3 Most Important Factors for Deer Antler Growth
March 21, 2023
Learn about the deer antler growth cycle, ages and seasons for antler development and shedding, and how to provide the best minerals for antler growth.
A giant rack on a mature deer has fascinated hunters and enthusiasts since the dawn of time. Early native people once painted and chipped their forked figures onto stone walls, and today we photograph and mount them as trophies on our living room walls. There’s just something about a buck’s gnarly set of antlers that doesn’t get old. And how those antlers grow and eventually shed—then repeat the process year after year—is a big part of the mystique.
Of course, you don’t need us to dissect how antlers are made to know they’re awesome. But understanding the cycle is intriguing. Let’s take a closer look at antler development, how deer antlers grow, what factors affect antler size, and how you can maximize antler growth in your herd.
Deer Antler Growth Cycle
Antlers are not made from keratin, ivory, hair, or wood, as some people question. Deer antlers are made of actual bone consisting mainly of calcium and phosphorous. They grow from pedicles, or bases, on the front skull of male deer. Antlers are also deciduous, meaning they’re cast off and grow back yearly. But what actually happens to antlers seasonally and during their three stages of development?
Did You Know? If you’ve ever wondered if female whitetail deer grow antlers, the answer is yes, but it's rare. A female may occasionally grow antlers if her body produces too much testosterone, though they’re often small and thin or may only present as spikes. Research puts the occurrence at 1 in 10,000 deer or fewer.
March is the month when bucks start growing antlers. This coincides with the arrival of spring and increased daylight which slows melatonin production and kicks off antler growth.
The amount of bone a deer can sprout from its head is simply incredible. That's because antlers are the fastest growing tissue scientists know of. To put numbers to it, this Mississippi University article notes yearlings can add up to ¾ inch and adult bucks 1½ inches of new growth per week. When nutrition and conditions are just right, bucks can churn out more than 200 inches of bone growth in just 120 days.
During those four months, antlers are fully outfitted with nerves and blood vessels that feed the fast-growing tissue. They’re also covered with a fuzzy layer of skin called velvet. While “in velvet,” antlers are soft and susceptible to injuries that may cause deformities—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most hunters and deer enthusiasts appreciate antlers with one-of-a-kind characteristics, like a daggerlike drop tine or unique kicker point.
By late August, most whitetail deer have achieved maximum antler growth, and antlers begin to mineralize or harden. If you’re familiar with basic construction, the process is kind of like building a skyscraper.
“What is first built is the structure or frame or matrix,” author Matt Knox writes in this Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources article. “Think of pouring concrete; you must first build a form. That is what deer do. During the early summer, deer antlers are soft to the touch or spongy. Toward the middle of summer, as the form is being finished, the deer begins to ‘pour’ the bone.”
Finally, by early September, the blood vessels also fill up and stop nourishing the velvet, which shrinks and dies. It’s removed from antlers as bucks thrash their rack on vegetation to strip it and possibly curb the itchy sensation that comes from velvet die-off. Once the velvet peels, bucks have hardened, polished antlers as weapons to head into the fall rut. They’ll come in handy to fight other males and establish the right to mate with females.
Why do deer shed their antlers? It's a good question. Deer spend months dumping loads of nutrients and siphoned minerals from their skeleton into building antlers. Then when mating season is over, they toss them off like yesterday’s empty acorn shells. Casting antlers is necessary, however, so bigger and better regrowth can happen. And so we can enjoy watching the fascinating process all over again.
So what causes antlers to be cast? By late December, the bone between the pedicle and the antler starts to demineralize along an abscission line. It’s basically like a bone fracture. This weakened base, combined with the top-heavy weight of the antler, eventually causes it to drop off. Both antlers may detach simultaneously—like in this spectacular trail cam video—or days or even weeks apart.
Older bucks often shed antlers earlier than younger bucks, and deer in good condition typically hang onto antlers longer than those in poor shape (Virginia DWR). While the timing of antler drop varies, most cast sometime between December and early March. Afterward, the pedicle bleeds for a short time, heals within a few weeks, and new antler growth starts again.
Factors that Affect Antler Development
Three main components impact how large antlers grow: age, genetics, and nutrition. Deer hunters and stewards can influence two, but we'll cover each.
Age is a significant factor in what causes deer antlers to be bigger or smaller. Male fawns, known as “button bucks,” grow pedicle bumps at about two months old. However, their first noticeable set of antlers come as a yearling and may range from spikes to 10 or more points (University of Missouri). As a buck matures, his antlers get bigger and better developed until growth finally maxes out at 6½ years. The growth chart below shows what percentage of antler growth deer achieve by age.
Shooting young bucks aged three or under is one major reason antler size decreases in a herd. If your goal is to have bigger bucks on your hunting property, let young deer grow up and reach their potential. The photo collage below shows antler growth on a mature six-year-old deer tracked from 2014 (age three) through 2017 (age six) when he was finally harvested.
A deer’s DNA is something humans can't control. Genetics are controlled by the makeup of a deer’s parents, which affects antler shape, composition, and size. However, ample high-quality nutrition—something humans can improve—is a must for deer to be able to reach their genetic potential. This video by Growing Deer TV features a Ph.D. student at Mississippi State University. He argues that nutrition is actually the main factor for growing large, fully formed antlers, and genetics are secondary.
Antler growth is a physiologically demanding task. It requires huge amounts of nutrients and energy and forage dense in protein and minerals. When deer don’t receive proper nutrition, body and antler size suffer. Protein is especially important. The University of Missouri found that a difference of 8 percent and 16 percent protein in a buck’s diet through age 4 can potentially cause a 20-inch difference in antler size.
And what about minerals? Do minerals really help antler growth? Calcium and phosphorus are scientifically known to be important, and other minerals play a critical role as well. The National Deer Association noted a University of Georgia study found 11 different minerals in whitetail antlers. The top four included calcium (19 percent), phosphorus (10 percent), magnesium (1 percent), and sodium (0.5 percent).
Other trace minerals are also necessary. While deer only require trace minerals in very small amounts, wildlife biologist Dr. Grant Woods notes they are critical for bucks to achieve maximum antler growth.
“It doesn’t take much of a trace mineral to benefit a deer,” Woods said. “But without access to trace minerals in their diet, bucks won’t be able to express their full antler growth and does won’t express their fawn-producing potential.”
How to Maximize Antler Growth
While some things are out of your control when it comes to growing bigger bucks, there are some important factors you can implement on your farm or hunting property. Here are four:
- Maintain a healthy deer density and buck:doe ratio so deer aren’t overpopulated and competing for food. Generally, this means harvesting more does.
- Plant nutritious food plots that are high in protein, and fertilize appropriately. Conduct a soil test to determine low or missing minerals in your soil.
- Set up a year-round mineral site with quality supplements. You can learn how to set up a deer mineral site in this blog.
- Let young deer grow and harvest mature bucks over 4½ years old. (The deer in the collage below was photographed yearly from age 3 to age 6, when he was harvested.)
Best Deer Mineral for Antlers
The best mineral mix for deer health and antler growth is a supplement with balanced ratios of macro and trace minerals. Redmond Trophy Rock and Four65 contain 60+ minerals created by nature. Both products are harvested from an ancient seabed and provide deer with the balanced nutrients they need for improved health and antler growth.
Trophy Rock is a proven attractant and mineral supplement that works. It's preferred by deer, trusted by experts like Dr. Woods, and used by thousands of hunters and deer stewards. Check out this May 2022 review from Trophy Rock customer Cameron Baucom:
“The proof is in the minerals. For years my team and I have used Redmond Hunt products on our farms in North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and Alabama. The herd retention, herd health, the growth of bucks’ horns, and our harvest of mature whitetails have been outstanding. This is all because of the Redmond Hunt products. 100% mined and produced here in the USA. I highly recommend Redmond Hunt products to any whitetail hunter looking for these results on their properties as well.”
Are you ready to grow bigger bucks? Providing quality minerals is an important step! Pick up Trophy Rock or Four65 and start improving antler growth and health in your herd today.
© Redmond Hunt 2022. All rights reserved.
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