May 11, 2016
By Dr. Grant Woods
When most folks talk about big antlers during March, they are referring to sheds. Most bucks throughout the whitetail range have shed their antlers by mid-to-late March. However, there's much more going on with antlers during the late winter than simply bucks shedding them.
The increasing amount of sunshine each day results in a reduction of certain hormones, melatonin, in particular, and that drop-off initiates antler growth.
Antler growth requires a good blood supply to deliver the large quantity of protein and minerals necessary. During the growth stage, antlers have very high water content. In fact, velvet antlers are pliable and easily injured.
Relatively minor injuries to the antlers during the velvet stage, especially the early velvet stage, often result in malformed or non-typical antlers. If the velvet antlers are severed, bucks can rapidly bleed to death. That's how much blood is flowing through the antlers to deliver the necessary nutrients.
If all the water is removed from antlers during this time of year, the dry matter portion is composed of about 80 percent protein and 20 percent minerals (mainly calcium and phosphorous). There's no known magic mineral that will cause bucks to grow huge antlers! Simply providing calcium and phosphorous in huge amounts won't result in larger antlers.
Rather, a steady diet of quality protein, such as soybean vegetation that's readily available throughout the Midwest or areas with good food plots, and a good source of trace minerals are the ingredients that allow bucks to express their maximum antler growth potential for their age class.
Groceries Yield Growth
It's important to note that antlers are a secondary characteristic. That is to say bucks don't need antlers to survive. Another way to look at this is that antlers are where a buck can put resources that aren't necessary for daily body maintenance and growth.
Bucks living where protein and minerals are limited will have smaller antlers than bucks of the same age class living where quality resources are unlimited. For example, bucks living in an area where the land is primarily covered by a mature forest that shades out the ground will likely produce smaller bodies and antlers compared to bucks in areas where the sun reaches the ground and results in the growth of high-quality forage.
Deer in northern Missouri, where most of the land is crop fields, average a much heavier body weight and larger antler sizes for the same age class than deer in the southwestern corner of the state. This is because in the southwestern corner of Missouri there are very few row crops and most of the land is covered with closed-canopy forest or fescue pasture (deer very rarely eat fescue).
"Antler growth requires a good blood supply to deliver the large quantity of protein and minerals necessary."
What makes this example so meaningful is a majority of the deer in northern Missouri are direct descendants of deer captured in southwestern Missouri and restocked in the agricultural areas. The genetics are the same, but the quality and quantity of groceries are different!
Powered by Protein
Even with this example, there's still great hope for those of us who hunt in areas primarily covered with timber. The property I live on in southwestern Missouri is divided by a county line. There has been only been one Pope and Young buck recorded from both counties! However, my guests and I tag multiple bucks each year that qualify for Pope and Young. This is a result of opening the timber canopy and developing several food plots.
Remember that the dry matter of antlers is 80 percent protein. Deer can't store protein. They need to obtain it daily, especially during the antler growth season. By managing native vegetation to keep it in new or an early-succession growth stage and establishing several Eagle Seed forage soybean plots each year, I can provide lots of digestible protein for deer and other critters.
The best hunter in the world can't tag large-antlered bucks unless they are present. If you desire to hunt large-antlered bucks, there are two practical options. One is to hunt were corn and soybeans are commonly grown. You either live where row crops are common, or travel there to hunt. The second is to work to improve the supply of protein and trace minerals where you hunt. The easiest way to do this is by improving the native habitat and establishing and maintaining growing-season (spring and summer) food plots.
According to a 2015 report by the USDA, "Soybean planted area for 2015 is estimated at a record high 85.1 million acres, up 2 percent from last year. Record high planted acreage is estimated in Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."
When looking at these data and considering the deer-harvest regulations that promote older age-class bucks, it's no wonder Kentucky and Wisconsin produce so many record-book bucks! There's no magic recipe to producing good bucks. It's simply ensuring they have plenty of good groceries and are allowed to reach maturity.
If you find sheds this year, take time to consider what was required year-round to produce that antler. If you wish to hunt deer with larger antlers or find larger sheds, you now know the recipe. Age is the easiest determinant of antler size to control, but no matter how old, they need a source of quality protein and trace minerals from early spring through July when antler growth occurs.