solution. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: The Farming of Deer (Australian), The Code of Recommendations and Minimum Standards for the Welfare of Deer During the Removal of Antlers (New Zealand), and The Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Deer (Cervidae) (Canada) have guidelines for the removal of velvet antler that have been created and agreed upon by the respective industry representatives, animal welfare organizations, and veterinary associations. These guidelines call for the application of local anesthetic infiltration techniques to block pain sensation to the antler and pedicle.
A regional nerve block to the antler pedicle requires injections to the major nerves which are the main sources of sensory input to the antler. Often there is minor input or innervation of secondary importance from local nerves. Complete blockage of nervous impulses requires the injection of a local anesthetic to this nerve as well. With that in mind, a “ring block” placed around the base of the pedicle obviates the need for precise placement of local anesthetic solution. A series of small overlapping injections using a dose rate of 1.2 ml of lidocaine per centimetre of pedicle circumference (total volume of approximately 15 ml per antler) are placed under the skin around the base of pedicle. In places where the skin is closely adherent to the skull, infiltration can be somewhat difficult. Persistence and practice combined with physical injection pressure will overcome these difficulties. The use of multi-dose vaccination - type syringes to place the local anesthetic speeds up the process and provides superior injection pressure to that of an ordinary syringe.
Many elk producers who harvest antlers complain that the use of local anesthetic requires that the animal spends too much time in physical restraint. They maintain that the process of squeezing up the animal for an injection of local anesthetic is at least as stressful to a cervid as having the antler removed rapidly but without any anesthesia or analgesia. Scientific research has demonstrated that approximately 60 seconds after the application of a ring block, the small nerve branches to the antler will be sufficiently blocked to allow amputation. By the time the injection of the second pedicle is done, the first antler will usually be ready for removal
Some believe that electro-anesthesia (EA) may be the anesthetic technique of choice for antler removal. It is important to distinguish between electro-anesthesia and electro-immobilization. Electro-immobilization (EI) and the devices used to produce it are designed for restraint and immobilization. There are claims about the analgesic effects of this procedure, but these are unsubstantiated and EI is clearly inhumane. EA, on the other hand, has been used since the early 1970s in such human applications as dentistry and post-operative patient care where its analgesic effects are well documented.
One form of EA is perhaps better known as transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS can be achieved by applying ultra-high frequency electrical impulses to nerves by means of electrodes placed strategically near the site to be anesthetized. The electrical impulses act to attenuate neural depolarization and transmission. Depending on the efficiency of the electro - anaesthetic unit in supplying the correct degree of electrical stimulation at the appropriate location, partial or complete local anesthesia is achieved in human patients. The EA apparatus most used for antler removal procedures is one originally designed to provide dental analgesia in humans. The nature of the electrical stimulus used for EA is not the same as that for electro - immobilization, perhaps supporting the belief that electro -immobilization units cannot be used to provide anesthesia. A typical EA apparatus uses a 9-volt battery and operates (pulses) at up to 60 milliamps of current delivered for up to 250 microseconds, at a rate of up to 140 pulses per second. The characteristics of the pulsatile current are adjustable using controls on the generating unit. This is apparently enough electrical interference to cause reversible chaos in sensory neurons.
For local anesthesia during antler removal, elk farmers have been using EA units in a number of ways; One electrode on each ear, or one ear and the lip, or one onto the scalp in front of the pedicle and the other behind the pedicle. After a waiting period of approximately 3 minutes, a saw is used to amputate the antler. Proponents of EA maintain that aversive movements or behavioural indications of pain during antler removal are uncommon.
Although EA is useful and proven to have limited applications in human medicine, the circumstances and conditions of use so easily achieved in situations with human patients may not be feasible or possible when EA is used on elk and deer. Neuroanatomy and physiology are not necessarily the same in every animal. Methods used in human dentistry may not be directly applied to antler removal in elk. There is no question that EA might receive chronic pain in some human medical applications or in some humans, but this method of relieving has no broad application for pain relief during antler harvesting.
These observations are not criticisms of the EA concept, but admonitions to examine this method of anesthesia before applying it to current antler harvesting techniques. There are substantial differences between its use in human medicine, for which it was designed, and its use for antler removal, for which it was not. We should approach such recent innovations with guarded optimism. More research into the effectiveness and limitations of techniques like electro-anesthesia is needed.
Another nonchemical technique for antler anesthesia is compression anesthesia. which involves the application of pressure to nerves to remove sensation prior to the application of a painful stimulus. This method was used as early as the 17th century to provide pain relief to soldiers with shattered limbs from battle.
More recently, low compression has been used as an anesthetic method for antler removal in red deer spikers and fallow deer in New Zealand and Australia and is currently permitted in antler removal of spikers (yearlings). In low co impression methods a stretched rubber ring is placed around the pedicle and left in place for about an hour. The ring compresses the nerves on the pedicle leading to the antler, rendering the antler insensitive to pain. In New Zealand studies the rings were placed for a minimum of one hour and a maximum of two hours, but an optimum time or a minimum effective time was not established. The obvious drawback to compression anesthesia is the waiting period prior to antler amputation and the need for removal of the ring. Failure to remove the ring and relieve the compression would result in the death of the pedicle, although the low compression method was developed to remove antlers from red deer immediately being shipped to slaughter, so removal tightens the band until it is fully stretched around the pedicle and then it is crimped with a metal clip to maintain the pressure.
Research has demonstrated that this method does indeed cause the antler to lose feeling but less reliably so than the application of a lidocaine nerve block.
Moreover, and most importantly, the same research showed that the animals experience considerable pain as the rubber band is being stretched to provide the high tension needed. In other words, there is some numbing of the antler but the device hurts when it is applied, making the procedure unsuitable for routine harvesting of velvet antler. The search for ideal methods of antler removal continues.
The ideal method would provide easily applied, rapid, fully effective, long-lasting, reliable analgesia yielding a residue free antler product at a reasonable cost with maximum m safety and minimal stress to the animal. Above all, the humaneness of the method should not be compromised by economic considerations.
Hygiene is paramount, both for equipment and the harvested antler. Saws, tourniquets, recording materials, tags and storage facilit ies should all be on hand before starting.
The head must be firmly restrained and the antler fully supported during cutting to prevent any sudden movement of the animal from tearing the antler skin (Figure 8 banana peel effect). After the bull is securely restrained or suitably sedated, tourniquets are applied in a figure 8 loop at the pedicle level be low the coronet. They should be of material that has pliability and some width to comfortably compress blood vessels without crushing or cutting into underlying tissue. They must be clean before application, and washed between uses. A medium toothed saw is advised, and it should also be washed and disinfected between uses.
Cutting should be parallel to the coronet, 5 - 10 mm above it and started from the outside of the antler towards the centre. If the anima l is held in a squeeze chute then local anaesthetic administered via ring block at the base of the pedicle must be given time for effective pain block to develop.A small surface cut is made first, the level of analgesia checked by lack of reaction from the bull, and the antler cut through smoothly and cleanly from this position. The saw must be sharp and disinfected and the antler supported at all times. Cutting from the centre out can leave the potential for the antler to fall at the last minute, or the animal's head to move as the weight is relieved, and risks damage to the pedicle and tearing of the velvet skin. If the anima l's head moves at any stage, cease cutting until control is regained.
By developing a strong veterinary-client relationship and by familiarization of the animals to a routine and strict observance of welfare and hygiene codes, antler removal is a safe, humane and clinical farm procedure and a normal part of farmed elk management. Most jurisdictions are requiring a "velvet antler removal accreditation" course be completed by all individuals who will actually remove velvet antler. This will insure that the highest standards of animal welfare and product quality are maintained.
Tranquillizing, anaesthetizing and reviving bulls is a skilled operation which can use some potentially dangerous drugs and requires a good knowledge of anatomy and veterinary techniques, particularly when injecting. Veterinary advice and instruction is very important. If sedation or chemical immobilization has been used these will require additional reversal agents.
This is a skilled technique and a direct veterinary responsibility. The following post treatment abnormal signs of recovery: prolonged lack of alertness, continued wide based stance or unstable gait, muscular stiffness or lameness, laboured breathing, bloat, or excessive bleeding fro m the antler stump indicate that veterinary advice must be sought and the event recorded.
Spike antlers on yearling bulls require special attention. The coronet is not as distinct as in older animals and cutting the pedicle instead of the antler will permanently affect subsequent antler growth for the life of the bull.
Sedated bulls can occasionally react to sudden movement or loud noise and can easily damage themselves or antler with involuntary action. Chemically immobilized bulls should be dropped on clean pen floors to prevent contamination of the cut antler, or the exposed eyes and mouth. If bulls have been recumbent for some time, the uppermost antler can become rapidly drained of blood so the head should be tilted and antler held down for some time prior to removal to ensure even distribution of blood in the antler. The entire operation should only take the time required for optimal care.
Don’t forget to remove the tourniquet. Damage to coronets by leaving tourniquets on or poor cutting techniques can be permanent and costly.
Post Velveting Recovery
Post-harvest care of bulls demands similar thought and care. Shade and ample fresh drinking water are required, particularly during summer. Bulls should be encouraged to leave the pens as soon as is practical after tourniquet removal. They must be checked frequently for signs of recumbency, bloat or distress. Tourniquets need be applied for only 15 - 20 minutes postharvest, but antlers should be checked for excessive bleeding after tourniquet removal. With good bleeding control (haemostatic powders, etc.) there will be few bleeding episodes, but excessive exertion should be avoided, (i.e. moving anima ls long distances, etc.). Bulls should not be confined in outside pens under conditions of dust and potential heat stress for any amount of time. Tourniquets must be removed before bulls are released, and should not be retained for longer than 30 minutes. They can be reapplied if any excessive bleeding is a concern.
Veterinarians may recommend a variety of haemostatic treatments or antibiotic powders and insect repellents depending on local conditions. Fresh air and clean conditions promote rapid healing of the cut surfaces. Normally no post-operative antibiotics or dressings are required.
These might aid the arrest of bleeding, but are not critical to the operative success. Fly strike and maggots can be a problem. Insecticidal sprays are an option after antlers are removed but not before.
The Antler Removal Process
Here is a correctly placed and effective tourniquet made from surgical rubber tubing. (This picture is, of course, after antler removal).
This picture shows the placement of local anesthesia in a "ring block” around the base of the pedicle removal).
Vaccinator gun with a lidocaine Tetra pak for placing ring blocks.
Scoring of the antler with a knife along the proposed cut line before using the saw can prevent “banana peeling”
Sawing through the antler with a coarse saw from medial to lateral, or from inside to outside. Cutting from this direction can result in “banana peeling” if the antler is unsupported during the final saw movements.
Successful antler removal from a well-secured animal. This removal involved the use of wound powder, but this is an individual choice.
Harvested Antler Handling and Storage
After removal, velvet antler should be held for cooling in a clean, shaded insect-proof area, reclined cut end uppermost on a slope of 15-200 to allow contained blood to be evenly distributed through the antler. Velvet is also commonly hung upside down on racks until cool and then frozen in an inclined (15-300) or upright position. If this occurs for too long blood can pool in the upper region and create processing problems.
Turn antler as it freezes - at least every half hour for three hours. Great care must be taken to avoid deforming the bulb or tine shape during freezing to ensure the antler is presented in true form for grading. Frozen velvet antler should be stored in airtight plastic bags and handled subsequently with the due care that a valuable edible medicinal product demands.
Attention to detail from all points of animal selection, grouping and handling and harvest techniques with an established simple routine ensure that on-farm breeding and feeding programs are rewarded. Ultimately a knowledge of the changing market requirements for style and quality must be known each season.
Antler must be stored frozen, and allowed to freeze without deformity of the bulb or tines. After harvest, and once cooled while inclining cut end uppermost, the blood should be evenly spread through the antler tissue. Antler should be cleaned, tagged, date recorded, weighed and measured for grading, then frozen as quickly as possible and sealed in plastic bags to avoid moisture loss and freezer burn.
Antler must be turned as it freezes - at least once every half hour for at least three hours. Frozen antlers must be kept absolutely clean and handled carefully. Never bump or drop it - cracks will form which makes it useless for slicing after it has dried.
Marketing Velvet Antler
A number of marketing venues exist for frozen antlers. Buyers may travel directly to producers' farms, usually accompanied by a local facilitator, and buy antler directly. A number of local processing plants are prepared to buy from producers that deliver directly to their processing location."
Irrespective of the product endpoint, quality is reflected in the price as the international market is increasingly competitive. New initiatives include capsulated velvet antler pills for local use and as these products gain more acceptance this market should increase rapidly.
Most of the industry associations are active in developing co-operative sales with the pooling of products with defined standards. Processed products are generally sold in dried whole stick form, but the drying procedure is a learned and closely protected operation best left to the experts who have invested in the industry.
A good relationship with a processor is very useful to have. Good communication on the quality and presentation of the farmer's product, particularly as it relates to blood content, calcification and cutting time is essential as it is only by this that combined objectives of producer and processor can be achieved.
Bull Selection and Feeding
Somewhere between 35 - 40% of the variability in velvet antler is of genetic origin and therefore heritable. The animals must be fed well to express this genetic potential, but there is little evidence to suggest that feeding and genetics influence the market perception of velvet quality. Evidence from nutritional trials confirms only that underfeeding in late winter and during actual antler growth impacts on velvet production. A high protein diet during velvet growth has little effect on velvet antler weight but may improve hard antler weight.
A variety of complex formulas and different diet additives including herbs, browse, keeps, lichens and vitamin, mineral and protein additives have been tried with little repeatability from year to year or consistent achievement. Individual producers may strongly defend their use, but the evidence would suggest otherwise.
Feeding a high quality, high energy, diet (ad libitum) towards the end of the rut in early winter, to recover lost body condition, seems to be the most positive step to take to improve velvet yields.
Under North American winter conditions this type of feeding will be maintained pre and post-casting as an aid to production until spring grass growth is underway.
Pre-rut body weight and condition have an influence on velvet antler production. This reinforces the importance of quality feeding.
Rapid improvements in velvet antler production can be achieved by selecting sires for velvet production, live weight and dams on the basis of velvet production and live weight in their offspring.
Antler weight at two and three years of age is positively correlated to both live weights at 15 months of age and subsequent antler production. Live weight at 15 months has a positive correlation to future velvet production, as do two and three-year-old cuts. But if the objective is solely to improve antler weight, then selection on antler weight alone will make faster progress.
It is important to record casting dates so an accurate velvet growth, corrected for age, can be estimated. Casting dates are easily recorded during late winter feeding by simple observation. Selection for the top 5% of young stags ensures that progress is rapid.
In 1990 - 1991, Bruce Friedel and Robert Hudson surveyed the Alberta velvet industry to establish baseline performance data on elk velvet production. They also estimated which velvet production parameters are more useful in predicting velvet antler performance, and their practical applications in the genetic selection process.
The average age of bulls in the survey was 3.69 years, with the oldest bull recorded being 15 years old. Mean pre-rut weight was 766 lbs. A total of 1,026 mixed-age bulls were velveted, producing 10,750 lbs, averaging 10.5 lbs/bull. Velvet production was affected more by pre-rut body weight than bull age (Figure 10) and increased 3 lb between two and three years of age, 2.5 lbs between years three and four, and 1.6 lbs between ages four and five. Older bulls cast their antler buttons earlier than younger bulls. Weight within individual age classes also had a slight influence on antler casting dates and antler casting date had a marked effect on velveting date across all age classes.
Producers in the survey velveted their bulls between royal and sur-royal initiation (indentation of the fourth and fifth points before antler calcification occurs) after 59, 69, 67, and 71 days of growth in two, three, four, and five-year-old bulls, respectively. An increase of three days between antler casting dates and velveting dates resulted in an additional 1 lb of velvet antler.
Comparisons between velvet growth can be made on a metabolic weight basis, with elk (79 g W - 0.75 of bull) being more efficient velvet producers per unit of live weight than the smaller red deer (50g W -0.75 of stag) in New Zealand. Velvet production efficiency peaked at age seven, which has important implications for managing the bull herd.
Velvet antler production was related more strongly to past velvet yield (Figure 11), than either age, body weight or antler casting dates. Within age groups, pre-rut body weights were related to velvet antler weights, which indicates an effect of frame size on velvet antler growth in elk, similar to red deer in New Zea land. Improvements in velvet antler production in elk are possible if producers select bulls on the basis of velvet antler yield adjusted for age and live weight.
Selecting For Improved Velvet Production
About 35 percent of the variability in velvet antler weight is of genetic origin, which makes it a moderately heritable trait. While the relationship between body weight and velvet antler weight is well established, individual variation of antler weights within an age group is a better prediction of subsequent velvet growth. This is also the best selection index if the sole objective is to improve velvet production. The selection process requires that producers know the mean ± standard deviation of velvet production within an age group, after which the expected rate of increase can be calculated using an equation for estimating breeding gains in velvet antler production:
Example for a six-year-old breeding bull:
Within Alberta's elk industry there appears to be a higher selection differential among older bulls, which suggests that there is more variability in velvet antler production as bulls age. Most elk producers use older breeding bulls with proven velvet antler performance, but as generation intervals increase, the expected rate of genetic gain slows. If we consider the impact that a selective breeding program has on both male and female progeny, the use of highly selected younger-aged bulls is more dramatic. As selection pressure on a particular trait increases, the variability or 'selection differential' usually decreases, resulting in slower genetic progress.
Phenotypic deviations of velvet production between average velveting bulls and selected breeding bulls of similar ages become the actual selection differentials. Generation interval reflects the average age of parents when a progeny is born and can be estimated by adding average cow age (five years in Alberta) to bull age and dividing by two. Genetic gains in velvet antler production are estimated in Table 4. Producers that use older breeding bulls and have complete velvet records can calculate the genetic gain with more accuracy. If a producer wants to use a six-year-old breeding bull and has velvet records from age two he can calculate heritability by:
Recalculate an average selection differential for those five years (say that 6-year-old bull cut 7.5 lb above average each year). The expected genetic gain is:
Annual rates of genetic gain may seem insignificant to many producers, but the implications of selecting better velvet producing two-year-old bulls for breeding would improve velvet growth in progeny born 10 years hence by 2.6 lb per year (0.26 lb/yr x 10 yr = 2.6 lb) Elk bulls born in 2003 producing 2.6 lb per year more velvet during their productive life span (aged two to 11), could yield a farmer an additional 26 lb of velvet antler! That's a lot of velvet for relatively little effort.
Velvet selection programs are only as good as the records that are kept, and their interpretation. Essential to these records are:
Selection criteria must be high as the present market trends will penalize small thin velvet, overgrown velvet, and poor quality. It takes some years to establish a quality mature herd, given the age that bulls reach peak production, but the potential rewards and satisfaction are many if this pathway of elk farming is chosen. However, no matter how well the animals respond to nutrition and selection, if the management of penning and harvest is poor, then the effort is partially wasted. There should also be selection pressure for handling and temperament. Quiet bulls, well managed, should never break or damage antler and with division into appropriate group, sizes can be handled in the most simple facilities.
The conversion factors to a 55 day or 65-day standard are given in Table 5. A 40-day antler is about half (0.51) the weight of a 65-day antler; therefore to convert the antler weight, you simply divide the actual velvet yield by the appropriate day factor from the table. This table is designed for red deer, and may not be accurate for elk.
The processes described above have clearly been proven in the 30 years since the survey described above was completed. Antler production in the most carefully managed, highly selected and hardest working farmed herds has more than doubled in each year category. In fact, the “top end” bulls are producing FOUR TIMES more than the averages shown.
Using EVA for Health—The Traditional Oriental Approach
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been keeping Asians well for thousands of years. Fundamental to its success is the practice of preventive, rather than curative therapy, and the concept of balance. Elk Velvet Antler (EVA) is an essential component of many balanced preparations (Figure 13). The basis of this maintenance approach to health is the philosophy of Yin and Yang, cosmic forces which are said in TCM doctrine to control all natural phenomena and life processes. Both forces are dependent on each other, and the ideal state within the body and within the universe is to have the two forces in relative balance and harmony. TCM is used to keep the two in balance, preventing the ill health that results whenever imbalance occurs.
EVA is so highly valued because deer are the animals with the greatest Yang energy, recognized as a good luck animal, and associated closely with health and longevity. Yin and Yang have their own domains within the human body. Half the vital organs pertain to the Yin and the other half are part of Yang. Yang energy is the force that carries blood throughout the body. In Chinese medicine, EVA is the main medicine for increasing blood volume and its components as well as blood flow. When blood is increased more energy will be generated and the body will be maintained in better health. This enhanced blood activity (haematinic) aids in the promotion of health and the prevention of illness through righting the Yin and Yang imbalance. Often a doctor is only paid when the patient is well, but not sick - a practice that might not be greeted with enthusiasm by western medical professionals.
The Traditional Chinese medical doctor does not simply look at the patient ’s symptoms when prescribing a treatment. He/she also takes into full consideration many other things such as the patient’s age and constitution, medical history, the patient's physical appearance and personality, and possible side effects of the prescribed medicine. EVA is not prescribed to everyone, and it is not always prescribed in the same form or mixture. People with plenty of Yang energy, characterized by their hot body, aggressive and positive nature, do not need to take EVA regularly. On the other hand, EVA is perfect for people with more of the Yin forces - laid back, negative or timid nature, cool body people.
A book called Shin Nong Bon Cho Kyung, written 1800 years ago, suggests “deer velvet tastes sweet and its property is warm. It is used for reinforcing vital energy, strengthening memory and will, generating teeth, curing persistent vaginal blood discharges, and treating fevers and epilepsy. Deer antler cures sores, carbuncles (boils), expels pathogens as well as retained blood in the uterus. It is also used for treating consumptive disease and illness caused by overexertion, lumbago, excessive loss of weight, repairing the body, reinforcing vital energy, curing infertility, stopping pain and preventing miscarriage. Prolonged consumption would keep the body light and extend longevity”.
Today, 1800 years later, velvet is still being used to prevent and correct many ills in Asia. Westerners have only recently begun to make use of this ancient remedy and tonic. Most have been unwilling to take it seriously because of the notion that it is an aphrodisiac. Velvet antler is used to remedy sexual disorders in men such as impotence, premature ejaculation, and watery semen (low sperm count).
Positive effects have been reported when EVA is used to increase the blood, remedy “kidney deficiency” and gastrointestinal disorders, and to improve low blood pressure and eliminate anemia. It is also used successfully to promote rapid healing by aiding the regeneration of damaged tissue, to treat menstrual disorders and menopausal symptoms in women, and to improve weak bones and sinews.
In Asian countries, it is mostly consumed in spring and autumn and is often prescribed with a mixture of other herbal medicines, commonly served as a tea or soup. Medicinal antler is usually divided into four physical sections (Figure 14), classified according to the different composition of each section. Each section has different uses. The two upper sections (wax piece and blood piece) are used as preventative medicines and tonics for children and young people while the middle portion is used in the treatment of arthritis and osteomyelitis. The lower part (bone piece) is regarded as being of particular benefit to older people subject to calcium deficiency and osteoporosis.
Dr. Lee Sang-In of Kyung Hee University in South Korea says velvet is also used to treat infertility in woman and promote skin growth where there has been chronic infection. Liver problems and high cholesterol levels can also be alleviated with velvet, he says.
EVA can boost hormonal activity, increase oxygen uptake to the brain, liver and kidneys, decrease the rate of muscle fatigue, and promote muscular growth. It can be very useful for both physical and mental activity as well as promoting healing. But EVA should not be casually used by everyone. It should not be used or should only be used cautiously in people with prostate problems, heart conditions and lupus. EVA is a powerful substance, and consequently, we must be aware that improper or excessive consumption may not be beneficial.
The best advice is to try EVA in small amounts for several months and notice the effects. Think of the balancing calming Yin force and the energizing Yang. Consider what your individual nature is, what you need to improve, and consider how EVA has helped so many other people.
Talk to people who understand natural health products, and enjoy the effects of improved health. A very good article, written by credible western scientists on the clinical properties of medicinal velvet antler can be found at:
The Medicinal Properties of Velvet Antler Products
General Effects of Medicinal Antler
The medicinal activity of antler preparations is mainly due to substances that act on the autonomic nervous system. The rich collection of microelements in the growing antler determines its physiological action (Table 7). The products of rapid growth and cell differentiation found in antler are bioactive substances such as:
In Western medicine, velvet antler has the potential for use in treating many conditions and maintaining health because of its general healing and restoration and regeneration effects on tissue. Competitive athletes might use antler to optimize performance and to promote mental and physical growth. Velvet antler shows promise for its neurovascular effects, stabilizing cardiovascular and nervous system functions. Its powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenging properties protect against the process of ageing. At the cellular level velvet antler defends against degenerative processes and maintains the integrity of cell multiplication.
The therapeutic effects of antlers are a consequence of its nature (very rapid growing tissue), and its contents which are needed to control and support tumour-like growth rates. The same bioactive substances that initiate and control antler growth and differentiation in the animal can benefit tissue regeneration and growth in the human patient. Some of the bioactive substances found in velvet antler are:
Western medicine is evidence-based medicine. Where is the scientific evidence that medicinal antler has any therapeutic value in the Western sense? Proximate analysis of growing antler shows its constituents to be biologically active compounds and observational and experimental studies have demonstrated the effects of antler therapy in the laboratory and in clinical trials. In the 1960’s Russian research on pentazocine, which is an alcohol extract of velvet antler containing largely the lipid (fat) components of velvet, carried out a series of pre-clinical trials using animals and extensive clinical evaluation on humans. This research focussed largely on the tonic or revitalizing effects of pantocrine while Chinese research looked at the androgenic (development and maintenance of male characteristics) and gonadotropic (stimulation of reproductive hormones) effects.
Much of the early scientific evidence on antler products come from Russia, China, Korea, and Japan. There are problems interpreting the results of these early studies because Western science has different criteria for assuring the validity of experimental data. Oriental research from that era has different standards than Western research for reporting experimental methods and the results obtained. Typically, there are low numbers of subjects in the experiments preventing the calculation of mathematical significance as well as concerns about animal welfare which prevent the duplication of their methods to confirm the results. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence for the effectiveness of velvet antler as a therapeutic aid for cardiovascular disease, blood disorders, metabolic problems, neoplastic disease, anti-inflammatory, improved healing.
Western medicine seeks to remedy specific disorders with specific therapy or specific drugs. In a Western sense we don’t know which biological effect from ingesting antler medicine is attributable to which component. It hasn’t been demonstrated that bioactive compounds in antler medicine will act alone or whether other components needed. Since velvet antler has a variety of human benefits, it is very unlikely that there is one single active ingredient. It is likely that several ingredients interact with each other in a complex way as is often the case with naturopathic remedies. More research is needed to demonstrate that velvet antler will work well in the context of Western medicine.
The present bull selection criteria revolve around large antlers and antler quality criteria are about physical characteristics of dimensions and weight, interior colour, and calcification as an indicator of bioactivity content. Future bull selection criteria may evolve to separate the two end uses of antlers. Trophy bulls will likely continue to be evaluated on the size, symmetry, and esthetic appearance of their hard antlers. It is possible that “nutraceutical bulls” may emerge where the quantity and quality of bioactivity in their velvet antler become the benchmark for selection., based on chemical assays for potency and quantity of various biologically active compounds.
Research on the Effects of EVA Supplementation
Modern research on velvet antler has been conducted in these general areas:
Velvet antler thought to have gonadotropic effects, stimulating the release of hormones (LH and FSH), influencing both male and female gonads (testes and ovaries) and producing the effects of increased testosterone and estrogen levels. This can result in the stimulation of libido and sperm production, as well as alleviate unpleasant menstrual and menopausal side effects.
Research has shown velvet antler increases the production of both red blood cells and white blood cells. Experimental evidence shows that a component in velvet antler can reverse experimentally induced anemia, therefore exhibiting a restorative function. White blood cells fight infection.
Velvet antler helps the body to maintain homeostasis against heat, cold and other physical stressors. Stress causes oxidative damage to cells and velvet antler exhibits protective mechanisms against cellular disruption such as free radical scavenging and antioxidation properties.
In controlled research at the University of Saskatchewan, velvet antler helped to protect lab animals fro m liver damage by carbon tetrachloride and was proven to be non-toxic and safe. In addition, persons subject to liver damage from Hemochromatosis who have used EVA long- term report less evidence of damage than would be expected or predicted.
Velvet antler is a very rapidly growing tissue containing many growth factors. Due to its growth rate, deer antler is used as a biomedical model for research on osteoporosis, and as a possible graft source for healing fractures. Because antler regeneration involves a form of stem cell growth antler is a model for cancer and tissue regeneration studies.
Recent studies in Japan show that velvet reduced signs normally associated with senility. Other studies show that velvet antler increases testosterone levels in male mice, and decreases the activity of enzymes associated with the ageing process while increasing liver and kidney protein synthesis by maintaining cellular multiplication.
Growing antler is comprised of many cell types. These include fibroblasts, chondroblasts, chondrocytes and others. All of these are required for healthy growing bones and tissue. Velvet antler is high in calcium and phosphates which aid in the healing of bones. Research has shown that velvet antler helps to heal nerve tissue. Velvet antler's relationship to recovery from traumatic injury could possibly explain its reported effectiveness against arthritis.
Blood pressure reduction is due to velvet antler's ability to increase the dilation of the peripheral blood vessels.
Velvet antler can boost hormonal activity, increase oxygen uptake to the brain, liver and kidneys, decrease the rate of muscle fatigue, and promote muscular growth. It is useful for both physical and mental activity as well as promoting healing.
Velvet should not be used or should only be used cautiously in people with prostate problems, heart conditions, and lupus.
Applicable to sika, red deer and elk only because of the presence of a large sebaceous gland on the undersurface of the tail. In Oriental countries, dried deer tail is the most commonly consumed part of the deer next to velvet antler. They are valued based on the size, and relative ease of processing. The finished product is jet black in colour, hairless and has a very distinctive odour. Its value per kilogram makes it one of the most expensive forms of medicine. The dried tail is soaked in a special processed alcoholic liquor for 30 days, the liquid drunk and the tail cooked with or without other herbal or animal medicines and eaten, served with chicken or duck soup. Uses are varied but mainly for sexual dysfunction, uterine disorders, lumbar and leg pain and as a tonic to replenish the Yang system, enriching bone marrow and kidney function.
At slaughter, the tail should be removed at the base of the spine and held with animal I.D. until the animal has passed all inspection procedures, then frozen hygienically for later processing.
The pizzle - penis, prepuce and testis is processed to a hard dry form with a distinctive translucent red colour. Appearance and size are critical to product marketing. The pizzle is usually air dried with a portion of pelvic bone attached to authenticate its origin as this is particularly important for export. It is consumed exclusively by men, soaked and sliced in wine liquor or ground and used in tonic form. It is used for impotence, sterility and to improve sexuality.
At slaughter, it is necessary to remove the entire penis, testes and scrotum plus the erector muscle and leave attached to a small slice of the pelvic “aich” bone. The pizzle should be thoroughly cleaned and frozen for processing.
Skins and Leather
The fashion attributes of elk skins have been mentioned earlier and the strength, unusual grain character and ability to shave or split to provide a soft supple leather, combine to increase use in the garment industry both as nappa leather and a buck skin suede. The product does, however, suffer from a variety of faults, mainly mechanical damage due to antler scoring or hoof damage plus abrasions and cuts that can arise fro m poor handling and pen and fence construction. Bacteria l damage fro m poorly preserved skins and tick and fly damage can also occur.
At slaughter, skins can be frozen, salted or treated in the pickled pelt form. In salting, defatting and an adequate salting is essential with the skin left spread to cool prior to treatment.
Quality farm handling is, however, the prerequisite to improving returns and the acceptance of farmed elk skin. The size of red deer and elk skins allow large panel cuts to be made from a single skin and add flexibility to form and design. These additional products from elk should not be considered as cast offs or by-products, but are a significant and valuable part of elk farming returns in their own right.
The sinews are dried to a bright natural colour with or without the inclusion of the rear (dew) claws. Muscle and fat are removed and the sinew straightened. Sinews are used as a tonic soup for vital energy restoration and for muscle and eyesight ailments.
Hard antler is washed, dried and ground and reprocessed in the form of antler glue and used to promote blood flow, lactation deficiency in women and body weakness.
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:
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.
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.
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.