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Whitetail Deer Antlers.

Growth of deer antlers
Definition of deer antlers
Nutrition of deer antlers
Genetics of deer antlers
Age of deer antlers
Injury of deer antlers
Disease of deer antlers


Deer Antler growth usually begins during the month of March or April, by August or early September, antlers are fully-grown. In most cases the typical deer antlers begins growth out of the head in a backward motion, then quickly changes direction and sweeps forward.

Deer antlers are among the fastest growing tissues known to man.

Growing as much as a ½ inch per day during peak development. The development process can vary greatly depending upon the genes and nutrition of each deer. Growing antlers are covered with a living tissue called velvet. During development, the deer’s antlers are very delicate and extremely sensitive to the touch. This is also the time when most antler damage or breakage occurs.

Velvet is shed or rubbed off by the buck as he rubs saplings with his antlers. Older bucks will shed their velvet before younger bucks. A buck’s first set of antlers begins to grow when it’s about 10 months old. Spikes are more common in yearling deer than older ones because antler growth starts at a time when the young buck’s body is still growing rapidly. Antler development is tied in closely with the animal’s nutritional status. Older bucks might also carry spikes if they come from an area with poor food conditions.

In Pennsylvania, antlers are usually shed in February. Antler shedding usually occurs earlier in northern states than southern ones. Spike bucks shed their antlers sooner than bucks with branched antlers.

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Whitetail antlers are an amazing example of nature’s wonderful and beautiful handiwork. They range from tiny sharp spikes to amazing typical and non-typical racks. Antlers develop into every size and shape. But antler size, growth and irregularities are often misunderstood by many deer hunters. A great deal of misinformation has been passed down for ages. One major mistake is commonly made by hunters who don’t know that antlers are not horns, and horns are not antlers.

Antlers are made of dead bone, and are yearly growths that begin growing from two pedicels on the buck’s head in late winter and early spring. Antlers reach full growth in late summer usually October. Antlers are normally branched (except for spikes), and maturity, good nutrition, lack of stress and good genes determine antler size and formation.

As a rule, only male deer grow antlers. But one female (doe) in several thousand whitetail does will grow antlers because of a hormone imbalance. Horns, rather than antlers, are living bone that is covered with hard layers of skin. They are typically unbranched and permanently established on the animal’s head. Wild sheep, for example, continue to grow horns throughout their lives. Horns also are found on bison, cows and goats in North America.
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Good nutrition is required for button-buck fawns to grow large pedicels. Often, the larger the pedicel, the larger the antlers will be at a later age. Like I said earlier, antlers can grow at the rate of a ½ inch per day, but body growth takes precedence over antler growth. Any deficiency in dietary energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus or certain vitamins during spring and summer can have strong negative effects. There are only two possible solutions to poor nutrition. One is to reduce deer numbers to more closely match the capacity of the natural habitat. The other is to improve the habitat by cutting, burning, planting or fertilizing to restore the land’s capacity to support healthy deer.

If more hunters use doe tags this fall, and spare some of the larger bucks, the state’s deer population will be reduced to more manageable numbers while some bucks will grow bigger antlers as they continue to mature.
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Genetics is an extremely important component of the deer management formula. However, genetics is just one of the factors of antler development. Age, nutrition, disease, and injury are often more important contributors to a buck’s antlers than genetics.

To understand the role that genetics plays in antler development it is first necessary to understand the contributions other factors make to a buck’s antlers. Most importantly, the animal has to have adequate nutrition. Without adequate nutrition a buck with the genetic background to become the world record whitetail buck might be less than average. An example of the importance of nutrition would be to take that buck and feed him mostly corn for one year.

It should be noted that corn is a very poor quality food for deer except during periods of high-energy drain during cold periods of the year. It is high in carbohydrates but low in protein (about 8 percent). On the this corn diet, the deer would maybe grow an 8 point rack with a 17 inch inside spread and have a Boone and Crockett score of about 115.

Now take the same deer for one year and feed him the normal 16% protein ration, the deer’s antlers would increase to maybe 21 points, a 27.5 inch inside spread and have a Boone and Crockett score of 210.

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Age can also effect a buck’s antlers. Whitetailed deer do not achieve maturity until they are 5 to 8 years of age. Studies have demonstrated the average buck achieves only about 10 percent of his potential antler development by age 1.5 years (when he completes his first set of antlers as an 18-month-old buck).

It has also been able to demonstrate that there is little relationship between the first year antlers and the antler development a buck will have when he reaches the mature age classes of 5 years or older. This means a spike-antlered buck has a good chance of becoming a trophy-quality adult buck. By the time a buck has completed his second set of antlers he still only has achieved only 25-35 percent of his potential antler development.

At 3 years of age (few bucks live longer than this in Pennsylvania because of the amount of hunters that hunt in this state). A buck still only has achieved about 50 percent of his potential antler quality. It is not until 5 years of age that most bucks approach their full antler potential, and often, antlers don’t reach their maximum size until 7 or 8 years of age (for captive deer raised under ideal conditions).

Probably less than 1 out 5,000 bucks would survive to the 6-year-old age class with the hunters that hunt in Pennsylvania. It is no wonder we don’t see the quality of bucks that existed when my grandfather hunted the exact same woods, when hunting pressure was very low compared to today. Two other factors that effect a buck’s antler development are injury and disease.
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Injury to a buck’s antler while they are still in the velvet will often result in antlers with odd points, double main beams, or other abnormal traits. Generally, antler injuries of this type do not result in antler abnormalities the second and following years unless they occur near the base of the growing antler or to the skull.

If the injury is near the base of the antler, the injury can result in abnormal development in subsequent years as well as the present year. Injury to other parts of the skeleton can also result in abnormal antler growth during subsequent years. It is well documented that skeletal injury to a hind leg will result in the opposite side antler being deformed in the next and in subsequent antler growth periods.

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Disease can cause antler growth to be abnormal. Disease can also permanently restrict potential antler development. Given proper nutrition, age and no injuries or debilitating diseases, it is genetics that determine the final development of a buck’s antlers!

Two deer can be raised together to 7 years of age under excellent nutrition and conditions. One may become a Boone and Crockett deer while the other may only develop into a mediocre 6 or 8 point deer. In this case, the genetic makeup Mother Nature gave them would determine the antler development.

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© 2007 John Hodgdon
Deer Hunting.

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