- Deer have antlers, not horns. Antlers grow from the tips and are shed annually. Conversely, horns grow from the base and grow for life.
- Antlers can grow up to an inch per day, but average about ¼-inch per day or two inches a week. Antlers are one of the fastest growing normal tissue/bones in nature. In roughly 120 days, a time period from late March to early August, deer can grow up to 200 or more inches of bone.
- Velvet is full of blood vessels that send blood, oxygen and nutrients to the antlers so they can grow. The bumps, grooves and other textural variations that can be seen/felt on the base and beams of antlers are often the impressions left by the blood vessels that were present while the buck was in velvet.
- Antlers in the velvet stage, because of the density of blood vessels and nerves, have feeling. Once the antlers harden and the velvet is shed, that feeling in the antlers is lost. Having the ability to feel while still in the velvet does different things.
First, it helps deer prevent damage to their rack during the growing phase. In general it appears that bucks are cautious of their growing racks. The ability to feel helps them avoid injuring their velvet covered antlers. Unlike later in the fall where bucks will dual intensely head on, rack to rack, in the growing season they will instead posture, paw, nudge, bump and/or engage in less aggressive behavior.
Secondly, this sense of feeling bucks have in their antlers while in the velvet gives them a sort of muscle memory and awareness of where their rack is situated for the duration of the time they carry it. This awareness helps them avoid hitting their growing racks on trees, brush, fences and more. It also makes them aware of the size and shape for sparring purposes once they have shed the velvet.
- Antler growth is spurred by photoperiod and hormones. Bucks shed their velvet in late August and early September. This shed is based on a response to reduced daylight hours and increased testosterone levels. Likewise, antlers are shed/cast based on a response to increased daylight and decreased testosterone levels in late winter/early spring.
- Antler size can be a revealing indication of herd health. Large antlers can signal that there is enough available forage and nutrition, a healthy carrying capacity on the property, low or manageable pressure and stress on resident deer, good age structure and more – all factors that can contribute to the ability of deer to express their full genetic potential.
- Stark white to chocolate brown, antler color can vary greatly. Antler color, in part, is impacted by the amount of oxidized blood on the antlers from the shedding process and how that blood reacts with the tannins in plants (trees, bushes and more) that the deer rub their antlers on. Darker coloration can be the result of deer rubbing their antlers before the blood has dried completely, thus staining the antlers giving them a darker appearance. Other factors that play a role in coloration are the species of trees in the area that deer rub on, how much or little deer rub on trees, genetics, age, time of year and sun exposure.
Antler growth is largely determined by three factors – genetics, age and nutrition.
- Genetics: The genetic makeup of whitetails and how it may impact their rack is a complex subject, there are many different facets to that conversation. However, in a very simplified way, some bucks are genetically predisposed to have average/normal size antlers at maturity, some will have smaller and some will have larger.
While the genetic makeup may be present to produce a large rack, environmental factors may inhibit the ability for a buck to actually realize that full genetic potential. Nutrition, habitat, predators, stress and a host of other factors can impact a buck’s ability to put on all the inches possible. That means even with good genetics, in regard to antler size, environmental factors will likely impact growth good or bad despite genetic potential.
This also means that if your hunting property is lacking bucks with big racks there is a possibility that they aren’t genetic duds breeding generations of small bucks. Instead, it’s possible that they aren’t getting the nutrition needed, they are too young to show their full potential or there is another environmental factor impacting/stressing them and impeding their growth.
- Age: At 2 ½ years old, it’s estimated that bucks will have attained 60-percent of their lifetime antler maturity. At 3 ½ years old that number jumps to 80%, and at 4 ½ years old bucks have been shown to have attained at least 95% of their antler size.
- Nutrition: Growing antlers requires two to three times the minerals/nutrients needed for the skeletal system growth. For deer to realize their genetic potential in rack size they need to have steady and nutritious food sources year-round in areas with quality soil.
Nutrients for antler growth don’t come directly from forage consumed. Instead, the minerals (primarily calcium and phosphorus) are robbed from the skeletal system, redirected to the antlers and distributed through the blood vessels in the velvet. Stealing minerals from the skeletal system actually creates a brief period of osteoporosis in bucks that lasts just until the antlers develop and harden. This makes steady, nutritious forage important year round so that bucks are able to replace those minerals robbed from the skeletal system allowing them to rebound after the antler growth period.
The countdown to fall is on! I hope you’re all ready and have, or will have, a whitetail tag burning a hole in your pocket. Clear a spot on the wall and in the freezer, deer season is almost here.
Hugs, handshakes and happy hunting,