The Value of Velvet

Shed antlers are big business.

Discarded by elk and deer in the winter and early spring and then regrown later the same spring, elk and deer antlers are popular treasure hunt spoils for those willing to search them out. It’s become so popular that in some parts of the U.S. kennels train dogs to find and them.

For good reason. Top-grade antlers sell for as much as $10 a pound, worthwhile if a shed clocks in at 15 pounds. Still, the demand for dry sheds remains smaller.

“Most of the dry, hard antlers are going for dog treats,” says Dave Whittlesey of High Wire Ranch on Redlands Mesa. “Almost all the pet stores have dog treats made from elk antlers.”

Whittlesey and his wife, Sue, among the pioneers of Colorado’s once-lively domestic elk trade, raise commercial elk and buffalo, supplying high-quality meat along with antler products for nutrition and bone and joint health.

As deer and elk antlers grow, they’re covered with a soft fuzz, or “velvet,” which provides nutrients to the growing antler. This layer of velvet skin eventually is discarded when the antler matures.

Dave says elk antlers are harvested while still in velvet, after about 75 days of growth. The frozen antlers are shipped to a certified lab in Wisconsin that produces the capsulated “Elk Velvet Antler” the ranch sells.

“In North America, the main use for antler velvet is as a diet supplement,” he says. “It has glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen and other minerals. We primarily sell it for sore joints and inflammation. Most of our customers are older people with arthritis.”

Don Schaufler of Antlers Unlimited in Ennis, Mont., the self-described world’s largest dealer of antlers, reported last year selling more than 100 tons of antlers worldwide. Schaufler says his largest market is Asia, where deer velvet has medicinal properties. “Usually they make a tea with it,” says Dave. “The biggest use in Asia is for a children’s tonic, as well as for arthritis and heart issues.”

He adds that Korea and China have banned the import of antler velvet from the U.S. because of concern over chronic wasting disease. But antler velvet remains a big business in New Zealand, where about 1.1 million deer are raised commercially.

National Geographic also recently reported that antler velvet is also now being used by athletes claiming it helps speed the healing of cartilage and tendon injuries and boosts strength and endurance. “It helps you heal faster,” Dave says, adding that he uses it to combat knee inflammation. “It helps me keep walking.”

Elk antler velvet also is available in chewable strips for dogs, and is said to benefit dogs with arthritis and joint pain. But there remains enough controversy over powdered antler velvet that it has yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is currently banned by the National Football League.

—Dave Buchanan