Jim Kotschevar of rural St. Martin started in the elk business in 1995. With a good velvet producing and genetically sound breeding herd of 27 elk and eight recently born calves, he raises the animals for their "velvet," the layer of fuzzy-like tissue that covers the antler of the male. This tissue is ground up with the rest of the antler and used, primarily in the Oriental countries, as a supplement to promote physical and mental growth. It's also used there as a cure for various ailments.
Kotschevar began researching the possibility of elk farming 15 years ago. Since the price of one bull can get as high as $20,000 or more, he spent a great deal of time researching genetic factors, and other components of a high quality animal, racking up $400 in phone bills during one month of calls around the United States and Canada. "I was looking for specific traits," he said, "like size, disposition and temperament."
During the male elk's first year, it is referred to as being in the "spike" stage of antler growth. In the second year, it's in the "rag horn" stage and will produce seven to ten pounds of Grade A velvet. At seven to ten years old, a bull will produce 20 to 30 pounds, although exceptional bulls have been known to grow up to 40 pounds.
When harvested, the antler is sanitized with alcohol, treated with lanicane, and cut off half an inch above the peticle. It is then treated as a food product. The base is covered with saran wrap, frozen, and sent to a processing facility where it's dried down and shipped, or processed into various products.
Elk velvet is considered the perfect renewable resource since harvesting the antler doesn't harm the animal. Elk antler grows back fully in 65 to 80 days, and is preferred over other deer types because of its medicinal potency.
Although elk velvet preventative products are quickly catching on in the United States, the majority of velvet is consumed in Korea and China. Koreans alone consumed 143,000 kg. in 1993, with only 2.8 percent of it coming from the United States. In 1995, that figure rose to almost ten percent.
China, Russia, and Canada also produce elk velvet, but New Zealand is, by far, the largest exporter of the substance because of its high quality, comprising 67 percent of Korean consumption. Siberian Russia produces much velvet, but because of the lack of means, the quality has suffered.
Kotschevar separates the bulls from the cows for nutritional purposes. The bulls are given larger amounts of proteins during the velvet growth season, while the cows are supplemented with carbohydrates for healthy coats, as well as for their immune and reproductive systems. With proper nutrition, elk will breed at 15 months.
Kotschevar had previously put some of his land into CRP, which has now grown dense with small bushes and trees, and gives the animals natural protective shelter for part of the year, like they would have in the wild. "They love it in there," said Kotschevar.
The recorded history of deer velvet began with a manual called Shin Nong Bon Cho-Kyung, although the substance has been used for much longer. Written 1800 years ago, the writing recorded velvet as a preventative medicine, believed to sharpen both the mind and body and create long life. The ancient manual described the antler velvet as a cure for leucorrhea, bloody flux and epilepsy, as well as a restorative of energy, mental function, teeth and bones.
Even within the past 100 years, certain oriental medical books have recorded that "velvet tastes sweet and salty. Its characteristic is warm, and it strengthens the liver and kidney functions." The major chemical ingredients that have, at this time, been pinpointed through research are amino acids, steroid hormones, and certain minerals.
However, these components alone aren't able to explain completely the results that Invermay AgResearch and Kyung Hee University Hospital, to name only a couple facilities, have reported. The recorded effects to some patients have included relief of diabetes, anemia, cholesterol related arteriosclerosis, and physical illness caused by stress. Patients have also seen improved immunity and memory, as well as relief from endocrine troubles such as hypothyroidism. Some patients have even been recorded as being cured of sterility, fatigue, dizziness, and discharged blood.
However, in Oriental medicine, velvet is not prescribed for every type of person. In that form of medicine, humans are divided into four main body types, determined according to the pulse, tongue, structure of body, and general behavior. These four types are referred to as TaeEmuin, SoEumin, TaeYangin, and SoYangin.
The body type for which velvet is prescribed is Tae Eumin, a cold-blooded, muscular, and reserved or silent type person.
However, according to Oriental medicine, velvet can actually be harmful to the SoYangin type, a person who could be described as hot-blooded, lean, and active. If velvet is given to this person, they may experience side-effects such as fever, nosebleeds, headaches, eye redness, palpitations, diarrhea, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting. Velvet is also not prescribed for influenza, high fever, or high blood pressure.
Today, many Chinese and Korean children, as well as adults, take elk velvet along with other herbs to increase and sharpen their physical and mental growth, and Kotschevar sees the practice catching on in the United States. Although he has only been raising the animals for the past two years, it's a great enjoyment for the Kotschevars. "My family loves it," he said.
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