Male deer grow antlers each year. Deer antler growth in temperate regions is seasonal, with the hard antlers naturally cast off in late winter. A mature stag grows a head of antler through the stages of brow (first), bez (second) and trez (third) tynes to a royal top. The antler takes about 90 days to grow and harden.
Antlers are removed both as a farm management practice, to minimise danger if stags become aggressive around mating time, and to harvest the deer velvet (growing antler tissue).
Early antler growth (velvet antler) is soft, cartilaginous tissue, well supplied with blood vessels and nerves, which can grow more than 2 centimetres a day. After about 60 days, the antler begins to calcify from the base upwards. The velvet is harvested between the 45th and 60th days, under anaesthetic by a veterinarian or a trained and registered person who has passed tests established and overseen by Deer Industry New Zealand. Their technique and welfare and care of animals are assessed annually.
Poor feeding of stags in early life or during the antler-growing period can decrease velvet production by 10–20%, but extra feeding during the winter does not increase it. In red deer and wapiti, velvet antler increases from two years of age to a peak at eight or nine years, and then diminishes.
In Asia, velvet antler has been used medicinally for a very long time. While it is often thought of as an aphrodisiac, it is mainly used as a health and wellness tonic. Processed velvet is given to young children to prevent childhood illnesses and improve growth – much as the western world uses multi-vitamins. Most New Zealand velvet is exported to Korea, where it is used ground up or in thin slices.
Markets and prices
New Zealand began exporting velvet in the late 1970s, but the quality varied. There was little local knowledge about who used deer velvet and why, and the market size. By the year 2000 about 80% of New Zealand velvet was consumed in Korea, some of it coming via Hong Kong.
The market for velvet is even more volatile than that for venison. From the highest prices of around $250 per kilogram, the price to the farmer fell to $45 in 2004–5 and rebounded to $160 in 2006–7. The market appears to be very sensitive to volume – if New Zealand tries to sell much more than 500 tonnes of frozen velvet, the price falls dramatically.
Velvet antler is frozen after harvesting, then dried by controlling temperature and humidity over an extended period. In the 1980s many firms with Korean connections were set up in Christchurch to dry velvet antler before shipping it to Hong Kong and Korea. By the early 2000s, many of these companies had closed, and the crop was exported frozen.
Velvet on silk
The first documented evidence of velvet antler used as a health tonic was found on a silk scroll in a Han tomb in the Hunan province of China. The scroll is believed to be around 2,000 years old, and suggests treatments and prescriptions for 52 different diseases.
In 2006 Deer Industry New Zealand worked with producer organisation Velconz and PGG Wrightson Ltd (the largest seller of New Zealand velvet antler) to improve velvet marketing, maximise returns and provide more stability in the market.
Research and development
New Zealand researchers have investigated the effects of velvet antler extracts on human and animal health, including wound healing, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis in dogs. The Seoul Millennium Hilton Hotel in Korea has used velvet antler in French-style cuisine with New Zealand venison.
However, to develop the international market for New Zealand velvet antler, products will have to be sold into markets other than Korea.