Improving Antler Production

Profit in the elk business depends on improving the volume and efficiency of antler production. When grain and other feed is expensive, it is difficult to spend the money to try to increase returns from antlers, but the investment may be worth it. Elk that have good genetics for antler growth will return your investment.

Producers must concentrate on developing their young bull calves every day of their early lives. Here’s how:

  1. Get cows bred early – Calves born in May make much better use of summer pastures than calves born in July. Early born calves wean much more easily than do their later born siblings. Feed your cows free choice elk mineral all winter, along with grass/alfalfa hay testing 12 to 14% Crude Protein on a Dry Matter basis (CP DM).
  2. Sort bred cows – Cows should be grouped into calving cohorts based on their age in April. The groups should be 15 to 25 cows per pasture if possible. Apply fly tags and pour-on Cydectin; vaccinate with EcoStar RC for scours prevention and with eight-way for clostridial diseases. Calve in clean pastures with shelter available.
  3. Reduce stress – Allow pregnant cows about two acres each in their calving groups. Rotate grazing pastures in summer at one acre per cow, depending on pasture production. Rotate pastures when grass is down to three inches into pastures that are 10 to 12 inches tall about every 14 to 30 days.
  4. Produce high performance pastures – plant three lbs. Fleet meadow brome, three lbs. Arctic orchard grass, two lbs. Adanac slender wheatgrass, three lbs. deep-rooted alfalfa, three lbs. creeping-rooted alfalfa and two lbs. alsike clover per acre. On lower-lying ground, substitute Rival reed canary grass for meadow broom, and birdsfoot trefoil for alfalfa. Fertilize at 40 lbs. N, 20 lbs. P, 5 lbs. K and 5 lbs. copper sulfate per acre. Keep grass growing and vegetative by grazing, clipping or mowing. No seed heads!
  5. Flush elk cows before breeding – Begin in mid-August with about one pound per head of rolled oats (40%), rolled barley (40%) and rolled peas (20%) with a high-phosphorus mineral pack (20 kg per tonne) added. Slowly increase to about four lbs. per head by the peak of breeding season in late September, then slowly decrease to zero by the end of October. Calves learn to eat supplement along with their mothers. Give plenty of feed bunk space – at least two feet per elk.
  6. Pre-rut wean – This should be done between September 7th and 14th. August is too early. Separate bull calves from heifer calves at weaning and pasture apart. Try to leave social groups stable. Put a babysitter (old quiet or bottle-fed cow) in with them for the first month and to provide some brain power.
  7. Feed calves – Calves should be given four lbs. per day of 16% CP DM rolled oats (70%) and peas (30%) with elk mineral along with 14 to 16% grass alfalfa or lush pasture. Grow calves – don’t fatten them! Feed grain in bunks, off the ground to avoid parasite infections. Deworm with pour-on Eprinex and inject with eight-way in mid-October.
  8. Weigh your calves every time you handle them. Weigh and treat with pour-on Dectomax in late December. Calves should weigh 300 to 400 pounds now, averaging one lb. per day ADG. Reduce supplement to one to two lbs. per day and reduce CP levels to 11 to 12%.
  9. Put a grumpy old herd bull in with your bull calves – He will boss them around and virtually eliminate pecking order arguments. This seems to suppress early pedicle development and antler growth. You don’t want that wintertime growth of spikes – the best antler is always grown on green grass.
  10. Pasture spiker bulls separately – If pastures lack quality or quantity, feed adequate supplement (as in winter) to ensure continued growth and healthy pedicle and antler development. Fly tag in early May. Remove hard spikes in late August. Separate from any and all breeding activity, unless you want to risk using an exceptionally well-developed spiker on a few females.

Manager your rising two-year-olds as if they were pure gold. Follow these suggestions:

  1. Boost supplement beginning in March and continue right through summer and fall. Feed spikers five lbs. of 14 to 16% calf ration in bunks with four feet of space per bull.
  2. Ensure that spikers recover body condition post-rut by feeding seven lbs. of 14% ration (oats / peas /mineral pellets) with six feed of bunk space each and free choice of green and leafy alfalfa or grass hay.
  3. Give your bulls a Christmas vacation. Managing as described above will put your rising spikers in fat and healthy condition by late December. Work with their seasonal cycle that slows their intake and rapid growth in winter. Provide excellent quality hay, and reduce supplement to a couple of pounds per day until March.
  4. Boost feed again in March. Slowly increase the ration (now oats/ peas/barley/corn @ 14%) to a maximum of 10 lbs./head/day by March 21. Split the 10 lbs. and feed several times a day if you have time.
  5. Monitor high-energy ration feeding by observing manure consistency and hoof growth. Manure should remain lumpy, not loose. If bulls become lame or hooves appear to be growing too long, or if manure is loose and sloppy, back off on the energy. High-energy rations are not dangerous or damaging if they are introduced slowly and carefully managed.
  6. Record, record, record. Note button drop dates. Calculate approximate cutting dates. Carry those with you as you observe antler growth. After harvest, record weight and CWI from competitions, and dry down from the processor, plus any comments from your velvet buyer. Use these records to modify your breeding and production decisions. Cull, cull, and cull! Get rid of your poor producers by selling them for meat. If you have developed your young bulls properly, relative individual performance will rarely change as bulls get older.

As bulls continue aging, the secret to success stays the same – excellent management! As an excellent manager, you must learn to balance your goals between costs, profits and health and longevity of your elk. Maximizing profit means maximizing antler production means maximizing genetic potential and voluntary feed intake.

Source: Bruce Friedel of Iron River Wapiti in Alberta and Ian Thorleifson of Viking Livestock in Manitoba. Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Elk & Deer Farmer, Fall 2002.