Velvet antler competitions have become some of the most interesting, exciting and financially rewarding aspects of the elk farming industry. They are great social events, they allow breeders and buyers to compare the relative genetic merit of various breeding programs and they are a tremendous marketing tool. Winning a class at a Velvet Competition immediately adds thousands of dollars of value to your bull. With this kind of value involved, there is obviously a lot of pressure on the judges. What kind of criteria do they use to guide their evaluations?
Elk antler has value for two reasons: both in the growth, or velvet stage and as hard antler, it is highly valued as a functional food and nutraceutical, and as a hard antler rack, it is prized for its aesthetic qualities and as a trophy. As a nutraceutical, velvet antler is most valuable when it is completely non- - calcified, and the larger the better. Larger antler is an expression of the health and vigour of the bull. In addition, it costs very little more to grow 30 pounds of antler on a 1000 pound bull than it does to grow 15 pounds on that same sized bull, so larger antler is more profitable in every way. Antler judges consider all these commercially important factors when deciding the relative value of antlers in a competition class.
The North American Elk Breeders Association, with input from hundreds of people from all around the world, has developed a system for judging elk velvet antler. It is called the "Certified Weight Index", or "CWI". This name reflects the great importance of antler Weight, considers the fact that antlers are compared to and rated (indexed) against others in their class, and that a team of NAEBA approved judges certify the weight and indexed position.
When antlers are entered, the rules require that a photograph is supplied to identify the bull, and some proof of age of the bull is also required. Each antler of the pair is then weighed and measured. Weight is the most important criteria. The weight of each antler is added to the other, and the total for the pair is multiplied by two to arrive at the number of points. For the first bull, a total weight of 40.18 pounds times two gives over 80 points of a total CWI of 130, once again emphasizing the importance of weight. Remember, when you're selling green antler, you're selling in pounds or kilos. Beam circumference is measured next, and the total of the two beam measurements, in centimeters, are totaled and multiplied by 0.2 to arrive at a point score.
Uniformity is the next measure. This criterion, plus Symmetry, are included because we are not just producing velvet antler. We are also producing trophy bulls, and bulls with aesthetic value, so we want the antlers to have a desirable shape, with a smooth flowing line along the three points and the top, and we want the pair to match. These two criteria may be lumped together as "Style", worth a total of ten points.
The next consideration is Balance. The top part of a velvet antler may be worth up to ten times what the bottom part is worth. So, the judges look for large bulbed or webbed tops, with relatively small brow and bez tynes. Large beam diameter, especially if the diameter increases continuously from base to top, also contributes to a balance score approaching the possible total of ten.
Calcification is the most difficult and subjective aspect of velvet antler judging, and also one of the most valuable. This criterion is a measure of how much of the growing velvet antler has stopped growth and begun to turn to bone. The more bone, the less value, and the fewer points awarded. A total of 25 points are available in this category. That total is rarely awarded, partly because any producer is prepared to sacrifice a couple of points for Calcification in exchange for a couple of pounds (at two points per pound) of weight. This decision is a valid production move if your bull has good balance - adding five pounds of large top is worth sacrificing two pounds of calcified bottom, as antler always calcifies from the bottom up. The balance between weight and quality is the biggest struggle in the antler business. How do the judges assess the degree of calcification? They look at several criteria:
- appearance of the top - how far is it grown, how large and advanced is the bulbing, webbing or tyne development;
- the roundness of the tip of the brow tyne, compared to the roundness of the second (bez) and third (trez) tynes;
- appearance and density of the base - colour of the middle and outer ring, all relative to the point at which the cut was made (how close to the pedicle);
- diameter and shape of the beam - the larger the beam, the longer you can grow out the top, plus consider development of grooving, and circular or oval shape;
- all of the above are considered with the age of the bull in mind. Younger bulls can not usually be grown out to the same extent as older bulls.
Damage is the final criteria. This may come in many forms, none of which we want to see. A total of 5 points are available and all five points are awarded to an undamaged antler.
With all these criteria considered, the judges compile the results with a laptop computer. The crowds assemble, the antlers are displayed, the results announced, and the winners start marketing semen and offspring.
Beyond the immediate marketing advantages, Velvet Antler Competitions are a critical part of our industry's plans for genetic improvement. If we keep all our livestock at home, and never compare the results of our breeding and management to that of other producers, how will we ever move ahead?