The management of antlers on farmed deer
Ratification Date: 20 Jan 2012
Deer velveting must be carried out by a veterinarian or by a deer farmer trained and accredited under the National Velveting Accreditation Scheme (NVAS).
A stag or buck with a full set of hard antlers is a danger to humans, to other deer and to themselves. To prevent unnecessary harm, the antlers of farmed deer should be removed either while still growing (a process called velveting), or after the antlers harden and become insensitive. Velveting involves effective handling and restraint of the animals and the application of appropriate analgesia, since the growing antler is fully sensitive. To cut velvet antler without analgesia is inhumane and unacceptable.
Deer are farmed for the production of venison and velvet antler, or for the sale of breeding stock to other deer farmers. The principles of farming deer are the same as for cattle, sheep and goats, and it is in the management of antlers that the main difference occurs between deer and the other farm ruminants. For all the deer species farmed in Australia only the males grow antlers, which grow and are cast annually in a process that is quite unique to the Family Cervidae. The growth and casting of antlers is mediated through serum testosterone (T) levels, which are basal when antlers are cast and then at the end of the antler growth period in autumn the T level rises sharply during the hardening of the antlers and the rubbing of velvet.
Evolution is designed to have the males in hard antler in time for the onset of the rut, with high levels of serum T making them very aggressive during the breeding season. On the other hand, the T levels are low at the time that the velvet antler is harvested, making it much easier to handle the deer than it would be if the antlers are allowed to harden. Most velvet antler is cut at or around 65 days after the previous antler buttons are cast. The buttons are the result of cutting the velvet antler no less than 2 cm above the coronet, with the buttons hardening and being cast when the full antler would have cast.
Deer of temperate origin (fallow deer Dama dama, red deer Cervus elaphus and red deer or elk hybrids) make up 90 per cent of farmed deer in Australia. In these animals the males have very seasonal behaviour patterns, with the periodicity of reproduction being a consequence of the secretion of melatonin by the pituitary gland in response to declining daylight length. Deer of tropical origin, namely chital deer, Axis axis, rusa deer, Cervus timorensis, and sambar deer, C. unicolour, make up only about 10 per cent of the national deer herd. I In these tropical species there is less seasonal periodicity in the reproductive cycle, and consequently also in their antler cycles. In fact some individuals in these species may not cast their antlers annually, and they may not cast their antlers for two years.
Options for antler management
There are several options available to deer farmers to achieve antler management aims. All such procedures must be humane, must not compromise human safety, must allow deer to be yarded and handled without undue stress or damage to the growing antlers, and the velvet must be cut and stored with the same standards of hygiene as for any food product. All options require suitable handling facilities through which the deer are handled regularly and without antler harvesting becoming an exercise in wild animal capture. The use of projectile syringes for chemical restraint must not take the place of the provision of suitable handling facilities, although there may be occasions when such equipment is useful and necessary.
The options for antler management are as follows:
- Removal of velvet antler by cutting off the growing antler at a stage when it will sell for the best price. Given that the growing antler is fully sensitive, the harvesting of velvet antler must be done with effective analgesia. The removal of velvet antler without analgesia is illegal. After the primary cut there is antler regrowth which must also be removed, otherwise this regrowth will harden and become a very effective weapon. If regrowth is cut while still in velvet, the same degree of analgesia as for the primary cut must be used. Second cut velvet antler is always worth a lot less than the primary cut, but has to be removed for management reasons. In both cases either the deer is sedated with xylazine and then analgesia is achieved with a local anaesthetic such as 2% lignocaine applied as a regional or ring block, or the deer is restrained physically in a suitable drop floor or hydraulic crush and local analgesia is applied as above. A meat saw is ideal for cutting velvet antler.
- Removal of hard antler by cutting off the antlers once the velvet has been rubbed off the horn. At this stage the antlers are fully calcified and are insensitive, and they do not require analgesia. Embryotomy wire makes a very effective saw for cutting hard antler. The disadvantage of this method is that the deer are becoming more aggressive as the rut approaches, and they can be more difficult and dangerous to handle compared to their behaviour while in velvet. There is also the economic loss in not cutting velvet antler when it attracts the best price.
- Castration may be used on animals destined for slaughter, and this is mostly done with fallow deer bucks, with the intention of preventing the vigorous fighting that is typical when entire fallow bucks are yarded for transport to an abattoir at 22 to 27 months of age. Cutting off the antler spikes with shears as soon as they harden in late December does reduce the number of penetrating wounds, but there can still be severe bruising of carcasses. Deer castrated prepubertally do not grow antlers, and they are readily handled throughout the year. The usual method for castration in fallow bucks is to apply rubber Elastrator® rings at 3-6 months of age, with castration of bucks over 6 months of age being done by a veterinarian after administration of an appropriate method of analgesia. Older deer should be castrated either surgically or by the use of a Burdizzo emasculator. Attention must be paid to analgesia, control of haemorrhage and protection from infection, especially tetanus. Polyvalent clostridium vaccinations should be administered to all deer at weaning (3 months) and repeated at the time of castration.
- Surgical polling (removal of horn buds to prevent antler growth) has been advocated in species which do not produce much velvet antler, such as fallow bucks and chital stags. It removes the need for the annual removal of antlers and must be done as soon as the antler pedicles are palpable under the skin. This is a surgical procedure and must be done by a veterinarian. It has not been a common practice in recent years.
National Velveting Accreditation Scheme (NVAS)
The National Velveting Accreditation Scheme enables accredited farmers to harvest velvet antler from their own deer, using approved S4 prescription animal remedies which must be prescribed by the veterinarian working with the farmer under NVAS.
NVAS was established in 1995 and is managed by a national committee which is appointed by the Deer Industry Association of Australia (DIAA). An experienced deer veterinarian serves on the committee in each state. The farmer must set up a proper client-veterinarian relationship. The farmer must first pass an examination at the end of a two day training course, after which the veterinarian must then complete the accreditation by assessing the farmer’s ability to undertake velveting on his or her own premises and only using his or her own deer.
The Scheme has been successful and is now an established part of deer farming in Australia. Both farmer and veterinarian must keep records of all drugs supplied and the number of animals velveted. An annual return with these details must be submitted to DIAA. Any farmer failing to meet these obligations loses their accreditation.
Other relevant policies and position statements
Date of ratification by the AVA Board: 20 January 2012