Hunters have an absolute reverence for antlers, something that must have developed over thousands of years of chasing deer, moose, caribou and elk across the plains and woods. More amazing than the lengths we will go to hold in our hands a whitetail’s headgear, is the process by which antlers develop.
In late winter around mid February, longer days trigger a big drop in a buck’s testosterone level and cause a layer of skin, the abscission layer, between the antler and pedicle to die. The antler falls off or is knocked off and leaves a telltale clue of the buck you couldn’t catch up with this season. The pedicle is soon covered over with skin and antlers slowly start growing. With the return of spring and new plant growth, the antlers explode. First the bases and brow tines appear, then the long stretch of the main beam. Small knobs that will become points start growing off the top of the beam and then explode once the main beam reaches its final length.
Antler is fast-growing bone, some of the fastest growing tissue in the natural world. Protein and minerals are delivered to the growing bone by the velvet, a covering of skin rich with blood vessels. If a buck has 130 inches of hard antler in early September, those antlers had just four months to reach that size, growing nearly an inch each day since late February.
It’s a change in photoperiod, again the amount of daylight, that triggers an increase in a buck’s testosterone and the antler starts to harden. The velvet dies and bucks rub it off, but it still takes a while for the bone to fully harden. Bucks often consume the velvet—no protein goes to waste in the woods.
As the antlers are growing they are made of 80 percent protein and 20 percent ash. This ratio slowly changes during the summer as antlers start to harden. Hard antler is made of 60 to 65 percent ash, 20 to 25 percent calcium, and around 11 percent phosphorus. The balance is trace minerals like zinc, manganese, iron and potassium. Bucks pick up the antler’s raw materials from the soil by way of the plants consumed.
Overall antler size is determined by nutrition, age and genetics—probably in that order. But antlers get second billing to replenishing body fat and rebuilding body condition after the rut and winter. That is why serious deer managers have a year-round habitat management and food plot program. Providing protein through fertilized and limed food plots or new growth in a controlled burn is a great way to increase antler size if deer numbers and sex ratios are under control. Researchers have found that a buck’s diet must have at least 16 percent protein to start maximizing body and antler growth.
Next time you find a shed, or even better, harvest a buck with nice set of antlers, take to second to marvel at the miracle of the natural world in your hands. Antlers are awesome.