We’ve all heard the claims. Every year, new products hit the market claiming to “unlock the genetic potential” of whitetails better than any products before them. Are these claims true, or are they just good marketing slogans that get you to open your wallet for latest, greatest gimmick?
I’m not sure how long minerals specifically designed to enhance antler growth have been on the market, but the first one I remember using is Whitetail Institute’s .30-06. I was leasing land in West Virginia at the time, where baiting is legal, and local hunters were singing the praises of this new product. I bought two bags, followed the instructions, made two licks about 50 yards apart, and waited for results.
One of the licks took off right away. Deer hammered it. But the other just sat there untouched for more than a month before deer got interested. However, within a short time, they dug out a crater approximately three feet wide and a foot deep and they kept hitting it long after the first site was abandoned. In fact, the crater continued to attract deer for two more months. By then, I couldn’t even find the place where I’d made that first lick.
This experience taught a valuable lesson. You can use the same product in the same location, yet see different results. That’s important to keep in mind, no matter where you live and/or hunt, and especially important as we discuss whether or not minerals and attractants actually work.
The Short Answer
Yes, they work. Most products that claim to boost antler growth contain one of the “big four” ingredients: Calcium, Phosphorous, Magnesium, and Sodium. Even products designed and marketed strictly as attractants contain these minerals. The biggest difference between a product designed for growth versus one designed for attraction is the quantity of those four ingredients present in each one as well as the addition of other vitamins and minerals.
For example, Evolved Habitats’ Rack-Up is a concentrated mineral supplement geared toward antler growth. According to its packaging, it contains a minimum of 7% Phosphorous and 9.8-11.75% Sodium. Big&J’s Deadly Dust, an attractant, contains 0.3% Phosphorous and 0.9-1.3% Sodium. If you’re looking for a product to actually hunt over, Deadly Dust is hard to beat because it does as advertised – it pulls in deer from long distances – but it has minimal long term nutritional value compared to the Rack-Up.
Companies usually don’t hide this information, either. On the back of almost any bag of mineral or attractant, you’ll likely find a “guaranteed analysis” of minimum and maximum values. Basically, while not divulging exact amounts, this chart tells offers a range of quantities. The purpose of this is so that you know you’re not simply buying a bag of salt. I imagine that many early products (removed from shelves long ago) were really nothing more than that – salt mixed with a few extra ingredients to make it look official and marketed as an antler growth product. They may have even gotten away with this deception for awhile before consumers caught on. Salt, after all, attracts deer, and determining antler grown can be very subjective and a result of many other natural factors.
That “guaranteed analysis” is a company’s way of being accountable to the consumer. Personally, I avoid minerals, attractants, or products related to antler growth that don’t display similar charts on their packaging.
What Minerals Do
Most deer get enough minerals to survive through natural consumption of food and water. However, just like you and I, deer tend to eat what’s available and not worry if they’re getting enough calcium or magnesium in their daily diet. It’s important to remember that any vitamins or minerals ingested by whitetails is used for physical maintenance first, and it is only after these needs are fulfilled that any leftover nutrients go toward antler growth.
Making mineral licks available to deer is similar to giving them their daily vitamins. You’re making sure they’re getting more than enough to just survive. You’re offering a surplus that can then be used to increase their overall health.
Consider the benefits of the “big four” minerals. Calcium is vital for bone, tooth, and antler growth and is essential for milk production. Phosphorous has similar benefits, including milk production. Magnesium aids skeletal development, but also regulates muscle and nerve function. Sodium aids in regulating body fluids and producing digestive juices. All of these minerals work together to improve a deer’s physical well being.
Many hunters use minerals in combination with trail cameras to monitor the deer herd and get good photos of bucks. They don’t make mineral licks until summer, after the deer’s antlers have already started forming. That’s fine, but they’re not realizing the full value of the product, even though they’re certainly paying for it. These products have a cumulative effect. To realize the full benefit of any antler-enhancing product, you have to offer it to the deer on a year-round basis.
Not all deer gravitate to mineral licks the same. Mature bucks seem to be most skeptical. During the spring and early summer, they show little fear, but as fall approaches, they start getting wary of that big bare spot on the ground. Does and young bucks don’t exhibit the same caution. I’ve gotten enough trail camera photos over the years to verify that some does, in particular, will stay on a lick for hours if not persuaded to leave. That’s fine by me, though.
Typically, I make at least one mineral lick for every 40 acres, but much of that depends on deer densities. If I find a concentration of deer, I have no problem throwing in two or three licks (sometimes of different brands so I can see which ones get hit more frequently) in a relatively small area. Oddly enough, even when using the exact same product in licks only 100 yards apart, different bucks will visit each one.
Most licks will stay active for a month or two depending on the amount of precipitation your area receives. For two years, I kept an active mineral lick behind my camp, where nobody hunts, and deer continued to visit the site for almost a year after I quit adding new product. The vitamins and minerals are designed to soak into the earth, and after maintaining the site for so long, I guess I had created a “super lick” of sorts.
When to Use Minerals
Now. Plain and simple. Unless, of course, you live in a state which doesn’t allow baiting or the use of minerals during hunting season. I live in Pennsylvania, where baiting is illegal, but as soon as the season ends, I get out there and start making mineral licks. Some states, such as Missouri, don’t allow baiting but do allow the use of minerals and any other attractants as long as they do not contain any food products. Other states have different laws for public versus private land. Read your state’s hunting regulations and understand the laws before placing minerals or attractants where you intend to hunt.
The post-rut is a hard time for whitetails, especially bucks. During the past month or so, they’ve burned through a lot of nutrients and energy reserves. Bucks often lose up to 30% of their body mass during the rut, and an early, harsh winter can spell doom for those who fail to replenish nutrients in time. Also, consider that once winter breaks, food can still be scarce. Mineral licks can literally save deer from death that time of year.
Now, consider what we know about antler growth. A buck’s bodily needs are met first and only the extra nutrients go toward antler growth. So if a buck’s gas gauge (for lack of a better example) is on Empty, it can take a lot of fuel before it starts overflowing. It will take longer for his tank to fill and he probably won’t get the full advantage of a long growing season.
On the other hand, supplementing with minerals all winter and early spring prevent that gas gauge from hitting Empty. Instead, he starts spring with a quarter-tank of fuel, reaches Full more quickly, and his antler growth benefits from the excess.
The same metaphor can be applied to does, many of which go through winter pregnant, after all. The healthier they are entering the spring fawning season, the healthier those fawns will be, and survival rates will be naturally higher.
Several years ago, I interviewed research chemist Dave Fuhr about a product he’d developed for Hunter’s Specialties called Vita-Rack 26. At the time, Vita-Rack 26 was the best minerals I’d ever used. (Unfortunately, it’s no longer available as loose granules, although you can still buy it in block form.) Fuhr provided some intriguing insight about using mineral licks in areas where certain diseases are present.
Fuhr’s scientific research has shown that deer that are exposed to the proper minerals on a regular basis see benefits beyond just antler growth. In fact, their immune systems get stronger, and in some cases they can actually fight off diseases.
Let’s use ticks as an example. According to Fuhr, on Hunter’s Specialties farms in Missouri, they harvest 50 to 80 deer per year and keep detailed records regarding each one, even doing tick counts on each animal. After several years of a quality nutritional program, which included plenty of minerals, out of 50 deer, only three had any ticks at all, one of which was covered with them. The one loaded with ticks was a buck killed during the rut, and they assume it came from a neighboring farm.
As hunters, we know how miserable ticks can be, and we know that most deer carry a ton of them. It’s not so much a health concern for the deer as it is for hunters. Ticks can transmit Lyme’s disease, and no hunter wants to deal with that. Research has proven that deer with strong immune systems have the ability to repel ticks, and on the Hunter’s Specialties farms, minerals are a major reason why the deer are so healthy.
A Marathon, Not A Sprint
Using minerals isn’t a quick-fix for any deer herd. You’re not going to notice a difference in just a few months, maybe not even within a few years. In fact, Fuhr has said that it takes seven years to change the genetic makeup of a deer herd. In other words, unless you’re committed to using minerals over a long period of time, you’re probably better off looking for alternative ways of getting deer proper nutrition. That doesn’t mean that minerals can’t play a small role, such as in combination with food plots. But if you’re looking at minerals as a sort of “magic bullet,” now might be a good time to rethink your strategy.
In my experience, the most noticeable change the first year or two of using minerals will be in the size of yearling bucks. Eventually you might start seeing fewer bucks that are first-year spikes and instead have branched antlers. With minerals, you’re basically building the deer herd from the ground up, starting with the health of the does during fawning season, the health of the fawn, the nutrition it receives as it grows, and the nutrition it continues to receive as it reaches adulthood.
Where legal, I enjoy using minerals. I enjoy hanging trail cameras at each location and watching the seasons change. The snow comes and goes. Green foliage adds color to a dull landscape. And then next thing I know, it’s summer. I enjoy watching deer shed their winter coats, the first signs of antler growth, and eventually the first fawn of the year. I could do all of these things without minerals, of course, but it gives me a certain pleasure knowing that my enjoyment is also benefitting them.
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