Deer antler velvet, along with ginseng, are two of the most prized ingredients in Oriental medicine. Their value as health food ingredients is being confirmed by a growing body of research.
In recent years there has been rapid growth in demand for NZ velvet for natural health products to combat fatigue and to boost immunity. Indeed, the top-selling velvet-based product is for busy executives to give them an energy boost and clearer focus at work. Many athletes also use velvet to aid their recovery following intense physical activity.
If you are interesting in buying NZ velvet, go to www.velvet.org.nz >>
If you are a farmer looking for information on velvet production, go here >>
Every spring, stags (male deer) grow new antlers. The antler growth cycle begins when stags cast (shed) their antlers or, on in the case of farmed deer, the antler stubs, known as ‘buttons’.
Soon after, the new antlers emerge. Initially they are covered in fine hair and are soft to the touch, hence the name ‘velvet’. During summer, the base of the antler calcifies and turns into bone, a process that continues until autumn, when the whole antler becomes bone.
The shortening of the days triggers hormone changes in stags. They become highly aggressive and fight other stags to get access to females (‘hinds’) during the roar (the mating season). If their antlers are left intact, these can become dangerous weapons and pose a threat to humans and other animals.
Antlers are humanely removed from stags under strict government-controlled regulations. This is usually in late spring, when the antlers are at the optimum stage for velvet processing and before calcification has taken place. Regrowth then occurs, which is harvested in December and January. Antlers are also humanely removed from stags at other times of the year to prevent injuries during transport.
For more on the biology of deer antler growth click here >>
Today, NZ velvet is regarded as the world’s-best by health food companies and oriental medicine doctors in South Korea, the largest market for NZ velvet. Its reputation is also growing rapidly in China, our second largest consumer market.
The reputation of NZ velvet is based on…
- Its consistent quality and safety as a health food ingredient
- Government oversight of all aspects of velvet removal, handling, transport and processing to ensure it complies with NZ Food Safety Protocols.
- Our relatively clean environment, compared with other parts of the world. Also, our freedom from many animal diseases found elsewhere.
- Professional free-range farming systems
- Strict animal welfare controls with high standards that farmers and veterinarians must meet when humanely removing velvet
- The credibility and professionalism of the whole industry.
Recent research shows the quality of NZ velvet, as measured by its bio-activity, has been steadily increasing. This is due to improvements in the breeding, feeding and health of velvet herds, as well as industry grading standards which encourage farmers to humanely remove their velvet at the optimum growth stage.
The removal of velvet antler – the antler before it has hardened into bone – is defined as a ‘controlled surgical procedure' under the Animal Welfare Act. There are also strict Codes of Welfares and regulations applying to velvetting.
To comply with the Act and these Codes a velvet removal programme was developed in association with the NZ Veterinary Association, NAWAC, MPI and animal welfare groups represented by the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals. This is published by MPI and managed by the National Velvetting Standards Body (NVSB).
- Velvetting must be carried using anaesthetic, so the stag feels no pain. Any distress must be minimised.
- Velvetting must be carried out by a deer veterinarian or by a certified farmer who has passed a written theory exam, an oral test and a practical assessment by an independent veterinarian.
- Certified farmer velvetters must be assessed each year by a supervising veterinarian
- Random independent audits of both certified velvetters and veterinarians are carried out to test compliance and to ensure the integrity of the programme.
This process ensures that velvetting is humane. How do we know?
- A sensitivity test is used before cutting. The antler is not removed if the stag reacts to this test
- Stags show no reluctance to return to the deer shed after velvetting
- Stags go back to grazing normally soon after velvetting
- Stags that have had their antlers removed behave normally during the mating season, competing with other stags for the hind.
Because velvet is a high quality product used for human consumption, it may only be harvested in clean premises using clean equipment. It then must be frozen and kept in that state during transport and storage, until it is processed or exported.
All deer sheds used to harvest velvet are certified as meeting those standards by a Regulated Control Scheme of the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Demand and prices for NZ deer velvet steadily increased from 2008/09 to 2019/20, driving a rapid expansion of the industry. In the year ending September 2019, farmgate returns were $NZ106 m, up from $26 m in 2008.
The increased value has been driven by well-respected Korean companies buying NZ velvet as a premium ingredient for contemporary health food products. China is also consuming more NZ velvet because of increasing consumer wealth and a focus on health and well-being.
Most of the production increase has come from existing deer farmers increasing their numbers of velvetting stags. The weight of velvet harvested from each stag has also increased as a result of better breeding, feeding and deer health.
There are approximately 200,000 velvetting stags on NZ deer farms. All are Cervus elaphus – commonly known as red deer or elk (wapiti).
Stags that are kept for velvet production are often farmed for 10 years or more in an extensive pastoral environment. They are managed to ensure they are healthy, well-fed and to minimise fighting during the roar. Velvet removal also reduces the risk of antler-inflicted injuries at this time.