Big bucks don’t fall out of the sky or sprout up from the ground without reason. They are a product of three elements, all of which share equal importance: nutrition, age, and genetics.
Ideal whitetail habitat contains a variety of cover and food sources. Also, there must be enough food available to support the existing herd, so that each individual animal will obtain the proper nutrients to attain full potential.
To get a better understanding of how food sources effect antler growth, simply observe the areas in North America where whitetails are found. The Midwest has long been a hub for mature whitetails with large racks. The Midwest is also home to many crop farms. The seemingly endless fields of corn and soybean and other crops are major sources of protein, which deer certainly take advantage of. Every year, many of the biggest bucks in the country are taken in the Midwest.
A whitetail’s antlers grow at an astonishing rate. It is often said that if a rack still in velvet were placed under a microscope, you could watch it growing right before your eyes. Realistically, though, during the peak of summer, antlers grow approximately ½ inch per day. However, antler growth always plays second fiddle to body growth.
Throughout the spring and summer, most of the food consumed by whitetails will contribute to their physical development. Only after a deer’s physical needs are met will the surplus nutrients benefit antler growth. Any dietary deficiency can stunt antler growth.
(Photo: Food plots can provide the nutrients needed for deer to grow large antlers, but public land hunters don't have the option of installing these. However, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Pennsylvania Game Commission often do habitat improvements and plantings, such as this one, on state forests and game lands.)
There are many things you can do to ensure that your property provides a well-balanced menu for whitetails. Habitat improvements such as cutting, burning, and planting food plots all play a role. The key is making sure that deer have a food source available to them year round. It doesn’t do much good to have a bunch of apple trees or food plots that only peak during a few months of the year. What will the deer feed on the rest of the time?
That’s why winters can be so tough on deer, and also why hard winters can effect antler growth that spring and summer. When a buck’s nutrient levels bottom out after a hard winter, it’s a long climb back to full health, which means most of the nutrients they consume go to replenish their bodies. However, if year round food sources are available to deer in your area, the herd will emerge from the winter stronger and healthier, and more nutrients will go toward antler growth.
Second only to nutrition, age is a primary ingredient in growing big bucks. Without age, it’s nearly impossible for bucks to grow large racks.
A buck grows its first set of antlers at 1 ½ years old. At this age, a buck’s rack has reached only about 10% of its potential, on average. At 2 ½ years old, a deer’s antlers reach approximately 25-35% of their potential. This percentage increases each year as the buck matures.
Whitetails reach full body maturity at 3 ½ years old. From this point on, many of the nutrients consumed go toward antler development.
At 5 ½ years old, a whitetail’s rack finally achieves full potential, and the rack it grows each succeeding year will be very similar, and usually bigger. Only after it reaches 8 years of age and older will its rack then begin to regress.
(Photo: A very mature mountain buck. Although he's fully mature, his antlers may never grow larger than this due to the harsh conditions and poor nutrition of mountain country. Not every buck grows record-setting antlers, which is why we should appreciate those that do!)
In the whole equation of what it takes to grow big bucks, genetics probably plays the smallest role, but only slightly. More often than not, if a buck’s nutritional needs are met, and it is allowed to reach maturity, the result will be a trophy rack. However, that doesn’t mean that genetics aren’t important. There’s a reason that some breeders will pay upwards of $30,000 for a single straw of semen from a stud whitetail.
For most of us, though, we don’t have the option of importing genetically-superior whitetails into our hunting areas. Our challenge is to recognize the potential of the whitetails currently inhabiting our properties.
Years ago it was believed that a buck that grew a set of spike antlers at 1 ½ years of age would never grow anything other than spike antlers. Research has proved that this is not the case. Not until a buck reaches full body maturity do we get a sense of that deer’s potential. Simply put, some bucks are late bloomers.
Similarly, if you won’t shoot a 1 ½ year old spike, why kill a 1 ½ year old eight point? The eight point, after all, possesses even more potential to reach trophy proportions, and if allowed to mature, it certainly will.
As a rule, most whitetails already possess good genetics. Once again, only after a deer’s nutritional needs are met and it is allowed to reach maturity will its genetics shine through.
Many people view monster bucks as anomalies that seemingly fell from the sky. How their antlers grew to such large proportions, though, is no accident. It was a combination of nutrition, age, and genetics. Whether you hunt only large-racked, mature whitetails or prefer to shoot the first legal buck that walks by is irrelevant. When you see a monster whitetail, you have to stop and appreciate all of the factors that combined to create a truly magnificent animal.
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