Antler Development in Whitetail Deer

I assume everyone knows that a deer’s antlers, or a deer’s “horns”, are grown and shed each year.  Antlers begin growth the end of March here in Southeast Texas and are fully formed in late July.  By the end of August, the velvet or hairy covering is rubbed clean.  I’ve seen bucks one day with velvet and the same deer one day later with taters of velvet hanging from their antlers and the antlers themselves are literally blood red.  From that point on a buck will be ready to breed doe.   Antlers are shed or cast starting in January and all have fallen off usually by late February.  Within a few weeks new growth begins.

It may surprise most people to note that the early development of antler material is high in water but the dry matter is mostly protein.  Studies in Michigan showed June antler material in healthy one-year-old bucks contained 80% protein.

It is hard to believe a complete set of antlers will be fully formed in five months.  That’s fast! Growth actually occurs at the tip.  As antlers grow, maturation involves ossification as the antlers approach their definitive shape.  As the final antler shape is coming into focus, there is an internal remodeling that results in replacement of the outermost spongy bone with compact bone.  There is no marrow in antlers as is found in an animal’s long bones.

Antler Development 3

Research has proven that antlers require a net accumulation of about 0.5 to 1.0 grams of calcium and 0.25 to 0.5 grams of phosphorus per day.  Most feed manufacturers selling pellet deer feed strive for that 2-1 ratio of calcium to phosphorous.  Other studies have proven that the rapid antler growth is such a drain on a buck’s system that the bone minerals needed for antler s were mobilized and robbed from the buck’s skeleton in order to meet this calcium/phosphorus antler need.  What puzzles many scientists however is that studies of mule deer have shown this bone mineral mobilization still occurs even when dietary minerals were high in existing plants the deer consumed.  This osteoporosis has been confirmed by measurements of bone density in three different studies.  Trabecular bone is the most metabolically active and resorption reached 25% of rib minerals during the middle period of antler growth.  Deer bone returns to normal shortly after antler growth is complete.

So, we know protein is needed.  We know calcium and phosphorous are needed and antler growth is so rapid, the deer robs these minerals from its own skeleton in order to “feed” the antler growth.  Some ranchers or managers may believe all they need to do is provide good water, shade and bags of feed that is high in protein with enough balanced calcium and phosphorus in it and they can grow giant deer on the Astrodome parking lot.  As always, in steps Mother Nature.

Antler Development 2

Vitamin A is also vital for antler remodeling as ossification proceeds.  Carotenes in green leaves are converted to Vitamin A. Growing trophy animals is ALWAYS easier on a ranch with  good habitat that will give a buck that native green to make its rumen bacteria happy and smooth out all the mineral movement that is involved in growing a trophy set of antlers.

There have been entire books devoted to antler growth.  Condensing it into a single post is impossible.  If your goal is trophy antlers, the simple recipe one needs to remember is to provide a habitat that is not overgrazed by too many deer and livestock and supplement that native forage with protein.  Deer will always take the native food first. When protein is lacking, they will appreciate the hand-out of sack feed.  Now is the time.


On a side note…

Antlers are the fasting growing tissue in the world.  Some research has been done with antlers trying to gain insight on certain types of fast-growing cancers.

Of all the world’s deer families, moose are the largest.  Of the several sub-species of moose, the Alaskan moose is the largest of the lot.  In the short growing season in the northern latitudes where Alaskan moose live, it’s hard to believe their paddle-like antlers can reach spreads exceeding 70 inches wide.  The weight is incredible.

I once guided a man from Alaska in South TX.  He was after a trophy whitetail but as you might imagine, I was picking his brain the entire time regarding wildlife in his home state.  He was an avid hunter.

The one tidbit I vividly remember him telling me was one characteristic he uses to judge trophy moose.  The trait he looked for more than any other was the angle of the antler growth as it leaves the moose’s head.  He explained all trophy moose will have a dip or downward curve at the base of the antler or where the antler is attached to the scull.  Reason: As the antler is growing and still soft /spongy and somewhat pliable, the weight of the antlers cause the base to actually sag or bend downward.  About halfway through antler development, the bend is corrected and the antlers start growing outward normally.  I was in Cabela’s near Buda and studied all of the giant moose heads in their store and this trait was clearly seen.  I never knew that.


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