By Bruce W. Todd

Sportsmen have long been interested in the white-tailed deer and more particularly in the male of the species. The desire to see and harvest a large, well-antlered buck is the goal of many a deer hunter. The ability of a hunter to attain that goal is limited by several factors. The most important part of the equation is having well-antlered bucks in the population.

Antlers are made of true bone and grow from a bony projection on the male deer’s head. These projections are called pedicles. Antler production is initiated in the spring of the year as a result of increases in certain hormones brought about by the longer periods of daylight. Antlers grow from the tip rather than the base. During the growing phase, antlers are composed of a network of blood vessels and nerves and are covered with a sift hair skin knows as “velvet.” In the fall of the year as hunting season approaches, antlers change in composition from spongy, living tissue to dead, hard, bony projections. Upon complete growth, the soft velvet that covers the antlers dries up and falls off or is rubbed off. The fully developed hardened antlers serve a variety of purposes for the mature buck.

Antlers (racks) become display items that send signals to other deer. Does recognize that a deer with a well-developed set of antlers is sexually mature. Young bucks recognize that bucks with a large set of antlers are mature and likely dominant in strength. Antlers are used to spar with other bucks to establish and defend breeding territories. Antlers are also used to leave permanent marks, rubs on shrubs and trees, marking a buck’s territory. These rubs are thought to also play a part in the stimulation of hormones in female deer, aiding in their preparation for mating.

Age is one of the greatest limiting factors in antler production. The first rack that most Alabama bucks produce will be the smallest they will produce. These first racks range typically from spikes to small basket racks of 3-5 points. However, some young bucks may produce forked antlers with as many as 6-8 points. Bucks usually will not produce their best set of antlers until they reach the 5 ½ - 7 ½ age classes.  Since most bucks do not reach prime antler producing years, they are unable to express their full antler potential.

The second limiting factor, nutrition, also plays an important role in antler development. Typically, poor nutrition results in poor antler development, earlier casting of antlers, and delayed growth. When poor nutrition is a factor, body growth and development will take precedence over antler development. That is not to say that a small buck cannot have a good rack. However, bucks with large, healthy physiques generally produce larger racks. Protein is the major component in developing antlers and comprises roughly 50 percent of the finished product. Calcium and phosphorus are also important minerals in hardened antlers at a ratio of about 2:1, calcium over phosphorous. It is believed that a year-round diet composed of 16-17percent crude protein is sufficient for optimum growth and antler development. The amount of calcium and phosphorus needed in the diet for optimum growth is highly variable by study. Dietary quantities of these minerals are generally not thought to be a limiting factor in antler development.

Heredity or genetics is a third limiting factor in a buck’s ability to express a nice set of antlers. Although age and nutrition play a large role in antler mass, genetics is thought to play a vital role in antler shape. Often bucks that have an unusual trait expressed at 3 ½ years of age will likely have the same trait expressed at 5 ½. Generally deer in their prime antler producing years will have heavier racks by volume than a buck in the 3 ½ age class, but may not have any more antler points. Bucks that reach age classes of 4 ½ or higher tend to produce more racks of a non-typical nature. A genetic disposition to have deformed antlers is often seen on both sides of a deer’s rack. Racks that are well formed on one side, but misshapen on the other, are often the result of an antler related injury occurring while the deer’s antlers were still in velvet.

One final factor that can affect antler development is birth date. A buck that is born earlier in the fawning season is generally larger, healthier, and able to produce a better rack earlier in its life. Bucks that are born later than October and November may not catch up with their counterparts for two to three growing seasons. Late born fawns are a product of an unbalanced sex ratio and occur when the doe to buck ratio is too high. The unbalanced sex ration can only be addressed through the harvest of does to maintain a more balanced ratio. 

Those wishing to harvest a better antlered buck must keep in mind that age, nutrition, genetics, and sex ratios all play an important part in whether there are well-antlered bucks in the deer population. Of these factors, doe to buck ratio and age structure are the factors most affected followed closely by nutrition. Genetics should be the last concern of most hunters and should only be addressed when all other factors of the equation have been optimized.