Deer Management and Culling: What Would You Do?

Selective Culling for Bucks and Deer Management

Question: “Is a 3 1/2 year old freak a cull buck? We are trying to manage the doe density and take some cull bucks to better the buck herd, but one hunter on our property took a 3 1/2 year old freak that was not on the hit list as a cull buck. The hunter is claiming that he in fact was a cull. I’m not in anyway arguing with the hunter about his decision, it’s just I thought we were trying to manage our doe population first and then the bucks second. I know in my heart that I would have taken a doe over taking this 3 1/2 year old freak that was healthy.”

Response: First, a “freak buck” could be one of many things. It could be deer worthy of culling if it’s on the low end of the spectrum for bucks in its age class or it could be a rarity that sits on the upper end of the bell curve, a buck of freakishly large proportions. The latter would be a buck that you would definitely want to get some age on, which would allow the buck to pass on his genes and achieve maximum antler growth.

Aging Whitetail Bucks for Selective Harvest

A buck that’s only 3 1/2 years old is not nearly topped-out, but the antlers sitting atop his head tell a lot about his future. First, let me just say that culling is subjective and depends much on the deer herd found in an area. It also depends on the amount of acreage on which selective buck harvest can occur; larger acreages are more likely to succeed. However, there are some general guidelines that I can offer that may help in this situation with the management of your deer herd.

Any whitetail buck that is 3 1/2 years of age or older with 8 or fewer antler points should be considered for harvest. Any buck that is 2 1/2 years of age or older and lacks brow tines (G1s) should also be considered for culling. Most hunters and landowners interested in deer management would not want to promote these types of antler characteristics. These recommendations are just a place to when it comes to selective buck harvest.

The most important aspect of any management program for deer is determining the short-term objectives that must be implemented in order to achieve the long-term goals, whether it be improving the buck to doe ratio, selectively removing bucks or simply decreasing the deer population. In this case, it sounds like the objectives were either not well understood or totally disregarded.

The best way to minimize mistakes among hunters is to collect game camera photos prior to the season, sit down with those involved in the management program and clearly identify which bucks are on the “hit list” and which ones are not.

Deer Hunting and Management is Conservation for All

Whitetail Management, Deer Hunting Good Conservation for All

The benefits of managing habitat for white-tailed deer have been well documented through research publications, in print and online—this site included. In fact, I believe the best way to grow bigger and healthier deer is give them exactly what they want: high-quality natural foods. The truth is that nothing is as good as the food found in prime habitat under good environmental conditions, neither pelleted protein feed nor food plots even come close.

Albeit, supplemental forages can definitely have their place in a well-rounded management program (since they help maintain a constant nutritional plane for a deer herd during tough times). However, when you as a hunter or landowner are doing it right then there should not be many tough times for the whitetail that use a well managed property.

Whitetail Management, Deer Hunting Good Conservation for All

It takes hard work to manage deer and the habitat that they need, so why do we do it? Mostly because we simply love doing it. We enjoy taking care of the natural resources that we love. We like watching wildlife and white-tailed deer, but also because we want to give something back to the sport that we love, deer hunting. It all boils down to conservation, taking care of what we have but also understanding that deer are a renewable natural resource. Management is the price we are willing to pay for the tangible and intangible things that we get from stepping into the woods each and every time we go hunting.

Some people will never understand that. And I’m okay with that because I don’t understand all of them either.

Every plant and animal has a place in the wildlife world. It’s paramount to realize that although we have allegedly “progressed” as a society, the important things in life will always remain the same: family, friends, good times and proper stewardship of the bountiful natural resources that we’ve been given. Habitat-based white-tailed deer management has fueled better deer hunting across the US, without a doubt. But all of that combined management effort has not just benefited deer and the people that hunt them; it has helped most all other plants and animals that call those places home, too.

Aldo Leopold: “… I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

Buck Antler Growth: Management Options

Antler Development in White-tailed Bucks

Question: “I have a 5 1/2 year old buck that is a 9 point. Do you think there is a possibility that he may become a 10 point for this hunting season or do you think he will stay a 9 point buck? He has been a 9 point the last 3 years and I’ve been hoping for him to grow that 10th point, but no luck yet. Of course, I love having him pass on his genes.”

Response: Whether your buck grows into a typical 10 point frame buck depends on a number of variables. He very well could, but if I had to bet money one way or the other then I would bet that he comes up short, yet again, this year. For the most part, antler growth in white-tailed bucks is fairly predictable. The 3 major factors that impact antler development consist of age, genetics and nutrition. That will never change, but many other variables that comprise each of these categories may. Let’s talk about how each of these factors could impact your buck.

Age and Antler Size

Whitetail bucks will often increase antler points as they get older, but their antlers will peak and begin to decline if the buck is allowed to get really old, becomes ill, gets injured or if nutrition falls off. It is important to note that an increase in antler points is relative to the number of points a buck had to start with as a yearling, as a 1 1/2 year old deer.

As a rule of thumb, a buck that starts with fewer points, say 2-4, will have fewer antler points at maturity (5 1/2) than one that has 6-8 as a yearling. Bucks that are allowed to age will have antler spreads that are wider and most notably, heavier “horns.” Antler mass (circumference) can be another good physical characteristic to hone in on when aging bucks in the field. An older buck equals heavier antlers, but not always additional points. From my experience, the overwhelming odds are that a whitetail buck that does not have a 10 point main-frame by 4 1/2 years of age will not develop one in subsequent years. Yes, it CAN happen.

Antler Development in White-tailed Bucks

Genetics and Antler Potential

Genes are the underlying factors that determine the potential for antler growth in any buck. Growing older along with good nutrition will allow a buck to physically express those underlying genes, but no amount of age or food can “fill the gap” where a buck may naturally lack. If you know the deer on your hunting grounds have access to high quality foods, then all you can do is let them get older and, if possible, practice selective buck harvest to remove those with less potential for antler growth and leave those with more potential.

Selective harvest (i.e. culling) works. It’s not so much about changing the gene composition of a local deer herd, which can happen in intensive situations over years, but rather about allowing those great 3-4 year old bucks to get older and removing the lesser ones so they don’t.

Buck Nutrition

Removing deer from a whitetail herd is the most important aspect of deer management. Whitetail management is a numbers game, which is why I mentioned (above) removing those low-end, middle-aged bucks and leaving the better ones. Selective harvest removes deer from the herd, but it also decreases competition for resources, which affects food and nutrition! It’s also important to shoot does, which can influence (or not) the number of animals in a population annually. Large numbers of does, as compared to bucks, lengthens the breeding season and will physically run down bucks. They WILL have smaller antlers the following year if they do not have adequate post-rut nutrition.

More deer means less food per mouth, while fewer deer means more food per mouth. A buck’s diet and overall level of nutrition impacts his annual antler growth. This is most notable during years when habitat is really great or when habitat is really poor. However, tough years are harder on 1-3 year old bucks than those that are 4+ years old. Older, bigger bucks have more resources for antler growth to pull from within their bodies (bones) and they also have access to the highest quality foods within an area. Skeletal growth continues until age 3, so mature bucks do not have to worry about that either.

Deer Management Considerations: Your 9 Point

Based on the number of antler points your buck has a 5 1/2 years of age, my guess is that this buck is destined to be just that, a 9 point. If you were waiting on him to be a 10 point then you did the right thing, you were patient. However, at 5 1/2 years this buck has age on his side and still no dice. I suspect that the genes for a 10+ point frame just are not there, so no amount of age will get him over the hump.

Remember, there is no deer management without deer hunting and harvest. If you are fortunate enough to see this mature buck this deer hunting season then my recommendation would be to take him. The odds of him surviving to the next season are decreasing rapidly with every year, and he’s competing with some (hopefully) better bucks for both food and breeding rights. Every deer is a good one, but especially when it’s a mature buck. Best of luck!

Peak Antler Development in Whitetail Bucks: When?

When Does Antler Growth and Development Peak in Bucks?

It’s never too early in the year to start talking about bucks and antler growth for the upcoming hunting season. I have high expectations for some older bucks that should look very nice this fall, especially given the timely late-Spring rains that just soaked the area. That translates directly into additional high-protein forbs, new growth on browse plants and increased antler growth, not to mention better habitat conditions for hiding fawns. Things are looking up!

Today, we’re discussing antlers. We can still refer to them as “horns” while at deer camp.

Specifically, we’re looking at changes in antler growth in bucks, mature bucks. Every deer hunter has stories or at least game camera photos of some odd-antlered deer. And let’s face it, hunters enjoy talking about those deer as well as all the other wild things we’ve witnessed while out hunting white-tailed deer. There are an untold number of events that happen in nature that we never had seen had we not been sitting nearly motionless and scentless for hours on end. Ok, let’s focus.

When Does Antler Growth and Development Peak in Bucks?

When it comes to managing deer it’s really all about population (herd) management on a given property, although certain individuals (bucks) can be exceptionally poor or amazingly great. It’s also the outliers that we tend to remember, the ones way out on either end of the bell curve. Some recent and extensive research on antler development using known-aged bucks seemed to confirm some of the things we knew about whitetail bucks and antlers, but they also found some other interesting data about changes in marked, free-ranging bucks from year to year.

Mature Bucks and Changes in Antler Size

The general consensus among seasoned hunters, deer biologist and academic research suggest that most white-tailed bucks reach peak antler growth around 5 to 6 1/2 years of age. This is definitely the case for the overwhelming majority of bucks, so it definitely has management implications. That said, a few do some really whacky stuff:

Source: “Using data from 170 bucks captured more than once while they were mature, I constructed a distribution of the magnitude of change in antler size for bucks 5 to 8 years of age. The figure below shows the distribution of 211 instances in which antler-size change was measured in subsequent years.

For example, there were 47 bucks that gained 0-5 inches in antler size from one age to the next and there were 37 bucks that lost -5 to -0.1 inches. These data come from the South Texas Buck Capture project with captured bucks on 5 ranches in Webb and Kleberg Counties over a 10-year period.”

Changes in Mature Buck Antler Growth

“From these data, it is clear that successive antler sets of individual mature deer vary by less than 20 inches in 90% of the instances. However, in 3% of instances, antler size changed by more than 40 inches. We will use 40 inches as our criterion to define an outlier in antler-size change of mature bucks.”

More on Antler Growth in Deer

Male white-tailed deer grow and shed antlers on an annual basis, typically starting a new set in late spring. Antler growth is regulated by hormones, which are controlled by day length (photoperiod). Throughout late spring and summer, antlers are filled with a rich blood supply and are covered with a hairlike membrane referred to as velvet. During this stage, antlers are quite vulnerable to injury, which many times result in deformed antlers.

Actively-growing antlers are high in water and low in dry matter content (phosphorus and calcium). Late in the summer, antler development slows and the antlers begin to mineralize (harden). When growth is finally complete, blood flow to the antlers stops completely and soon after all of the velvet is rubbed off (typically within a single day). Hunters often see a by-product of this effort, as rubs will be found on pliable saplings up to small trees that are 7-8 inches in diameter. This result is a buck with a brand-new set of hardened antlers.

Following the whitetail breeding season, de-mineralization occurs at the base of the antlers in healthy bucks and that causes them to shed their antlers. Early antler shedding can be attributed to deer that are not completely healthy, for whatever reason. Immediately following antler drop the entire development process starts over.

Increase Antler Growth in Bucks

White-tailed Deer Management: Increase Antler Growth

Most hunters and property owners involved in deer management are interested in healthy herds and increased antler growth and size in bucks. There are numerous other positives that result from managed whitetail populations, the most important of which are healthier, more diverse plant communities for all wildlife species. Good habitat equates to better bucks, but sometimes additional inputs are needed to harness all of the antler-growing potential within bucks found on the property. It’s often during the deer hunting season that hunters take inventory of the bucks roaming their land, but the time to take action for next year is right now.

Question from Mike P.: “I am involved in a small self-management plan on a 90 acre farm in Pennsylvania. Our deer are free ranging and are very low pressured. We do a buffet of food plots, about 7 acres of turnips, radishes, oats and clovers. We are also involved in the creeps program. We have established a great heard and do not harvest bucks until they have reached 130 class. What we seem to be lacking is antler mass.

We have been told by local deer farmers to add protein to their diet. We were thinking of mixing roasted soybeans with corn for our winter feeders. We have also been told to be very careful on the ratio of the mix and could make the deer “sick.” My question is, what is true and what is false, what’s right and what’s wrong? Is there something else we can do to add antler mass?”

White-tailed Deer Management: Increase Antler Growth

Ways to Increase Antler Size

First, this is a great question to ask since most of the deer hunting seasons have wrapped up for this winter and because another antler growing cycle is about to start. Additionally, there are likely many other hunters around the US that are also wondering how to increase antler growth in bucks. The months following the rut are critically important for future antler growth because bucks are attempting to fully recover from the intense, grueling breeding season.

Antler size can be improved on bucks through adding points, increasing the lengths of points or by increasing the circumference of existing antler material, thus increasing mass. A lot of hunters look for a buck with a wide-spreading rack, but I’ll take the heavy-horned freak nasty every time. The only way to produce and harvest larger bucks is to add inches to antler measurements. Points (and plenty of them) tack on the most in terms of a buck’s score, but there are several other measurements, as well as factors, that play a role.

Antler Growth in Bucks

Antler growth in whitetail bucks always comes down to three things: age, genetics and nutrition. Antlers get larger as a buck gets older up to a certain point, then they start declining in size. There is some debate on when exactly that occurs, but I don’t think there is a single right answer here. Just as individual bucks vary in antler quality, I think different bucks peak at different years. Environmental conditions, buck to doe ratios and other factors all impact this. Hunters may see a buck’s best antlers anywhere from 5 1/2 to 8 1/2 years of age. Antler mass will increase with age.

Genetics are obviously important, but they are difficult to manage and this is especially true on small acreages where whitetail management and growing better bucks is the goal. Genetics for antler growth comes down to WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. That is, unless you do something different. In the situation outlined above, it’s nearly impossible to make meaningful genetic changes in the deer herd. The size of the property may be a limitation, but the road does not end there.

Landowners and hunters have much more control when it comes to deer nutrition. In fact, there are many options when it comes to providing additional, high quality foods for whitetail. Food plots can work great in areas with dependable rainfall and good soils. In other areas, not so much. But this opens the door to supplements such as protein pellets, whole cottonseed and roasted soybeans. And let’s not forget that superior, natural forb and browse production can be encouraged on any property through deer habitat improvement that involves a variety of land management practices.

Deer Herd and Antler Growth

Ideally, hunters will shoot bigger bucks if they simply provide the genetically-best bucks on their property with optimal nutrition until they reach 5-8 years of age. As I mentioned, this would be ideal. The reality in this case is a 90 acre property that currently has bucks that are lacking antler mass. Without knowing any more about the situation that what was given, there are several things that could be in play. Any or all of these factors could be impacting the free-ranging bucks found on the property and in the area.

First, there is always the chance that you’re just unlucky, that the deer in your area do not have the genes to grow heavy horns. It’s unlikely, but completely possible. Antler mass, as it turns out, is one of the most heritable traits in deer antlers. Of all the traits that a buck may get from his father for antler growth, mass is most likely to stick. So, the WYSIWYG principle applies here. Thin-horned bucks sire more thin-horned bucks. But, in your case, are their genetics to blame?

An often overlooked factor that can seriously impact antler size in bucks is the buck to doe ratio of the deer herd. I mentioned at the top of the article that this was a timely question because bucks are currently still recovering from the rut. If bucks are physically run-down following the rut and do not fully recover, then they will remain so and will start the upcoming antler growing season at a huge disadvantage. If there are 4-5 does per buck in your area then this could be an issue. If there are 6-7 does per buck in the area then this is a problem that should be addressed. The ideal buck to doe ratio in this situation would be 1 buck for every 2-3 does, but the ratio could be much closer to even on very large acreages (or high fenced properties) with more control over deer harvest.

In this situation, there is no doubt that nutrition could be an issue contributing to poor antler mass. In fact, it probably is. Furthermore, poor nutrition would only make the skewed buck to doe ratio example described in the paragraph above even worse for bucks.

Poor nutrition is a result of too many deer for the habitat, or in other words, not enough food for the deer herd. Keep in mind that just because there may not be an abundance of deer does not mean there aren’t too many for the habitat. It all boils down to the number of available pounds of deer food per mouth per day. Of course, an insufficient diet may not necessarily be of a caloric nature, but one related to the availability of minerals. Mineral deficiency is most common on sandy soils or in areas that receive high amounts of precipitation. If this sounds like you, listen up.

Options for Increasing Antler Size

A buck’s hardened antlers are made up of approximately one-half protein and one-half minerals. If bucks are reaching maturity and still have weak mass measurements, then the deer management strategies on your property should focus on increasing the availability of these potentially limiting factors. The objectives should be to provide more protein, minerals (phosphorus and calcium) and trace minerals for all deer. Here are few ways to get the job done:

  1. Food plots – Get a soil test for your plot area and fertilize and lime as necessary. Leached soils are low on minerals and other nutrients. Make sure that the deer foraging on spring and winter food plots are getting more than they see, especially post-rut and into the spring.
  2. Protein Pellets – One of the best ways to supplement whitetail deer is through protein pellets with at least a 16 percent protein content. Many commercial brands are available and they contain not only protein, but all of the necessary macro- and micro-nutrients.
  3. Other Foods – Protein pellets are great, but they are not the only game in town. Whole cottonseed and roasted soybeans are extremely high in protein and may be easier to get your hands on in some areas. These foods lack all of the nutrients that whitetail will need, but this option could be combined with plot and/or mineral sites. Stay away from corn as a supplement. In high quantities corn can cause several problems for deer and it’s low in protein.
  4. Mineral Sites – These are debatable since there have been no direct links between mineral sites and larger-antlered bucks, but there is no doubt that whitetail are attracted to these salt and mineral mixes. Research in livestock have found that minerals improve digestion, increase weight gains. Heavier deer tend to have heavier antlers.
  5. Fertilize – This practice is not limited to just food plots. Native browse species also benefit from nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Deer will readily consume preferred trees, shrubs and vines that have been fertilized. They can taste the difference. You’ll see the difference.