Antler Competition Insights
by Bruce Friedel
Previous pages in this magazine have debated the merits of antler competitions and the emphasis that elk producers place on them. Winners often tout their achievements in their marketing campaigns. Those less fortunate often criticize competitions as a quest for "fortune and glory" among the "good old boys." Amid the verbal barrage, newcomers look on with skepticism, wondering how they, as rookies, are going to sort through the arguments in their quest for improved antler production. One wise old industry sage wondered if he was shopping at a feed store, a pharmacy, or an AI stud farm when he attended antler competitions.
Believe in the Venue!
As to the grumbling about the feeding programs or the cheating, two recent articles may point elk farmers in the right direction. Pearse (2000) reported that Invermay made an 80% improvement in velvet production during a 15-year time span (from the mid 70s until the early 90s). Their strategy was simply to mate the "best" males to their "best" females. After EBV analysis on the last 20 plus years of data, little permanent genetic gain was found in those first 15 years! Instead, almost all of the 80% improvement was due to management, feeding and environmental effects. By reviewing hind progeny performance and purchasing semen or young sires showing truly superior antler genetics, Invermay has shown recent positive progress in selecting for improved velvet production.
Undoubtedly, the majority of antler improvement in our industry in the last ten years has been due to improvement in management and nutrition! Producers who find themselves placing below the top ten each year should first address their management, nutrition, and genetic selection programs before casting criticism at others concerning at which feed store they shop!
In Alberta, producers have the benefit of data analysis from Alberta Agriculture's inventory reporting. Thorleifson (1999) reported that the 2-year-old Alberta velvet average was 7.8 lbs. in 1994 and only 7.63 lbs. in 1998, suggesting little genetic gain or management improvement. A recent study by Wang, et al (1999), which used Alberta's historical antler records, calculated a heritability of .27 +/- .03 and a repeatability of between .31 +/- .03 and .34 +/- .03, using two different animal models. For those who do not understand quantitative genetics, that means 27% of the variation in antler yield was due to genetic differences. The difference between heritability and repeatability, .31 -.27 =.04 or .34 -.27 = .07, means that 4 to 7% of the variation in velvet production could be explained by permanent environmental effects. The remaining 66 to 69% of the variation in antler yield is due to non-additive, non-genetic, temporary environmental effects (i.e., feed supply, nutrition and management). Science states that antler yield will respond to selection, and antler competitions are an effective venue for within-age group comparisons.
The Secrets of Competing
Live by the old 4-H motto of "Learn to do by doing." Not everyone can be a winner, but there's a lot to be said about the process of competing and the insight it brings. Each spring as North America's elk farmers are feeding their "top-secret, jet-propelled, antler-growing elixirs" to their bulls, the antler frenzy begins. Buttons start dropping, casting dates get recorded, velvet starts growing, and the telephone starts ringing. While everybody eagerly anticipates the fruits of their own labor, elk farmers can never quench their thirst to know how everybody else's bulls are doing. "Has King been cut yet? What did Korean Gold weigh? Is Starbuck as good as last year?"
In 1999, after hearing countless rumors of 2-year-olds cutting upwards of 20 lbs., we all began to get discouraged. Who wants to bring a 12-pound 2-year-old to a competition and get embarrassed by someone who has an "18 pounder," right? Wrong! Remember to put things into perspective. In 1998 there were over 1,100 two-year-old bulls cut in Alberta. There were only two "15 pounders" and five "14 pounders" in the entire province! Ten 2-year-olds that cut in the 12 pound or less range placed in the top 2% of the province's 2-year-old velvet yields. The best "12 pounder" (11.94 lbs.) placed fourth! That's pretty esteemed company, if you ask any quantitative geneticist.
The Velveting Decision
Is the velvet short and stocky with good beam measurement which gets progressively larger as you move higher up the beam? (Figure 1) Or does this head of velvet lack fantastic beam but have long brow, bez and trez tines with an obviously elongated heart piece? (Figure 2) 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.
If you've decided to harvest velvet, you first want to snap some pictures of your bull in velvet that show a clearly legible tag. Remember, beginning with the 1999 calf crop which will qualify for the 2001 antler competitions, all bull calves must have visible, dangling, tamperproof ear tags (preferably two), obtained from NAEBA or your state or province. The bulls must be included in the NAEBA inventory system or any state/provincial government, age-verified inventory system or be registered with NAEBA prior to their regional competitions. Prior to the international competition, all bulls must be NAEBA registered. These requirements will improve the age verification process that is so vital to fair play in sanctioned antler competitions. Finally, to avoid any disappointments after velvet removal, ensure that you have the pictures developed one or two days before velveting to ensure that the bull in velvet can be clearly identified with his tamperproof or dangle ear tags. (1998 or older bulls are grandfathered in on tagging requirements.)
Velvet your bull using safe and humane velveting procedures, paying particular attention to back cutting 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 to protect an antler from peeling, there should be only one cutting plane on each antler base. I've personally witnessed up to six different cutting planes on one antler base, suggesting that some trimming was done to give a less calcified appearance. Be prepared for a rather grim calcification score if you start pulling these stunts!
Freezing Competition Antlers
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 an extra large garbage bag. Suck all remaining air out of each bag with a vacuum cleaner, before sealing with duct tape. Most ardent competitors double bag each antler. 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. Last year a 43-pound set of velvet antlers didn't make it to a regional competition because a freezer conked out during hot weather!
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. If you intend to compete in a Breeder's Three class, each entry must be DNA matched to sire before competition time! Last year NAEBA allowed breeders to meet the qualifications between the time of the competition and the publication of the December magazine because of the time frame of the competition changes. With numerous disqualifications due to entries not being Gold registered or DNA matched to sire, there was some grumbling about the process. This year, Breeder's Three entries have to DNA match to the sire before acceptance into any Breeder's Three class, but they do not need to be Gold registered. Last year, several bulls carrying hybrid markers did well in individual age classes, while all Breeder's Three entries had to be Gold registered (tested pure and DNA tested). The apparent discrepancy between individual and Breeder's Three entries will be changed this year. Breeder's Three entries must DNA match to the sire, but can be NAEBA registered (any level) or provincial/state registered, for entrance into any preliminary competition. 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 form of NAEBA registry, as that's the likely database for EBV calculations.
The Registration Desk
During the registration process, random velvet samples will be collected. These samples will be analyzed for banned substances used as growth promotants. Keep the paired sample provided to you, for future reference. If you're accused of "shopping at a pharmacy" to win competitions, your legal counsel would probably appreciate some exonerating evidence with which he can defend you from the multitude of forthcoming lawsuits. Finally, pay your appropriate entry fees and then go find the barbecue. You've done all you can, and it's now out of your hands!
During registration, hard antler entries have been whisked away to an adjoining room where SCI qualified hard antler judges are immediately put to work, spending an average of 30 minutes measuring each set of antlers. Velvet entries are sorted into age groups in a reefer while a team of statisticians is furiously entering all pertinent data on each entry.
The Playing Field
The Global Supermarket
Time brings change. Research was being conducted to validate the various pharmacological properties of the world's available velvet stocks. Softening Asian economies brought lackluster global velvet markets in winter 1998 and 1999. New ash content import rules meant that a lot of velvet had brow and bez tines removed before seeing Korean soil. New Zealand responded by taking hundreds of tons of velvet off the market. The Kiwis killed more stags and harvested the majority of their velvet in the "short" grade, ensuring exceptional quality.
In years of stronger world velvet markets, this recent trend to over-calcification wouldn't have been so disconcerting. We've spent all winter listening to the message. North America will lose its preferred nation status if producers continue to overgrow their elk velvet. We live in a global supermarket. Korean buyers will still trip over themselves if offered a chance at well-cut wapiti velvet. Overgrown, calcified velvet will be passed over as Koreans spend their working capital on better cut New Zealand antler. It's risk versus returns, and velvet buyers are good at their game.
Expect more conservative calcification scores at this summer's competitions. Some judges may have been somewhat lenient in previous years as everybody adapted to the scoring system. Now everybody is aware of market trends and nobody wants to see all of North America's 160 tons of velvet discounted $5 or $10 a pound across the continent due to over-calcification. The cost to our industry could total 2 or 3 million!
The Judging Process
Producers harvesting younger bulls for competition would do better to worry more about quality than quantity.
Since a 20 cm beam on a 2-year-old is huge, a score of 7 is great. In the mature class, a score of 7 means a bull with 25 cm beams, which is awesome. One of the pitfalls in selecting for improved beams, is where the trez tine falls on the beam. Lower trez tine placement occasionally influences beam measurements, as do extra non-typical tines. Producers should compare competition score sheets with the actual antlers or photos to pick out any incongruities. Study Figure 4 again, and you'll see that the extra tine on King's right antler results in a beam measurement of 27.5 cms, while the cleaner, left antler measures 25.2 cms. Remember those Chinese sika deer that Tony Pearse flashed on the screen at the 1996 NAEBA convention in Edmonton. Centuries of selecting for increased beam circumferences and increased velvet weights resulted in Chinese sikas cutting 8 - 10% of their body weight in velvet antler each season!
Examine the Southern Region's 2-year-old class (Figure 12). The first-place entry has fantastic balance, scoring the maximum 10 points, as the beam gets stronger the further up the stick you go (Average: 20.2 cms as a minimum!). The second-place entry, scoring S points for balance, might be considered a potential hard antler candidate, being weaker beamed (a 16.55 cm average), but exhibiting a lot of stronger brow and bez tines. Being well cut, it still made a very respectable velvet entry. The third-place entry has better beams again (17.65 cm average.), along with longer brow and bez tines, but lacks that curved wedge shape, scoring a 4.8 for balance. With a very conservative harvesting strategy, it received the maximum 25 points for calcification and consequently placed very well. Stronger trez tines and elongated heart pieces (tops) would push the balance score down even further, as in Figure 3, which scored a 3. Don't despair - bulls with poor balance usually make phenomenal hard antler candidates, and if cut conservatively, still make sellable velvet!
Since calcification is worth a maximum of 25 points, this category can make or break any entry. As a general rule of thumb, judges look at how pointed the brow, bez and trez tines are in comparison to each other and to other entries within a particular class. If the trez tine is rounded, is it attached to the top or middle of the antlers? Higher trez tines have rounded, sausage ends, giving the appearance of being less calcified. What type of top does it have? Is it webbed or slingshot? Does it exhibit any ribbing on the base of the beam? Once the velvet thaws for 15 minutes, judges confirm the overall calcification appearance by examining the cut base of each antler, looking at the porosity and the extent of calcification rings. Antlers cut too low to the coronet will look more calcified. Using fine-toothed saws or wrapping the velvet base immediately after cutting will result in the pores getting filled in, making accurate assessments tougher.
Remember that calcification creeps in from the outside edge, showing up first around the base of the brow tine. Scores of 24 and 25 mean that there's little calcification during an outward inspection of the velvet or in studying the base of the antlers (Figure 13). Moderately calcified antlers will have a solid, bony, white surface extending across the cut base at the narrowest point between the brow and bez tine and opposite edge of the antler. Antler bases exhibiting an overall white shiny base are very calcified and will be docked accordingly.
As the velvet industry has become more sophisticated, and as our velvet scoring system has matured, judges are now assessing the overall style of the velvet antlers before determining calcification. If they are looking at a phenomenal velvet entry in any particular age class, with fantastic beam and that strongly inverted wedge style, calcification scores will be significantly higher than entries with spindly beams and similar outward appearance! This is easily confirmed when comparing a brace of 2-year-old velvet entries (Figure 12), one of which has 20 cm beams and the other 16 cm beams, but similar brow, bez and trez tine pointing. The bigger beamed 2-year-old will likely be less calcified, as confirmed by examining the cut velvet antler bases.
Be a Good Winner
Be a Better Runner Up
As the competition gets stiffer in the future, elk producers should be overjoyed to consistently place among the top ten. Remember, any antler that comes to a preliminary competition probably represents the top 1 to 2% of genetics in that region, for a given age class! Most quantitative geneticists would agree that using the top 1 to 2% of males for breeding would result in substantial genetic progress for velvet production being made in each successive generation. Good luck and have fun.