On the sixty fifth day God created antler and it was good. Some bigger some wider and some heavier, but all unique and individual. Many people look at hardened antler and think, “I fed them” or “ I managed them”, or “I wisely planned my breeding program and here are the results”. All of these things are important. If you got the antlers you wanted this year, if such a thing is possible, than all of these factors and more happened. It wasn’t luck “you need to know me, I don’t do luck”. Antler development actually begins long before the pedicle has cast the previous years hard antler. So right now your deer are setting up for next years production. In fact, the surge of feed intake you may have noticed in August is the beginning.
Priority of Nutrient Use
During the year deer use nutrients they take in for different things. In Wisconsin between mid-August and mid-October the priority of use is laying on the fat. Fat is how deer and most animals store energy. They will need this fat during the rut and the winter because eating will not be a priority during this time, and deer will only eat half or less of normal consumption. Another very important side benefit of fat is that it has a very good R-value. R-value is the resistance to temperature change. So a good fat layer around your deer will make them more resistant to the cold. Studies have been done proving that even deer on a starvation diet will develop a fat layer during this time. As the year goes on, hair coat, muscle and bone development become priorities for nutrient use. In a feeding program, energy needs in-crease to meet these priorities. About mid-winter, does are developing their fawns at light speed and bucks are doing the same with velvet. Both require more protein in their diets to accomplish their goals. However, in the case of both, they are not the priorities. Muscle, bone and blood are still the priorities and if deer are in poor condition these needs will be met before velvet. By mid-May the priority is milk production for does while a bucks priority continues to be muscle, bone and blood maintenance and growth. This continues right on up to mid-August when we start over again with the fat being most important.
Antler is a very unique biological material. It is one of the fastest growing tissues to man and has been used as a model in cancer research. It starts out as a cartilage and after about sixty-five days begins to mineralize. Most of the rapid growth occurs during the period when it is cartilage. Even after it is in the hardened antler form it is still primarily protein. Protein makes up thirty-six percent of its composition. The second largest component is calcium at 19% and the third is phosphorus at 10%. The protein is made up of amino acids, which are required to get antler production. Some of the most important amino acids are the sulfur containing AA’s. These sulfur containing AA’s are what give antler that burning hair smell when you cut them with a saw. Feeding deer ingredients that are high in sulfur containing AA’s can be a challenge because most have a distinct odors (like burning hair). Good sources tend to be animal protein by nature, are things like fish meal, whole dried egg, and dried milk. But, because deer are ruminants, meaning four stomached, you not only need to get the deer to eat these ingredients, but also keep them from being broken down in the rumen. So for best antler production it must also have properties that make it rumen undegradeable and other than fish meal, the ingredients listed above would be degraded in the rumen.
Factors Contributing to Trophy Antlers
Large, many tined antlers are a rare thing of beauty in nature. All the deer farmers that I know want all their bucks to exhibit these qualities. In order for this to happen, you need a years worth of good nutrition going to every buck evenly which includes both your hay or grass and your purchased feed. Deer eat about two to four percent of the body weight in dry matter each day. At least half of that should come from forage; there fore quality of your forage can have a bigger impact on your deer than your purchased feed. Your purchased feed should balance the deficiencies present in your forage. Balance is a key word here. If the purchased feed in not in a pellet form, deer tend to sort out the grain (they usually like grain better than pellets) causing some deer not to get the goodies formulated into the ration.
Management is what you do to help your deer handle the stresses the environment throws at them. Any stress that was present this year and not last during key antler development will impact your deer. Common stresses would be other animals your deer view as predators, crowding, parasites, wet or dry weather, water quality, anything that causes discomfort or fear. Genetics is an important factor because if the things I mentioned above are present in a positive form then the offspring would resemble their parents. Your herd buck will have the greatest impact because he will influence the greatest number of animals. However, in every fawn he sires, he will only contribute fifty percent of the genetic material. The egg and the sperm are the only living cells that contain one half of the normal number of chromosomes. So the only way and individual animal can be created is by getting one half from the sire and one half from the dam.
If you were pleased with what your herd did this year don’t relax! Every year is different and you need to monitor and be ready to react. If you didn’t get the antlers you wanted or expected this year, many things may have influenced the outcome. A good feeding program is a critical component that starts now with getting deer in shape while their bodies are telling them to eat as much as they can. The management and genetics are also a year round thing that may necessitate your doing things differently from one year to the next depending on conditions.
God creates antler from cartilage in approximately sixty-five days but what HE makes them look like will depend on what he is doing through you for 365 days.
Rick Decker is a Nutritional Consultant employed by Purina Mills. He has a passion for deer and elk. He has been in the nutrition and consulting business since 1980. He does not criticize other feed companies and promotes overall good management and environmental stewardship.