The opportunity for viewing a majestic white-tailed buck proudly bearing a mature set of antlers is a breathtaking sight for any wildlife enthusiast.
Landowners searching for ways to increase the recreational worth of their properties are well aware that hunters greatly value the harvest of these prized game animals; therefore producing bucks with these characteristics may the goal of many wildlife managers in the Southeast.
In order for managers to create the opportunity for deer to produce these antlers, they must first recognize the factors contributing to quality antler development in white-tailed deer are the same factors that affect the health and overall quality of the deer herd.
As discussed in last month’s column, deer need high-quality foods year-round to remain healthy. Additionally, wildlife managers should be aware of the carrying capacity of the land (ability of the land to support the deer population present) and enforce harvest strategies that keep deer numbers in balance with the existing habitat.
To see deer reach their maximum potential, managers should also allow bucks to reach maturity. Furthermore, detailed record keeping will help managers determine the success of a particular management strategy.
By understanding the antler development cycle and the factors that influence antler characteristics, managers will be able to integrate deer biology and ecology into their management plans for increased success.
Growth cycle.Antler growth may begin as early as five to seven months with the emergence of “buttons.”
Yearling bucks will begin to grow visible antlers at one to one and a half years old. At this age, bucks may range from “spikes” to “six-pointers.”
With the proper nutrition, bucks will maximize their antler size at four to six years of age.
Bucks shed their antlers yearly in early spring, and new growth begins immediately. During the summer, the rapidly-growing tissue is covered in “velvet,” a hair-like membrane that protects the soft tissue maintained by a rich blood supply.
During this crucial development time, the antlers are prone to injuries that could result in deformities later. Maturity is reached in three to four months. As the soft tissue hardens and solidifies, the velvet dries and is rubbed off revealing fully developed antlers.
While the antler development cycle is a biological constant, the three main factors responsible for antler characteristics in white-tailed deer may vary greatly — age, nutrition and genetics.
Age.Antler size and a buck’s age are directly related. Despite popular opinion, a spike may not always remain a spike.
Research has shown there is no way to determine what a yearling buck’s antlers will look like at maturity; therefore spike bucks should not be the target of “culling” from a deer herd.
A buck may not reach his antler potential until he is four to six years old. Past this age, antler quality decreases.
In order to increase the potential for quality antlers, younger bucks should not be harvested. If young bucks are not allowed to grow, their full antler potential will never be reached.
Nutrition.Protein is one the most important nutrients essential for antler development. Even if the ideal genetics are present and the proper age is reached, bucks still need the right amount of dietary protein to reach their growth potential.
Calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A and D are also key nutrients required to reach maximum antler development.
Genetics.This trait is almost impossible to control, and managers should focus instead on maximizing the genetic potential for their given area.
Fortunately, the genetics required for desirable antler development are present in most deer herds in the South. The problem is that most of the deer are not allowed to reach their genetic potential because they are limited by nutrition or are harvested too young.
Landowners should keep in mind that any successful deer management strategy requires a large tract of land to work with (at least 1,000 acres), obtainable goals, restraint in the harvest of young bucks, detailed harvest records, proper nutrition and a balanced sex ratio through antlerless harvests.