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Let 'em Go, Let 'em Grow

A Deer Management Article

Written by T.R. Michels


If you want to see more trophy whitetail bucks in your areas the first thing you have to do is use a little restraint. You must let the young males go so they can grow. I often hear hunters complain that they see nothing but small racked bucks in their area. These hunters often wait patiently through the season for a big racked buck to appear. Then, instead of going home empty handed they end up taking a small racked buck. If this pattern continues year after year those hunters will see nothing but young, small racked bucks, because the young deer never live long enough to grow large racks.

Age and Antler Size
Deer experts used to believe it took 4 1/2 years for a whitetail buck to develop a trophy rack. It is now believed that a whitetail doesn't achieve full body size until it is about 7 1/2 years old. Until then much of the food and mineral a buck takes in is used to develop bone and muscle mass. Once the buck is fully mature excess food and mineral can be used to develop antler mass, and many hunters equate antler mass with a high score. A close look at any scoring chart will reveal that it is the number and length of tines that makes up the majority of inches needed for the rack to score high enough to enter the record books. The difference between a massive rack and a thin rack might only add 10 inches, which is 1/14 of a 140 class buck, not enough to really matter.

Milo Hanson's world record whitetail has several tines with extremely long points and main beams, with a good spread, but it is not massive. The length of the tines is what made it the new world record. Game officials aged the buck at 4 1/2. Obviously it had superior genetics, and it lived until it was 4 1/2 years old. It is conceivable that a 3 1/2 year old buck could make the archery record book but most trophy bucks are over 4 1/2 years of age. In many areas bucks don't make it past their first year. The chances of a 2 1/2 year old buck making the record book are slim. If you want to see more trophy bucks you have to let the 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 year old bucks go, so they can grow. By letting the young bucks grow, and taking does, you not only keep the herd below carrying capacity, you increase the buck to doe ratio in favor of bucks. Eventually you will end up with more older bucks, which translates into more trophy deer.

For a number of years deer experts believed spike yearling bucks possessed inferior genetics and would never produce respectable, or trophy racks. Because of this belief game managers and hunters alike promoted the idea of culling the spikes from the herd to improve overall genetics. The feeling now is that many spikes may be late born fawns that just don't have time to produce larger racks their first year. A buck's rack doesn't keep growing until it reaches a certain size and then stop. It grows until lengthening daylight hours increase hormone levels causing the rack to stop growing and harden. Because the rise in hormone level stops the growth of the rack at about the same time in most bucks, those that were born a month or so later have less rack growth their first year. During their second year late born bucks have the same growing time as other bucks, and usually produce normal sized racks.

In one study, when bucks were given supplemental feed and minerals, most of the bucks produced four to ten point racks their first year. There was also one buck in the study with a spike rack. With continued supplemental feeding and mineral all the bucks produced bigger racks each year, including the spike. In fact, during the fourth year the spike produced the largest rack of all. This proves that the only way to find out what kind of a rack the buck will produce is to let it grow until it is 4-7 years old.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a deer breeder who is producing Boone and Crockett racks on 2-3 year old bucks. He tells me this is possible because they carefully select fast growing bucks with good antler genetics and breed them to does with good antler genetics. The animals are provided with minerals and receive supplemental feed throughout the year. He says that producing bucks of this quality is difficult with wild deer because they don't receive the same nutrition, and it is almost impossible to keep track of genetics.

I also asked the breeder whether he thought the high wide 8 point bucks on my property would ever grow 10 point racks. I had suspected for years that these older 8 point bucks would never grow a 10 point rack. He confirmed my suspicions and said that, in his experience, older 8 point bucks rarely produce 10 point racks. Because of this conversation I have decided to take out all the bucks on my property that don't grow 10 point or better racks, in an effort to increase trophy quality. I know that not all areas produce 10 point or better racks, but, if you see older bucks with racks smaller than the average in your area I suggest you take them out so they don't contribute to the genetic pool.

Doe Harvest
An easy way to improve genetics is to harvest the older class does. The faster the turnover of females, the faster genetics can improve. A buck gets half its genetics from its mother, so if older does are continuing to produce fawns, the same genetics (which may be inferior) are passed on. In a herd with the right age structure 50 to 60 percent of the does taken each year should be 2 1/2 or younger. This will produce a doe herd with an average age of 2 1/2 to 3/12 years, which will cause the entire doe herd, and the genetics, to turnover in about 3 1/2 years. When you turnover the doe herd, and protect the better bucks, genetics will change quickly.

If you want to increase the overall size of the animal's racks you can improve year round nutrition in the form of food plots, adequate grazing and browse, supplemental feeding in the winter, and minerals. Winter is a good time to start a nutrition program. Late winter means a reduction in food sources for the deer, while nutrition needs increase. In northern climates cold weather, high wind chills and damp weather cause heat loss in the deer. In order to maintain a high metabolism to keep warm they must burn calories, and they must either find carbohydrate and fat rich food, or utilize their own existing fat reserves. Walking through heavy snow and ranging long distances in search of foods in the winter also burns calories, which means the deer must find food to maintain fat reserves and body heat.

In order for the bucks to get a jump start on good antler growth they should come through the winter in good health. But, because they use up so much energy during the rut, and lose so much fat reserve during the winter, they come into the spring in poor shape, which hinders antler growth. To help the males grow better racks, and come through the winter in better shape, provide them with supplemental feeding. High carbohydrate foods, like corn, are beneficial to both bucks and does in early winter. The protein content of the food at this time should be around 12 percent. As February comes around more protein in the form of pellets should be added. The protein content of the feed should be increased by about two percent each month until spring, up to 20 percent as natural food sources are depleted.

If you are going to feed deer don't use too much corn; too much corn may cause acidosis, which kills the beneficial bacteria in the deer's digestive system and may result in starvation. You're better off feeding hay than corn. During the winter adult deer need 6 to 8 pounds of green food per 100 pounds of body mass daily. The daily digestible energy requirements for maintenance of pregnant does, in some northern states during the winter, was estimated at 155-160 kilocalories per kilogram of body weight. The deer can get this from acorns, apples, legumes (alfalfa, clover, soybeans etc.); and the twigs, leaves, shoots and fruits of buckthorn, grape, greenbriar, Japanese honeysuckle, honey locust, maple, poplar, sumac, willow, viburnum and evergreens.

Proteins and Minerals
With the coming of spring proteins, minerals and vitamins are needed by both the bucks and does as the bucks develop new racks, the does continue fetus growth and fawns are born. Protein requirements for weaned fawns are approximately 14 to 22 percent of the dry matter, with buck fawns having higher requirements than doe fawns. Yearling deer need about 11 percent protein, adult deer need 6-10 percent protein. The minerals can be supplied on the ground in a sheltered area where they won't be washed away, or in a covered bin. Deer need about .45 calcium and not more than .28 phosphorus of the dry matter of their food. Depending on the soil condition they may also need sodium, cobalt, iodine (26 ppm), selenium (2 ppm). To adequately provide mineral for all the deer you should have one mineral lick for each forty acres of land. The licks should be placed in high use areas with adequate cover so that the animals readily find and use them; minerals are most easily utilized by deer in granular form.

Habitat Improvement
In order to achieve the best possible forage results from the land you need to create interspersion, diversity and edges. Good deer habitat is interspersed with meadows/prairies/CRP fields for grazing and bedding areas and agricultural fields/food plots and herbaceous cover/brushy/wooded areas for feeding areas and shelter. Inter-mixing these vegetation types creates edges. The different types of vegetation should be near each other so that the deer don't have to travel too far for any of their needs. When you plant, use a variety of plant species that mature at different times of the year, so the deer will have their choice of foods, and food all year long.

Improving Wooded and Brushy Areas
To improve the quality of forage in forested areas you can selectively cut unwanted trees so the remaining trees grow and produce better, or you can clear cut some wooded or brushy areas to provide re-growth of desired species and create more openings. You can also plant desired trees and shrubs to provide more forage.

Mast Production
To provide better mast crops for the deer you can plant oaks (Burr oak, zone 3-9, tolerates poor soil; White oak, zone 4-9, the best mast; Sawtooth oak, zone 5-7, vigorous growth) and beechnuts for future use. To increase mast production of the existing trees select the best trees and spread 15-15-15 fertilizer under them as far out as the crown. Cut the inferior trees and eliminate low growing nearby shrubs that compete for water, sun and soil nutrients. You can plant maples (Silver maple, zone 3-7, needs well drained rich soil, fast growing, heavy regrowth; Red maple (Swamp maple), zone 3-7, tolerates wet conditions, good regrowth) for mast and browse. A planting of maples for their mast and leaves can offer a nutrient rich food source for deer in the fall.

Browse and Berries
Plant dogwoods (red osier, grows wild, hardy; Grey and Silky zone 4-8, Grey produces heavy berry crops, silky is best for browse) for browse and berries. You can also plant apples (Lodi, McIntosh, Red Rome, Northern Spy, Spigold for northern areas; McIntosh, early Baldwin, Staymen Winesap, Jonathan red, Yellow Delicious for southern areas); and crabapples (Sargent, good browse, fruit dries and hangs on trees) for winter fruit.
In northern areas deer rely heavily on cedar fronds to get them through the winter. Cedar stands also offer thermal cover in cold weather. For best production of cedar stands a third of a mature stand should be strip cut every 30 years to produce lasting cover and forage. Saplings of all trees must be protected while they are small or the deer will over browse and kill them.

Forest Openings, Meadows and Prairies
Deer also need open areas where they can graze. One of the best ways to get deer to use primarily wooded or brushy areas is to provide more open habitat. If you are going to create more open areas, plan on keeping them that way for several years. Annual set-aside programs are detrimental to any type of game management program because the farmers often wait to plant those areas until late in the spring, which destroys needed habitat and food sources. Annual set aside programs don't give the land time to develop into good feeding areas, because the land is often placed back into farm production within one or two years. Openings of 5-12 acres in wooded areas provide excellent whitetail habitat.

Multi-year set-aside programs, like CRP, are one of the keys to producing good habitat, because CRP fields provide one of the major components for deer production, open areas. Not only do open areas benefit deer; they also benefit several other species. CRP fields made up of warm season grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem, cane and Indian grass provide winter cover and feeding and resting areas for pheasants and rabbits. CRP fields of cool season grasses such as smooth brome and legumes (alfalfa and clover) provide nesting and resting cover, and feeding areas for waterfowl, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, turkeys and songbirds.