Dec. 4, 2006

Local elk farm harvest award-winning antlers

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

Award-winning antlers are being produced at Lance and Brenda Hartkopf’s elk farm south of Howard Lake.

Antlers, harvested while in the velvet stage, were taken to the North Central Antler Competition in July, and took first and second place in the four-year-old bull category.

This was a regional competition consisting of participants from Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin, explained Brenda, who is also the executive secretary of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.

Next, the Hartkopfs brought the same two sets of antlers to the International Antler Competition, and placed second and third. Only the top winners from the regional competitions can compete at the international level.

The antlers were humanely collected by running the bulls into a squeeze shoot that cradles the body and lifts them off the ground. The antlers are quickly harvested, and the bulls are immediately released, Brenda explained.

Velvet antlers need to be harvested within 60 to 65 days after they began to grow. They contain rich amounts of nutrients, and are mostly made of marrow at this stage, Brenda said.

“If you continue to let them grow, they will be bone all the way through by the end of the summer,” she said. They would be considered a hard antler, and will have little medicinal use.

How antlers are judged

The age classes for velvet antlers are two-year-old bulls, three year, four year, five year, six year, and mature. There’s also a hard antler competition, but the Hartkopfs didn’t compete in that this year, explained Lance.

Lance is also a velvet antler judge for age groups other than what he competes in, both at the regional and international competitions.

Judges look at four main qualities of the antlers. Lance explained that first they look at the weight; the heavier the better.

“Average four-year-old bull antlers weigh about 16 to 18 pounds, ours weighed 28 and 29 pounds,” Lance said.

Second, they look at the diameter of the main beam, the bigger the better and the more it will weigh. Also, Lance said, “There should be a small ring of calcification (or bone) around the whole antler. The less calcification, the more marrow and nutrients are inside.”

Third, the judges look for how much the antlers conform to the look of what elk antlers should look like, Lance explained. Tines should not be missing.

Fourth, they look at the size of the antler after the third tine, and if it was harvested at the time it was most potent (for nutritional use), Lance said.

“Third place, with a couple of different bulls, was the best we had done in the last few years,” Lance said.

“In our herd, this four-year-old group is the best bulls we’ve ever had,” Brenda said.

“We’ve been AI (artificial inseminating) for about 10 years now. We were one of the first elk farms to use AI, and we’re just starting to see the results of selective breeding,” she said.

Lance added, “We’re continuing to improve our genetics. In most instances, we’re the third generation into the AI animals.”

“We AI about 20 cows per year, and have a 70 percent success rate,” Brenda said.

Many uses for antlers

So what happens to these antlers after they are harvested?

The antlers are immediately covered and placed into a freezer until they are to be processed. Because the velvet relies on a rich blood supply, the antlers must be frozen or they would spoil, explained Brenda.

Antlers in the velvet stage have only about one-eighth inch of bone (or calcification) on the outside, and the inside is full of nutritional marrow, Brenda said.

The antlers can be taken out of the freezer and brought to a processing plant to be either heat-dried or freeze-dried, Lance said.

The velvet can be pulled off like a banana peel, and the rest of the antler, including the calcification, can be pulverized and encapsulated into a pill form for use as a nutritional supplement, Lance explained.

“We sold 500 pounds of velvet antler this year, and processed 40 pounds for our own use,” Brenda said.

Velvet antler is naturally made up of a variety of complex nutrients known to be important to good health including protein (including all essential amino acids), collagen, lipids (all essential fatty acids including omega 3 and 6), glycosaminoglycans (contains high levels of chondroitin sulfate), growth hormones and growth factors, according to the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association.

Taking an elk antler supplement helps support and maintain healthy joints. Some people take it for energy, some for joint pain and inflammation, some for arthritis, and a wide variety of related symptoms.

“It seems to have restorative properties whether you’re working out or are injured or after surgery, it helps the body heal,” Brenda said.

“It has a natural occurring growth factor in it,” Lance added.

Pets suffering from arthritis have shown improvement from taking elk antler.

The Hartkopfs sell the elk antler supplements along with miscellaneous shed or hard antlers, and elk meat in quarters or halves from their farm.

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