As deer hunting season winds down each January, hunters and hunting preserve owners alike turn their attention to thoughts of next year’s hunting season. This time of the year, I receive numerous requests for assistance in formulating deer feeds for supplemental nutrition to the deer herd. 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 bucks 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 you see. By passing on the younger bucks, this should lead to bigger bucks down the road.
Genetics also play a role in deer antler development. Just like people, genetics play a huge role in antler development. Some bucks are destined to be huge, most will just be average. Again, unless you can affect the genetics of your deer through the introduction of stronger specimens, there is very little you can do to affect the gene pool in the area you hunt.
While there is little you can do to affect age and even less 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. 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, you can grow larger bucks 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 year’s rack until the buck rubs off 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 through this time period. Most naturally occurring forages will contain around 14 percent protein in early spring and drops as the forage matures.
As you can see, 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 for a lot of hunters, corn 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 to the herd in your area. The proper balance of minerals and vitamins during the growth period will work with protein to reach the genetic potential in your 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 a stump, or providing a highly-palatable mineral supplement block.
Another point to remember is: if the deer will not eat the supplement, the supplement 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 that are highly-fortified as well as palatable.
Also remember shelled corn and salt do 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.
In conclusion, nutrition is a science and it takes a lot of planning and research to develop a nutrition program to lead 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, you are more likely baiting instead of supplementing your deer and the chance of that large buck is greatly reduced.