When Nature Turns Mean, the Antlers Always Suffer
Spring showers, if they ever fall from the sky, are good for more than just Texas wildflowers. Consistent spring rains grow deer antlers, too, and the amount of moisture that falls from the sky before the serious summer heat arrives is in a big way what determines the quality of antlers that hunters will see in the woods next fall.
It’s not that rainfall is magic, of course. Rather, it is a cause-and-effect relationship: moisture produces food, and in the deer’s natural world, that nutrition comes in the form of weeds and wildflowers as well as tender new grasses and sprouting woody plants.
Those plants contain as much as 20 percent natural protein, the primary ingredient that produces bone, and bone in the deer’s world equals inches of antler.
The amount and timing of the moisture determines the amount of food and how long the natural pantry stays stocked.
Ideally, nature’s sprinkler system would cast uniform weekly rains for five or six months from March through summer, and the pantry would stay full. Each buck’s antler potential would be realized.
While Texas hunters can expect just about anything to happen in the woods, few experienced hunters expect ideal conditions to prevail at ideal antler time.
Hunters with a few decades under their belts know that nature casts its own lot and that creatures pay the price. Spring and summer can hold cold snaps, heat waves and gully washers.
Or, like this year, the prime antler-growing season can be dry, bone dry, as drought, the harshest condition of all, dominates the woods.
For antler watchers, the results of the drought won’t be known until late August, when the velvet covering finally falls from new antlers and the bucks wander the woods armed to the eyebrows in hard, polished bone.
To get the most of a buck’s genetic potential this year is going to take some kind of intervention, either divine or otherwise — steady rains or supplemental feeding.
To help balance the nutritional scales between now and September, deer managers use supplemental feeding programs that take a lot of the chance out of growing better antlers.
Those programs maximize the protein and trace mineral intake of each animal, a proposition very familiar to Dr. Larry Varner, wild deer nutritionist for Purina Mills.
The ideal antler program starts as the rut ends early in the New Year.
“A buck can lose up to 30 percent of its body weight during the rut and the winter,” Varner said. “(Ideally), rebuild the animal’s body condition first, because the antlers can’t really take off until the deer’s body is back in shape.”
A consistent feeding program proceeds from there.
Hunters who are behind the timeline for an ideal nutrition program can start one that coincides with the current antler-growth routine.
“The first 90 to 100 days are critical,” Varner said. “Most of the antler growth occurs then. After the first of June, it’s too late for significant impact, and growth slows down considerably in July and August.”
Spring supplemental feeding is a more economical program than year-round feeding, but it can be as intensive as the hunter’s billfold allows.
Look for a pelletized feed that has trace minerals and a 20 percent protein content. While it’s not a “cheap” program, it is of shorter duration, and it will make a big difference in antler inches next hunting season, Varner said.
If there’s still a little money left in the lease budget, continue the supplemental program through June to help does that are nursing fawns. Higher fawn survival rates and healthier fawns this summer will pay dividends for seasons to come.
At the very minimum, Varner said, hunters can put out mineral products. This strategy is an effective way of holding deer in a specific area, such as a small lease situation.
“That’s very important where you have, say, a few hunters on 500 or 1,000 acres,” he said.
Those hunters might have considerable money and time invested in “their” deer over the years, and they want them to stay close to home. Purina has a new product, QuickDraw, which is marketed as a deer attractant with a unique flavoring agent designed to hold deer.
“Put the product out where it is associated with a water source, like a stock tank,” Varner said. “Our tests showed that deer will eat it readily, even out of a trough.”
Depending on deer numbers and the feeding budget, hunters can manage the supply to last three or four weeks, minimizing trips to the ranch.
As with the longer-term programs, “a consistent mineral program will pay off by holding deer in one area.”
Ron Henry Strait is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer. E-mail [email protected]