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Antler Growth - How Can You Help?:

by: Macy Ledbetter

Deer hunters hunt for many different reasons, that is understandable and hard to argue with.  What about trying to produce the bucks with the largest racks possible for hunting purposes?

Deer antlers are captivating and upright humans have had a desire for them since cave paintings were created.  Antlers are the fastest growing bone known.  Antlers are obviously different than horns, so what does it take to grow antlers and what can you do to encourage more growth on your deer lease or hunting ranch?

Unlike horns, antlers are grown and shed annually.  The antler growing cycle for whitetail bucks lasts only 128 days, or just over four months.  Yes, a spike and a Boone and Crockett grow their racks in the exact same timeframe!  How can this happen and why are some years better than others when it comes to antler development?

Mother Nature is incredible.  She mandates that the whitetail buck’s antlers are secondary to the health of the body.  The body takes precedence, or priority, over antlers in regards to bone health, internal organ health, protein and mineral consumption and overall total physical health.  This means that if the buck’ s body is lacking in nutrition or minerals or otherwise stressed, the antlers will suffer. 

A buck usually comes out of the rut in physically stressed condition.  Some bucks can lose 30% of their total body weight during the rigors of the rut and they are tired, sore, perhaps injured and in need of immediate repair.  After the breeding season is complete, the antlers are cast, or shed, and testosterone production is reduced severely.  This is Mother Nature’s way of helping the buck to regain his health and eventually storing fat in preparation for next winter’s rutting season all over again.  Antlers are used as tools to determine mating privileges, rights, and for dominance establishment.  After the breeding season, the antlers are no longer needed and they are shed and the cycle continues again. 

When the bucks shed their antlers, the 128 day antler growing cycle begins approximately one week after shedding.  Upon antler shedding, the raw pedicles heal over to protect the open wound and soon thereafter the new set of antlers begin to grow.  If the buck’s body is still recuperating and healing, the antler growth will be slowed as protein, minerals, vitamins and blood flow are redirected to the body recovery effort.  Once the body recovery effort is complete, those valuable antler-growing nutrients are redirected into antler growth.  The 128 antler-growing clock has been running, so the longer it takes the buck to return to good health, the less time he has to produce the current year’s set of antlers.  So, the condition of the buck’s body as he comes out of the rut is directly proportion to the quality of the rack he will be wearing the following hunting season!  Clear as mud?  The clock begins upon shedding and the sooner he begins to grow his antlers, the more time and growth he can produce in that period of time, resulting in longer tines, extra points, more mass etc.

Now, all of this antler growing process is also controlled by age and genetics, but this article is an example of the nutrition portion of the pyramid requirements for large antlers---genetics, age, and nutrition.  With age and good genetics, a buck can still grow a poor set of antlers if he is nutritionally stressed.  Or a buck with poor genetics, good age and nutrition will just grow a big set of poor antlers as he lives up to his full genetic potential.  The three requirements must all be met to produce a large set of antlers.  Antlers are genetically based and environmentally influenced.

What can we do on the ranch or lease to help the bucks out of the rut in the best possible physical condition?  First is balancing the total herd with the available habitat.  Fewer deer will have more food to eat and they will be healthier, that is an easy one.  Keeping the adult sex ratio tight is also recommended so that the females are bred during their first estrus cycle so that the fawns are born in the optimum time of year.  The balancing of the herd with the habitat is not quite as easy because this depends on rain and weather patterns.  The amount of available forage the habitat produces is a moving target.  In good rainfall years, the habitat can produce an excess of usable forage plants and that is why larger antlers are produced in wet years.  In poor rainfall years, the habitat can not produce enough usable forage plants for the animals and that is why smaller antlers are produced in wet years.  The manager must be aware of the habitat condition coming into and out of each deer season and make adjustments accordingly.  So, don’t get stuck in the habit of shooting X amount of bucks and X amount of does each and every year because the habitat is changing and so must the animal population that relies on it. 

Obviously, cattle numbers must follow this same strategy as the deer harvest.  Cattle are much easier to manage than deer, so moving cattle into different pastures, rotating them more often or simply reducing the herd is a very quick and easy fix. 

Habitat management techniques that result in forage plant regrowth is also a valuable tool to help produce “extra” forage for deer.  Shredding, aerating, fallow discing and prescribed burning are good examples of this technique.  When most deer forage plants are top-removed, they resprout from the bottom and create more of a “bush effect”.  The extra limbs and stems produce extra leaves and the entire plant is now lower to the ground and allows for increased forage accessibility and availability.  The tall, thick stands of eight foot tall brush is little value to deer, but if you top removed that same brush, it would provide tons of usable, palatable, nutritious forage for deer without killing the parent plant.  The plants may be re-stimulated every three or four years for continuous and on-going forage production with very efficient per acre costs to the manager.  Keeping your deer woods in a mosaic pattern of regrowth is ideal for many other important reasons, but none are as important as improved foraging for your bucks in order for them to recover as quickly as possible so they may begin their new antler growth again.  The clock is running, how are your bucks doing right now?


Macy Ledbetter