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Hard Antler & Trophies


Elk are harvested for two primary products: meat and antlers. These products have been extensively described in previous chapters. Harvest for meat mainly takes place in a government inspected slaughter plants that have had their receiving and handling facilities purpose-built or renovated to handle elk in a safe, humane and efficient manner. This requires entry and raceway sides and gates that are tall enough (at least 2 meters) and sometimes with covered tops - like a tunnel – to prevent elk from leaping up and over. These facilities do an excellent job of handling elk and other species and meat quality is predictably very good. Consumers and animal welfare experts have approved and accepted their methods and products. Harvest method is usually with a captive bolt rifle or a powerful stunning device that renders the animal unconscious, followed rapidly by exsanguination i.e. bleeding out. For many other producers, processors, and consumers, on-farm harvest of animals is preferred.

Farmed elk become very comfortable in farm or ranch situations. Whether they are born and raised on a particular property or moved and allowed to settle in they are relaxed and understand how, given adequate and appropriate care, to function successfully in that environment.

However, loading and hauling to a processing plant is stressful, as demonstrated for bison in a recent research project completed by Jessica Janssen at South Dakota State University. She looked at serum cortisol levels as an indicator of stress in slaughter bison. 

Treatments; On-Ranch = grass-finished bison heifers (n=40) harvested on-ranch by a mobile slaughter unit. Commercial = grass-finished bison heifers (n=80) transported ~720 km and harvested in a commercial facility. All heifers were harvested at ~28 m of age.

The result shows a strong advantage to on-farm harvesting of animals and is convincing evidence that on-farm harvest is much less stressful to animals destined for the food industry. The preferred method of harvest is in a large “pen” – at least several acres in area, and a high-powered rifle shot by a skilled and trained professional. The initial shock of a hit in the upper neck / lower skull and spine area is followed quickly by exsanguination. After either termination in the plant or in the field, carcass processing proceeds in a hygienic manner.

Effect of Slaughter Method on Bison Cortisol Levels. Courtesy of J Janssen, SDSU, 2020.

The preferred method of harvest is in a large “pen” – at least several acres in area, and a high-powered rifle shot by a skilled and trained professional. The initial shock of a hit in the upper neck / lower skull and spine area is followed quickly by exsanguination. After either termination in the plant or in the field, carcass processing proceeds in a hygienic manner.

These results and observations of behaviour before and during both slaughter methods have led animal welfare experts to conclude that producers and consumers should be given the opportunity to choose how they proceed with harvest and marketing to consumers. In most jurisdictions, meat products destined for wide distribution through further processing, and then wholesale distribution and retail sale, are required to come from a larger plant that is inspected in every aspect of its operation by government or third-party service providers who ensure that food safety, animal welfare, and labour standards are observed and enforced. This approach reassures human health managers and regulators as well as consumers who prefer to eat food that moves through these well documented and trusted channels. The large scale of these operations also provides economies of scale that allow a sale at reasonable price levels.

For other consumers, their preference is knowing where their food comes from, how it was raised, cared for, and harvested. For these people, on-farm harvest allows them to meet the actual producer and view the farm. If they so choose it also allows them to conduct or participate in the harvest. This is particularly important for many people of many diverse religious faiths or cultural backgrounds. Products harvested and sold directly to the consumers are generally not allowed to be resold.

For people interested more in antlers as well as meat, on-farm harvest is again the preferred choice. Elk trophies, valued primarily for their spectacular and beautiful displays of hard antlers, are one of the most highly valued and highly prized in the hunting world.

Trophy Hunting and Harvesting

In 2018, over 16 million people went hunting for at least one species in North America. Hundreds of thousands of those hunters pursued elk; over 223,000 individual wildland elk hunters in Colorado alone. Those hunters reported harvesting 72,000 elk and spending an average of $2600 USD each on their elk hunting adventures. In addition to these, several thousand elk were hunted and harvested in high-wire enclosures. Varying in size from 50 to 50,000 acres, this form of on-farm harvest is increasing dramatically in availability and popularity around the world.

To understand more about on-farm harvest for trophies, we need to remember events that occurred prior to 1900. The 1800s witnessed an all-out uncontrolled overharvest of wildlife around the globe. This was particularly noticed in North America, where market hunters and others with various motivations drove the bison almost to extinction and most other species, including elk, too much-reduced population numbers (see Figure 2). In response, a conservation movement developed that included much forward-thinking and idealistic people. Among other concepts such as National Parks, these thinkers created what is known as the” North American Model of Wildlife Conservation”. Seven features distinguish the North American model:

(Figure 2) A Mountain of Bison Skulls in the Late 1800s.

1. Wildlife is a public resource. In North America, wildlife is considered a public resource, independent of the land or water where wildlife may live. Government at various levels have a role in managing that resource on behalf of all citizens and to ensure the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations.

2. Markets for game are eliminated. Before wildlife protection laws were enacted commercial operations decimated populations of many species. Making the buying and selling of meat and parts of game and nongame species illegal removed a huge threat to the survival of those species. A market in furbearers continues as a highly regulated activity, often to manage invasive wildlife.

3. Allocation of wildlife by law. Wildlife is a public resource managed by the government. As a result access to wildlife for hunting is through legal mechanisms such as set hunting seasons, bag limits, license requirements, etc.

4. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Wildlife is a shared resource that must not be wasted. The law prohibits killing wildlife for frivolous reasons.

5. Wildlife species are considered an international resource. Some species, such as migratory birds, cross national boundaries. Treaties such as the Migratory Bird Treaty and CITES recognize a shared responsibility to manage these species across national boundaries.

6. Science is the proper tool for the discharge of wildlife policy. In order to manage wildlife as a shared resource fairly, objectively, and knowledgeably, decisions must be based on sound science such as annual waterfowl population surveys and the work of professional wildlife biologists.

7. The democracy of hunting. In keeping with democratic principles, the government allocates access to wildlife without regard for wealth, prestige, or land ownership.

This model still dominates the thinking of many wildlife professionals but the application of its tenets has evolved as we have moved far beyond the days of over-exploitation, vast areas of “public” land, and colonial authoritarian concepts of government. Consider all these variations:

  • Bison were saved from extinction largely by farmers. They have been propagated on farms and re-introduced to wild lands to the extent that there are now more than 30,000 roaming all parts of their former range and another 400,000 on North American farms.
  • As part of the Treaty process many indigenous people were granted the privilege of harvesting as much wildlife as they and their families and communities need from “unoccupied” public land or private land to which they have been granted access without licenses or bag limits, and few restrictions on methods.
  • Those same indigenous people have the privilege of managing wildlife on their own lands as they see fit.
  • Outfitters and guides have been granted permission and licenses to charge fees to hunters who wish to harvest wildlife for meat or trophies.
  • Furbearers are not only harvested from the wild for their pelts but also raised on farms for the same purpose.
  • Birds originally considered exotic to North America such as pheasants are raised on farms specifically for release and harvest with shotguns.
  • A great many other species, both native and exotic, are raised in ranch situations behind high wire for conservation and harvested for trophies, meat, and other by-products.
  • Farming and ranching elk and their cousins in high-wire or walled enclosures has been well established for at least 3000 years and is an accepted and profitable component of livestock agriculture in most countries in the world. In North America, laws and regulations governing elk farming reveal highly variable approaches and policies.

Everyone involved has realized two essential truths:

  • On-farm harvest is a preferable alternative to abattoir slaughter for the animal.
  • Consumers are prepared to pay prices for on-farm harvested elk that are profitable for the producer.

Furthermore, many of those consumers wish to harvest the animal themselves, sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes to ensure it is done properly and according to their wishes, sometimes for the experience of harvesting that animal in an efficient and humane way. To satisfy these consumers elk may be harvested on small farms, in pens or restraining devices, or on large scale hunting ranches or wildlife estates.

The Business and Experience of Operating a Wildlife Estate / Hunt Ranch

The concept of a wildlife estate goes back to Europe where for hundreds of years members of the wealthy classes maintained country estates with a castle or Manor house surrounded by wildland sometimes enclosed by walls or fences and populated with wildlife species. Usually, the owner would organize hunting and hospitality events for his family and associates. These events were bonding experiences for all involved and led to a new family and business ties.

Today’s wildlife estates operate in similar ways, with the exception that the guests now pay fees for the experience. Hunting ranches are very similar in terms of the experience. Properties used for these operations vary greatly in size and experiences offered. Some are as large as 50,000 acres, rivalling the largest harvest properties in Africa.

On these huge ranches, hunting is conducted much like in wildland situations. Population densities are maintained at relatively high levels to ensure success, comparable to wildland situations where target species congregate in large numbers. Success includes not just the harvest and ownership of the trophy and meat but also the overall experience which might include the adventure and joy of travelling there, meeting new friendly people with similar interests, sharing meals, toasts and stories, spending glorious days in the bush and fields, looking for just the right elk for you, then humanely and efficiently harvesting that fabulous animal.

A hunt ranch needs to offer all these components to be successful. Your clients become your friends, who come back year after year for the joy, adventure, therapy and the opportunity to harvest a larger or different trophy and refill the freezer with high-quality elk meat.

The experience may not cost a lot more than the expenses one would incur for a wildland hunt. Refer to the cost reported above or the Colorado wildland elk hunters. It was $2600 USD each, with a harvest rate of 25%.

On a hunt ranch, complete packages start at $4900 USD, with a harvest rate of near 95%. The highest-end opportunities are for SCI Record Book elk with antler racks scoring 550+. The fees for these could exceed $50,000 (Figure 4).

(Figure 4) A 645 Inch Total Score, Non-Typical, 88 Inches Wide.

Supplying a Hunt Ranch With Elk

Most hunting ranches or wildlife estates have a production farm attached that grows bulls and surplus cows for harvest but very few produce all they need. That need creates opportunities for elk producers to raise and sell bulls. Creating a long term stable relationship with one or more hunt ranches is the best strategy to develop. You learn what the operator and his clients are looking for which, of course, will vary somewhat, but usually there will be some predictability and stability in what they prefer. Looking at the images in this chapter, you can see the wide variation in antler confirmation and type. That gives the producer a wide range of options, but the one option that cannot be ignored is good management! Follow this guide:

Optimizing Elk Antler Production

Efficient antler production is not something that just happens in spring each year. It is a potential that is developed and maintained in elk bulls, starting with their genetic makeup and established during their years of growing into productive bulls. Concentrate on “developing” your bull calves – every day of their early lives!

1. Get cows bred early so that calves are born early. Calves born in May make much better use of summer pastures than July calves. Early calves wean more easily than their later-born siblings. Feed your cows free choice elk mineral (or use horse formulations, but not sheep or cattle) all winter, along with mixed grass/legume hay testing 10 to 14% crude protein on a dry matter basis.

2. Sort bred cows into calving groups based on their age (year of birth) in April. Fifteen to twenty cows per pasture if possible. Apply fly tags and pour-on Cydectin or Dectomax, and booster vaccinations. Calve in clean pastures with some shelter available – small patches of aspen trees are ideal.

3. Reduce stress in calving groups by stocking pregnant cows @ 2 acres/cow. Summer graze at a stocking density minimum of 1 acre per cow/calf pair, depending on pasture production. Rotate pastures when the grass is two inches high, graze new pastures at ten to twelve inches high - about every 14 to 30 days.

4. Produce high-performance pastures - in the Parkland area of western Canada, seed 5 lbs Fleet Meadow Brome + 3 lbs Kay or Okay Orchard grass + 3 lbs deep-rooted alfalfa (Algonquin is a good choice) + 3 lbs creeping rooted alfalfa (such as Heinrichs or Spredor) + 2 lbs alsike clover per acre. Fertilize 40 lbs N + 15 lbs P + 10 lbs K + 5 lbs of copper sulphate per acre. Keep pasture growing by clipping, grazing or mowing - No seed heads!

5. Flush elk cows prior to breeding- feed 3 lbs per head per day of 25% rolled peas and 75% barley with elk mineral in a minimum of 4 feet of bunk space per cow. Calves learn to eat supplements alongside their mothers.

6. Wean calves before the rut - between September 4th and 14th. August is too early. Separate bull calves from heifer calves at weaning, and pasture separately. Try to leave the social groups the same. Put a babysitter or two (healthy, old and quiet or bottle-fed cows) in with each calf group to supply some brainpower.

7. Feed calves 4 lbs per calf per day of 17% CP DM calf ration (oats & peas) along with 15 to 17% CP DM grass/alfalfa hay or lush pasture. Grow your calves, don’t fatten them! Feed grain in bunks off the ground to avoid parasite infections. Deworm with pour-on ivermectin and vaccinate with 8-way clostridia vaccine at weaning and vaccinate again in mid - October.

8. Weigh your calves every time you handle them. Weigh and treat for parasites again in late December - use Eprinex or Dectomax this time. Calves should weigh from 300 to 400 pounds at this weigh-in, having averaged 1 lb/day average daily gain since weaning. At this time reduce supplement to 1 - 2 lbs/head/day, and reduce CP levels to 10-14% CP DM.

9. Place a grumpy old herd bull (antlers cut off) in with your bull calves. He will round them up and boss them around and virtually eliminate pecking order arguments. This seems to suppress the endocrinological (hormonal) cycle and delays pedicle and antler growth. The best antler is always grown on green grass.

10. Pasture spiker bulls separately. If pastures lack quality or quantity, feed adequate supplements (as you would in winter) to ensure continued growth and healthy pedicle and antler development. Fly tag in early May. Remove hard spikes in August before the rut. Separate from all breeding activity unless you want to risk using an exceptionally well-developed spiker on a few females.

Give your rising two-year-old bulls the very best care and attention!

  • Boost feed supplement beginning in March and continue right through summer and the rut. Feed spikers 5 lbs/head/day of 14-16% CP DM calf ration in bunks with 6 ft of space/ elk.
  • Ensure spikers recover body condition post-rut by feeding 7 lbs/head/day of 14% CP DM ration (oats/peas/mineral ration) with six feet of bunk space each and free choice grass/ alfalfa (green and leafy) hay testing 14 to 16% CP DM.
  • Give all your bulls a Christmas vacation! Managing as described above should put your rising twos in fine condition by Christmas. Then work with their seasonal cycle of reduced appetite and intake during the winter. Continue to provide green and leafy hay, mostly grass, and reduce supplement to a couple of pounds per head per day until about March 21.
  • Boost the feed again in mid-March, slowly increasing the oats/peas/corn/barley/mineral ration (at 12 to 14% CP DM) to a maximum of 10 lbs/head/day by early April. Feed more than once per day if you can afford the time.
  • Monitor high energy ration feeding by observing manure consistency and hoof growth. Manure should remain lumpy, not loose. If bulls become lame, hooves appear to be growing too long, or manure becomes loose, back off on the energy. High energy rations are not dangerous if they are introduced or increased slowly.
  • Keep protein levels lower. Balanced antler growth rations should not exceed 16% CP DM, including forage. Excess protein is excreted in urine resulting in burns to the penis sheath or vulva.
  • Record, record, record! Note button drop dates, calculate approximate cutting dates, carry those with you as you observe antler growth and record notes as the optimum date is decided. After harvest, tag antlers, record weights, “dry-down” amount, and any other comments you might have regarding conformation or any comments you hear from the antler buyers. Use those records to cull, cull, cull. We need to eat and sell elk meat, and that is where your poorer producing animals must go. Production at an early age is a very good indication of production in later years.
  • Select the hard antler candidates by tine length or grow them out and compare. If a bull is well below average for both velvet and trophy production the choice to eat him should be easy.
  • Maximizing antler production means maximizing voluntary feed intake. As bulls continue ageing the secret to success stays the same - Excellent management! As an excellent manager, you must balance the goal of optimum antler production with costs, profits and the health and longevity of your elk.
  • Continuously improve your genetics. With excellent management in place, your primary limiting factor will be the genetics in both your bull and cowherds. Given the rate at which productivity is increasing in elk farming, you should have very few older animals in your herd. Yes, keep a few “supercows” who consistently give you the best offspring, but consider that those offspring should be even better than the super momma. Read current publications, attend conventions, competitions and other learning opportunities, travel widely and keep up with the best new genetic combinations and production techniques. Never stop learning and improving!

Your goal should be to produce a harvestable animal in as little time as possible. Many producers now have their bulls scoring 400 inches by 4 years of age, consistently, with the top end at 400 + by 2 years of age. This offers three major advantages:

  1. Your costs to produce revenue are significantly reduced.
  2. Your herd stays genetically and reproductively young. You are always improving production and performance and consequently working with your best.
  3. You maximize avoidance of CWD, which has a long incubation period before problems arise.

Total inches are not the only characteristic hunters are looking for in a trophy rack. Their ideal may be a completely “typical” rack, like the 7 x 7 below:
Or they may have a budget, and the highest amount they wish to spend gives them a fine wall mount: (Figure 6 below). The best selling packages currently include a bull that scores between 360 and 400 inches, selling for $6000 to 15,000 all-inclusive.

(Figure 5) 7x 7 “Typical” Antlers.
(Figure 6) Wall Mount - 421 “Typical” Inches.

(Figure 7) South Dakota Hunt Ranch.
(Figure 8) Parkland Hunt Ranch.
(Figure 9) Saskatchewan Hunt Ranch.

Management of Males in Hard Antler

Managing bulls in hard antler is not difficult, especially if the group is a stable cohort of similar age that came through the velvet growth and hardening season together.

When a producer decides to market trophy elk, the choice may be to not velvet all their top bulls in order to see full hard antler capability as the ultimate expression of their genetic potential, or for viewing pleasure and promotional work. Actually seeing and measuring what they produce is important in assessing the right asking price and to give you a story to tell.

As the velvet skin covering shreds, elk need suitable material (trees, shrubs, etc.) or rubbing posts to clean and colour their antlers. Promotional photography works best at this stage and if the bull is not going to be sold for harvest this year then the hard antler can be removed prior to the rut.

If antler is to be carried through the rut it is advisable to separate bulls into their breeding groups well in advance. Never mix antlered and non-antlered animals at any time. It is a mistake to introduce a new individual into a stable social group. Despite apparent paddock quietness, the farmer must treat antlered bulls with great respect and caution during the breeding season as their character can change on a whim and there is potential for an accident or worse at any time.

The cutting of hard antler requires more caution than with velvet antler removal simply because the bull is more aggressive and the activities of roundup and handling magnify that aggression, particularly in the company of other animals. The head restraint is crucial and once mineralization is complete the antler takes time and effort to cut. While there is no significant pain sensation the buildup of heat in the bone during cutting may cause discomfort and mild tranquillizing is appropriate.

Antlered spikers, animals with post velveting regrowth of small spikes, or partially formed antlers should have these removed as soon as they are stripped and before any transport. The stress and proximity of others in close quarters invariably create fighting, damage, and often death from punctures.

As the rut approaches a choice must be made. If animals are to be sold and transported in hard antler they should be moved just prior to antler stripping, in properly designed trailers with one per pen with plenty of headroom and loading width. The antler tips must be formed and hardened, or damage may result.

(Figure 10) Trailer for Hauling Antlered Animals.

Figure 10 shows the interior of a trailer specifically designed for hauling bulls. Note these desirable features in a trailer:

  • Height – at least eight feet tall
  • Roof is reinforced and smooth to protect both antlers and trailer top
  • Width is at least 7.5 feet, better at 8 feet
  • Fenders are sloped and made with no sharp corners
  • All bolts and hinges are round head, no sharp projections
  • Several separate compartments
  • Doors are full width to avoid trap corners
  • Overhead “ram” air vents, one per compartment for good airflow
  • Vent slots high up on the sidewalls.
  • Rear door must be a heavy slider, not a roll-up
  • “Piano” hinges and double locks on every door.

Before you start hauling any bulls, talk to an experienced transporter, and ensure the trailer you use is adequate for safe, humane use.

A 470 Inch Elk Bull (Courtesy Dr R. Munger, Colorado).