Minerals attract legendary attention for building big antlers and creating large, healthy deer. However, the ways in which deer get these minerals can lead to important questions. For instance, if deer antlers are made up of certain minerals, can’t I just create a mineral lick to make sure deer are healthy and building the biggest possible antlers?
The answer is a definite maybe.
"Calcium and phosphorous are the main two ingredients in deer antlers, and these minerals need to be available to the deer," said Kent Kammermayer, certified wildlife biologist and wildlife consultant. "If these minerals are not present in the forage deer eat, a mineral lick can provide the missing elements."
If soil pH and fertilizer amounts are at optimum levels, the forage growing out of this soil will possess these important minerals.
"Lime is full of calcium and fertilizer is full of phosphorous," Kammermayer said. "However, when you have acid soils, there will definitely be a calcium deficiency."
In cases like this, mineral licks help fill the void of missing minerals.
Parts of the country that consistently produce large antlers often correlate with good soils.
"In the Midwest where the soil is dark, rich and full of organic matter and nutrients, the deer are often bigger because they have the right combination of genetics, agricultural growth and little need for additional minerals," Kammermayer said.
If I make a mineral lick, will they come?
First, it’s important to realize deer don’t come to mineral licks for the minerals. They come because of the taste of salt used to bind the minerals. According to Dr. Grants Woods, wildlife biologist for Woods and Associates, macro and trace minerals deer need are actually quite bitter if eaten alone.
"Salt helps ensure the deer are ingesting the trace minerals," Woods explained. "The high moisture content of the plants and higher amounts of green forage intake make deer crave salt more during the summer months.
"Salt helps rid the body of water buildup through the kidneys, and the plants deer eat in the spring and early-summer contain a huge percentage of water. I’ve seen deer and other ruminants use a naturally-occurring salt licks until they sometimes have an area the size of a Volkswagen pawed and licked out."
In addition, salt is also a necessary mineral helping deer synthesize other minerals.
Before creating a mineral lick, location is an important consideration.
"A mineral lick every 100 to 150 acres should be sufficient for meeting the needs of your deer herd," Woods said. "Just make sure you avoid placing one where it could leach into a water source, because leaching can cause the salt to contaminate the deer’s drinking water."
Even though extensive research has been conducted on the effects of mineral licks on antler growth and deer body weight and health, there is no completely conclusive evidence to prove mineral licks containing trace minerals and macro minerals equals big antlers. For one thing, it’s hard to study deer in the wild and know their exact consumption of minerals. Even though antlers are made up of calcium and phosphorous, many of the trace elements deer need are found in regularly-eaten forage.
Making a Mineral Lick
According to Kammermayer, the best time to create a mineral lick is early spring just before green up.
"During the warm months, deer will use the mineral lick because there’s lots of moisture in the plants at this time," Kammermayer said. "Replenish the mineral lick in June, but don’t worry about them in fall because the deer are not in growth or production mode."
Deer will rarely use mineral licks during the fall or winter because of the low moisture content of forage. Recent studies indicate 90 percent of mineral lick usage occurs during the summer months. In addition, it is illegal in Alabama to hunt over mineral or salt licks because of baiting issues. This also includes mineral mixes or blocks containing flavoring like apples or molasses.
To make a mineral lick, dig a hole large enough to hold a 50-pound bag of salt/minerals on the edge of a food plot or in the edge of the woods. Next, pour in all the salt/minerals except for a hat full. Once the excess dirt has been used to cover the salt/minerals, pour out the remaining hat full on top of the mineral lick and work it into the soil. This top portion will familiarize the deer with the taste of salt, and get them primed for using the mineral lick. On subsequent visits, you should see the ground being licked and pawed as the deer continue using the mineral lick.
Woods uses mineral licks as a way to study and keep tabs on his deer herd.
"I place mineral licks wherever the deer are in convenient places for a game camera," he said. "This gives me an ideal way to see how the deer are doing during the summer months."
Block or bag
Some land managers opt to use only mineral blocks if the calcium and phosphorous needs are being met through the deer’s forage.I
"It’s difficult to package a large amount of calcium and phosphorous in a block form," Kammermayer said. "I prefer using salt and minerals in loose, granular form, and I look on the label for 30-40 percent actual salt, 16-18 percent calcium, eight to 10 percent phosphorous, and remaining trace minerals like zinc, cobalt, selenium, iron and magnesium.
In some cases, salt and minerals in the block form may be best. In sandy soils where rain will dissolve the salt and allow it to leach though the soil quickly, salt/mineral blocks would be a better choice if the deer are getting the calcium and phosphorous they need through forage.
Minerals should be a part of any wildlife management plan, but the land manager needs to take a realistic approach to getting those minerals into the deer herd for optimum antler growth and herd health.
"There’s no secret mineral to get monster bucks," Woods said. "However, minerals should be a minor part of any wildlife management program for deer."
Minerals shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for high quality food plots or maintenance of natural forage, but keeping salt/minerals available to your deer herd is as easy as making a visit to your local Co-op.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.