As deer hunting season is upon us, hunters are exited and full of optimism that this is the year to harvest that trophy buck. While the thought of seeing the trophy deer is always on our mind, the nutrition needed to produce that deer is often overlooked.
When considering options for supplementing deer, products usually fall into one of two categories. The product selected will either be a nutritionally-sound supplement to meet the needs of the deer herd or it will be considered an attractant.
The most popular products used by most deer hunters continue to be whole corn and white salt. These are considered to be an attractant and will not provide the needed nutrients required by the deer.
The most common question is "How do you get a bigger buck?" While a record buck cannot be guaranteed, there are things you can do to increase the chance of developing such a deer. Big antlers are generated from a three-prong process including age, genetics and nutrition. A program including all three will increase the possibility of a big buck being seen next fall.
A whitetail buck will see an increased pattern of antler development increasing in size up to his sixth or seventh year. The only way you can influence antler development based on age is to pass up younger bucks. This means the possibility of seeing bucks with large racks will start occurring around four to five years of age, rarely sooner. I would encourage you to study the development of deer so you can accurately estimate the age of bucks. By passing on the younger bucks, this should lead to bigger bucks down the road.
Genetics also play a role in deer antler development. Some bucks are destined to be huge, while most will just be average. Again, unless you can affect the genetics of the deer through the introduction of stronger specimens, there is very little you can do to affect the gene pool.
While there is little you can do to affect age and even less you can do to improve genetics, nutrition is one thing you can have a dramatic influence over. The goal behind providing supplemental feed is an effort to improve the overall nutritional plane of the deer. It should not be used as a bait to bring the deer closer during the hunting season. It has been proven through research, with proper nutrition, larger bucks will develop at a much younger age than those just consuming natural forages. Proper nutrition will also play a role in reproductive success, stress resistance and behavior.
Antler development is based upon two primary nutrient components. High-quality protein and a complete mineral supplementation during the antler growth cycle, which is the time between the shedding of last years rack until the buck rubs his velvet. Once he rubs, the nutrition flowing to the horns stops, causing growth to stop as well. In order to have the greatest impact on growth, you must keep an abundant source of at least 18 percent protein available to them through this time period. Most natural-occurring forages will contain around 14 percent protein in early-spring and drops as the forage matures. Deer must receive a high-protein supplement to reach the goal of an 18 percent diet. You can do this through the use of pelleted feeds, food plots and nutrition blocks. While corn is a popular choice, it is inadequate in protein to meet the nutritional needs of male deer for maximum antler growth.
The second part of the equation is mineral supplementation. The antlers of deer are composed mainly of minerals; therefore, it is essential to provide a complete supplement. The proper balance of minerals and vitamins during the growth period will work with protein to reach the genetic potential in the bucks.
It is also important to remember minerals and vitamins can interact with each other causing them to be unavailable to the deer. It is important to know the forage in your area and to work with nutritionist or deer biologist to select the very best supplement. I would also encourage you to avoid special blends and mixes heavy on a certain mineral important in antler development. By doing this, the deer may have a mineral interaction with serious side effects. Mineral supplements are very easy to provide by either pouring a bag of granular mineral on the ground or on a stump, or providing a highly-palatable mineral supplement block.
Another point to remember is if the deer will not eat the supplement, then it cannot benefit the deer. Select a feed that is highly palatable, free of insects and fresh. Your local Quality Co-op carries a line of deer feed and minerals along with supplement blocks highly-fortified as well as palatable.
Also remember shell corn and salt does not make a fortified nutrition program. While corn will provide large amounts of energy, it is deficient of protein and will add very little to antler growth. Salt is as the name implies, "salt" — it does not include the additional minerals and vitamins needed for deer to meet their genetic potential. This also includes trace mineral salt containing 97 percent salt.
With this information, hopefully you can see proper nutrition is very important in the deer herd. With corn prices being at record levels this fall. It is very easy to purchase a complete deer feed at a lower cost.
Your local Co-ops are carrying a new product this fall called Big Buck Blend 16 Point Deer Feed. This feed is a 16 percent protein, completely-fortified feed containing adequate levels of all needed minerals and vitamins to meet the requirements of bucks to produce bigger racks. This feed contains persimmon flavoring for improved intake and priced cheaper than corn. I would highly recommend this as an alternative to corn as a way to improve deer quality, while keeping this in close range of the highly-palatable, sweet-smelling feed. In the end, you will see an improved deer herd that will more readily meet your expectations as the hunting season begins each year.
In conclusion, nutrition is a science and it takes a lot of planning and research to develop a nutrition program leading to larger bucks. It is also important for age, genetics and nutrition to work together in producing large bucks. I would suggest working with a nutritionist in creating a complete-nutritional program to allow the deer in your area to meet their genetic potential at the youngest age possible. Remember, if your program consists of corn and salt, then you are more likely baiting deer over supplementing them and the chance of that large buck is greatly reduced.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist. He looks forward to hearing from you or visiting with you in the future.