Managing your land for antler development

Managing your land for antler development


Antler development is affected greatly by nutritional intake prior to and during antler growth. Modern day research began quantifying the impact of nutrition on antler development in the 1950s. We now know that several nutritional components interact to generate the boney matrix of antlers, most importantly protein, energy, and minerals. A variety of experimental approaches have been employed to unravel the nutrition-antler mystery. Most experiments compare antler characteristics between an “optimally” fed group and one or more “sub-optimally” fed groups.

Early studies in Pennsylvania showed that white-tailed buck fawns fed 4.5 or 9.5% protein from weaning until 1.5 years of age grew smaller antlers than buck fawns fed 16% protein. Red deer fawns having unlimited access to high quality forage initiated pedicle development much earlier than those with access to only 70% as much forage. White-tailed fawns in Michigan fed a diet simulating an early green-up with access to acorns had about double the number of antler points at 1 year of age as fawns fed a diet simulating late green-up. This relationship between diet quality and a buck’s first set of antlers is important in management decisions as well as in understanding the nutrition and birth date interaction to be discussed later.

The minimal level of protein in forage required for maximum antler development varies with age. In a Texas study, 2-year-old whitetails fed 16% protein grew antlers almost twice as heavy as bucks fed 8% protein. Recent research in Texas indicates that as little as 10% protein fulfilled the requirements for antler development of adult bucks. However, younger animals that are actively growing require much higher levels of protein than adult animals.

Typically, biologists recommend that an average intake of 16% protein will allow for maximum antler development. However, that doesn’t mean that protein in excess of 16% is not of value. On many properties, protein content of prevalent forages declines below 16%, especially during summer and winter. When this happens, forages exceeding 16% can help bring the average protein intake level to within the optimal range. Active management of native vegetation and an effective food plot program (cool- and warm-season annuals and perennials) can ensure the availability of forages exceeding 16% protein.

Little is known about the mineral requirements of white-tailed deer. Research has emphasized the “macrominerals,” such as calcium and phosphorus. We know very little about the specific requirements for “microminerals,” such as magnesium and cobalt. Whitetails make up for limited mineral content of their diet by eating soil, creating “deer licks.” Mineral requirements will likely be met by vegetation and soil on most properties, but specific minerals may be limited, especially in the southeastern portion of the state.

As you can see, nutrition plays a vital role in antler development, in the next segment we will discuss the role of genetics.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plant resources throughout Mississippi. Their web site is

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