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Explaining Deer Antlers & Predicting Future Growth

There's a lot that goes into how big a buck's antlers may ultimately become.

Explaining Deer Antlers & Predicting Future Growth

This graph, from the Mississippi State University Deer Lab, is very helpful in determining a buck’s estimated antler score for each year he’s alive. Using simple math, if a 1½-year-old buck has 52 inches of antler, by the time he’s 5½, his headgear will have increased to 170 inches. By letting a 1½-year-old buck live another year, you can easily double his antler size.

Antlers have fascinated mankind for centuries. So majestic, they have become a symbol of spiritual authority in many cultures. So popular are antlers, that some Western states have implemented regs for shed-hunters. The state regs on timing, location, and how you hunt sheds are put in place to reduce the stress put upon critters during the harshest time of year — just prior to green-up.

Shed hunting can also pay some big dollars. Antlers are sold by the pound, and on a quality grading system. Fresh antlers, or ones recently shed, are more valuable than bleached antlers. Fresh elk and muley antlers can bring up to $10-$12 per pound; fresh whitetail antlers bring much less — say $6-$8 per pound. This is because many high-fence, or farmed deer, have inundated the market. Whatever the market brings, there’s just something about getting outdoors and finding a treasured antler after a long winter.

Years ago, I would “plant” shed antlers for my girls to find. As they grew older, they realized just how addictive hunting sheds can become. I can’t help but think that these fabricated Easter egg/shed-antler hunts played a small part in them eventually becoming successful bowhunters.

Although there are various theories on why bucks have antlers, it all boils down to establishing supremacy over other bucks. Over a buck’s lifetime, the more offspring he produces, the better his chances of passing on his genes to future generations of deer.

We all know nutrition, age, and genetics are the three building blocks for growing large antlers. Although many hunters can’t control a deer’s nutrition or genetics, letting younger-aged bucks walk is one way to improve the age structure of the deer in your area.

Through the years, the nationwide data on deer age structure is clear: More 3½-year-old bucks are now being harvested than ever before. Why is this happening? Because more hunters are letting younger bucks walk. It wasn’t too long ago when if you heard a hunter saying he passed up a buck, you figured he was either lying, or was a complete idiot. Nowadays, many hunters let younger bucks walk on a regular basis.

One of the reasons why hunters let young bucks walk is basic math. Research has shown a 1½-year-old buck is only expressing about 20–25 percent of his antler potential. It’s important to note that this figure varies greatly for 1½-year-old bucks across their range. For example, a buck fawn may have been born late. If this happens, chances are his first set of antlers will not express his true potential when compared to a buck fawn born on time — around June 1.

A one-month delay in the timing of a fawn’s birth can also reduce the quality and quantity of its mother’s milk. This, in turn, can result in a suppressed first set of antlers. Additionally, a doe that comes out of winter in bad shape will pass this stress on to her fawns. And just like being born late, these stressed buck fawns will have a tough first year of life. Once again, the result is a much smaller set of antlers at 1½ years of age. The good news is, by the second or third year, a buck’s headgear can catch up to those of buck fawns that were born on time, or that were privy to adequate nutrition.

Speaking of nutrition. It’s no secret deer love and seek out forbs when grazing. This is especially true during the spring and summer. The nutritional value of forbs is like a magic bullet that kicks off larger antlers in the fall, and healthier does and fawns. Unlike cows grazing in a pasture on grass (fescue), deer don’t like grass. What deer are actually eating is all the forbs located in between the blades of grass.

Biologists know forbs are broadleaf herbaceous plants that make up nearly 70 percent of a deer’s diet during the fawning and antler-growing period. These highly digestible plants provide necessary minerals, energy, and the all-important nutrition at an important time of year. In short, if you provide forbs with adequate amounts of rain, you’ll have bucks with above-average antlers.

Another reason for the variability in a buck’s first set of antlers is genetics. Most hunters don’t realize that even in properly managed deer herds, it’s not unusual for 20 percent of the 1½-year-old buck population to be spikes. Can these little bucks catch up to their siblings or first cousins that have larger antlers the first year? It all depends on the nutrition available in their habitat, and their genetics. What this means to hunters is that if you want larger antlers, you must wait until a deer is at least 3½ to 4½ years old before you tip him over. The problem in many herds is that hunters simply can’t refrain from killing younger bucks.

Aging deer on the hoof is something hunters just started doing within the last decade. Some hunters still question the accuracy of this skill. Think about it. Chances are, you look physically different today than when you were 18 years old. Deer are no different than people, in that their waist gets wider, their belly gets bigger, their chest gets deeper, and their neck fills out as they get older. Considering many parts of the country only have three age classes of bucks, you can age deer on the hoof. And although aging deer on the hoof may not be an absolute science, you’d be surprised how accurate you can become. And just like anything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.


The National Deer Association (NDA) has produced an educational poster entitled, “Estimating Buck Age.” This is a great visual aid designed to help hunters hone their aging skills.

C.J.’s Summary: Compared to nutrition and genetics, age is the easiest component for hunters to control by passing on younger bucks. Given an equal opportunity to tip over a small or large-antlered buck, who’s not going to choose the larger buck? In order to get larger antlers, you must pass on younger bucks. This isn’t rocket science. It all boils down to one of my favorite acronyms: “D-D-D-G,” which stands for Dead Deer Don’t Grow. Any questions?

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