Reindeer Antler Production

Value of Antlers

Antlers of various forms, from natural sheds to trophy heads have always had a value. Shed antlers are used in a variety of crafts, from the making of chandeliers and furniture to candle holders and earrings. Trophy antlers are always in demand for head mounts and hunting.

The market for velvet antler has developed over the past two decades, driven primarily by buyers in the Asian markets. The prices received for velvet antler has varied widely since the 1970s. There are several processors who produce capsules for the North American market and sales of velvet antler capsules are increasingly steady. Often, other medical products such as ginseng, glucosamine, etc. are mixed with velvet antler to increase the spectrum of activity.

Commercial processing of velvet antlers was developed in New Zealand, adapted from methods historically used in Korea. Canadian processors were the next to adopt antler drying technology and there are now several drying and processing operations in Canada and the United States.

Velvet Antler Description

“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 phrase. At this stage it is soft and lacks the mineralized characteristics of “hard antler” which has the same composition as bone.

Frequent, “velvet” and “velvet antler” are used interchangeably to refer to the antler in its growth phase. Both terms may be used when referring to soft antler.

The antler pedicle is the area on the frontal bone of the skull that generates antler. It is a permanent feature of the skull and remains after the antler is cast. It is the continual source of antler each new year.

Unlike horns in cattle, antlers are cast off every year. Deer or cervids such as caribou, reindeer, wapiti and moose grow antlers while cattle or bovids, including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bison and pronghorn antelope, possess horns. Reindeer and caribou are the only cervid species in which both the male and female produce antler.

Pedicle Development

Antlers begin to grow at about 2 to 3 weeks of age. Growth is determined by a combination of juvenile maturity and threshold body weight. Within one year of age, the pedicles will growth their first antler, usually a single spike. With increasing emphasis on good management and good breeding programs multi-branch spikes with brow lines are becoming more common. The pedicle is distinguished from the velvet antler by a zone of transition in hair style and colour. This zone of transition is not very clear in yearlings and care must be taken not to damage the pedicle when removing the antler by accidentally cutting too low.

Antler Growth Cycle

The annual cycle of antler casting, antler growth and hardening or calcification is regulated by changes in daylight length, calving (for females) and testosterone levels (in males). Through spring and summer, the antler develops and grows, turning into hard antler usually around the end of August. This is when they will “shed” the velvet from the antler.

Velvet Antler Composition

The developing antler is composed of distinct cell types including fibroblasts, chondroblasts, chondrocytes and osteocytes. Growing antler tips are composed of minute amounts of unidentified mesenchymal cells which begin to differentiate very abruptly as cartilaginous tissue. Afterward, the cartilage is replaced by bone and the velvet is shed leaving mature hard antler. Consequently, when velvet antler is harvested at suitable stages for use as high quality oriental medicines, it is actively growing cartilage-type tissue which is not of uniform composition. Chemical identification of antler is currently being explored by western scientists to identify the active components and to locate the quality and criterion of antler and antler products by using chemical markers. This research is going on within the elk industry and will be very useful to the reindeer industry as well.

The amount of mineralization of calcification of velvet antler is commonly used as a gauge of the probable pharmacological quality, with heavily calcified velvet antler being downgraded. However, this largely depends on the stage of growth as is indicated by the relative mineral content in the lower section of velvet antlers cut at different stages of growth after casting. The effect of stage of development on lipid content is also significant. The constituents of dry matter analysis of velvet antler demonstrate that collagen, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium increase upward, while protein and lipids decrease downward from the tip of the base of the main beam in growing antler. Amino acid content, state as a percentage of total protein and lipid, is considerably higher in the tip section from which the antler grows.

The compositional changes from the tip to the base are reflected in both Chinese and Korean medical systems, which broadly classify the various parts of velvet antler. The tip is referred to as the was piece, the next section is the blood piece, and finally the bottom is known as the base or bone piece. Once the velvet antler is harvested, blood quickly seeps away from the tip region, although inverting the antler will help alleviate this problem. Depending on the drying methods, the dried product can have considerable blood in this section. However, the traditional Chinese drying methods result in the tip remaining empty of blood; it is therefore often categorized as the wax piece.

The Antler Cycle

Reindeer calves start growing their antler before they are a month old. The amount of antler produced will be determined by their genetic make up, but their date of birth plays the most important role in antler production their first year. A male calf born in mid April will always have more antler growth in his first year that a male calf born in mid May. This may be totally reversed in their second year of growth.

The growth of reindeer antler will be presented on a calendar year basis:

January

A female’s antlers or buttons are still firmly attached and in a calcified state.

The older males will have shed their antlers by now.

February

Females’ antlers are still firmly attached.

Males may start to bud their new antler. It will start with a swelling at the site of the antler and then develop into black, shiny bumps. These will form into fuzzy, larger balls before they split. They will then form the main shaft and the shovel. The antler is covered in velvet and is very sensitive at this stage. Handling should be done with care as the antler can easily be damaged at this point.

March

Most females will retain their hard antler until after they have calved, but some start to shed. In most cases, the late calvers and open females will shed early and start to develop their velvet antlers. Rarely will a female due to calve in April or May shed at this time.

Males’ antlers will continue to grow but may appear to grow in stages. You can notice times of rapid growth and then it may seem that they are not growing at all. Some people have tried feeding extra calcium during the velvet growth period with no noticeable benefit to the antler produced. Good nutrition is essential to good antler production.

April

Remaining females should loose their hard antler in April after calving. Some will shed shortly after calving and some will shed up to 3 weeks later. Either way, the new growth begins almost immediately and you will notice the black, shiny buds appear. The cows’ growth is the same as the bulls, just on a smaller scale.

The bulls continue with growth to the main beam, shovel(s) and the browtine.

May

The female antlers will all be growing by now and will follow the same pattern as the males’ did.

Male antlers continue to grow and mature males will most likely be ready to harvest during May. The velvet must be cut at the right stage of growth to receive top dollar. Careful monitoring of velvet growth is essential.

If you do not velvet, the antler continues to grow. Antlers grow from the tip of the antler; therefore the base will calcify while the rest of the antler continues to expand in height. Once the growth is past a certain level, the antler will remain the same diameter with no further growth taking place at that level. Spikes that grow off the main beam will continue to grow and get longer.

June

June is usually the time to remove the female antler is you so choose. This should be done around mid month, keeping in mind the calcification and what stage the antler is in.

Males that have been velveted will have growth again. There can be quite a lot of regrowth, depending on when you first cut. IN most cases, there will be 3 small antlers growing from the cutoff. One will be the dominant antler and grow quite quickly. The others will slow down and have little or no growth.

If you did not velvet, the lower portion will continue to calcify while the tips continue to grow. Finding out how much the antler has calcified can be done by checking how far down the antler is warm. The calcified antler will be cooler than the portion that is still growing.

July

Females are finishing their final growth by the end of July and into August.

Males will enter the final stages of calcification.

August

Females finish the final growth and calcification and hard antler may be removed. Females can injure and even kill other females in their fights for place and stature in the herd. They will rub off their velvet toward the end of the month and some of the calves will also rub off their velvet.

Male antlers are fully mature now and they will start to strip their velvet off. The hard antler should be removed before the end of the month as the rut is about the start. IF they don’t hurt each other, they may hurt you. IF you wish to have a set of natural sheds, it is wise to separate the bull from the rest of the herd and wait fro the antlers to shed naturally.

If you velveted, the second growth should now be cut. Cut the antlers above the pedicle about 1 to 2 inches. You do not want to damage the pedicle by cutting too far down as it may result in abnormal or no antler development the following year.

September

Males and females will antlers or buttons are still firmly attached. If you have left any antler on your deer, you should make sure they have enough space to feed and drink. Most injuries will occur around the feed and water troughs. A good rule of thumb is approximately 3 feet for each animal at the feed trough.

Males will now be in rut.

October

At this time of year, both the male and female antlers remain in the calcified state and are used in fighting during the rut.

November

Female antlers or buttons remain firmly in place.

Some males may lose their antlers or buttons.

December

Females retain their hard antlers or buttons.

Most of the mature bulls will shed their hard antler.