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Table of Contents

  1. Role of nutrition
  2. Which does should be harvested first
  3. Role of Genetics in Antler Development
  4. The Rut in Texas
  5. Field Aging Deer
  6. Home Tanning

Role of nutrition

Role of Nutrition in Antler Development


In one of the early studies conducted at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, TPWD biologists collected a group of buck fawns from throughout the state of Texas. They bottle raised these fawns, weaned them in September, and placed each fawn in an individual pen. They studied the fawns in the pens for 4 years. One group was fed a low protein diet of 8%. The other group was fed a high protein diet of 16%. research facility).

This is a slide of antlers from 2 deer in the study, and illustrates what we saw. The deer on the left was fed a low protein diet; the deer on the right a 16% protein diet. Of all the deer fed a low protein diet, not one turned out to be a spike. This was not expected. When you feed them that poorly, you expect to grow some spikes. We became suspicious of our feed and had it reanalyzed. We found out the feed company had done us a favor. They sent us 10.5% protein feed instead of 8%. The Low (left) side #1 is the first set of antlers produced by the deer that was fed a 10.5% protein diet, 4 pounds a day. His second set, #2, was produced on a diet of 8% protein, 4 pounds a day. The third set, #3, was grown with 8% protein, 5 pounds a day. The fourth set resulted from a diet of 8% protein, 4 pounds a day. The deer on the right was fed a 16% protein diet, 4 pounds a day for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th sets of antlers. The 3rd set was grown with 16% protein, 5 pounds a day. The take home message is "You feed them good, you grow them big. If you feed them bad, you grow them small." Nutrition does make a difference in antler growth.

This is the answer to the question.

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Which does should be harvested First

Perhaps one of the most underestimated (and least understood) segments of deer management is the need for the removal of female deer. Some folks donít like shooting females for various reasons, but the bulk of deer herds in North America NEED females removed or recycled.  

Genetic gains are made through evolution.  Evolution takes place when the old is replaced with the new.  If you are doing a good job of managing the buck segment of the herd, you are, AT MOST, managing only 50% of the genetic equation.  So how do you go about the management of the female segment of the herd?  

The answer is simple.  Remove the oldest, most mature females possible, and evolutionary genetic gains are realized.  As with any animal husbandry practice, breeding the best males and best females together, should product offspring that are superior (genetic-wise) to the parents.   By harvesting the oldest (and likely least managed) genetic portion of the herd, you will be speeding up evolution and thus genetic gains can be realized much sooner than later.  

As your management of the buck segment increases and improves, it becomes even more important to remove their mothers and aunts to leave the younger females  to carry on the breeding. Certainly this takes several hunting seasons of intensive harvest of the correct deer, but that is what deer management is all about anyway.   

So, next time you are afield and need sausage, or you are actively working to help tighten up the adult sex ratio, select the largest and oldest female possible for harvest. Do this each time you harvest female deer, and before you know it, the average age of all remaining females will be lowered. The resulting female herd will be genetically-improved, thus carrying on the best genetics your deer herd can produce.


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Role of Genetics in Antler Development

White-tailed Deer

Role of Genetics in Antler Development

What role do genetics play in antler development?


Following is a summary of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department research conducted at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area Deer Pens (a Pittman-Robertson supported research facility).

Spikes vs. Forked Antlered Yearlings

Looking at a buck's yearling set of antlers can provide a clue as to how it will look later in life compared to other bucks born the same year. The 18 antler sets are from 4 year-old deer that were fed the same diet throughout their lives. The 6 sets of antlers on the left were from deer that had at least 6 points as yearlings. The 6 sets in the middle were from deer that had 3-5 points as yearlings. The 6 sets on the right were from bucks that were spikes as yearlings.



Kerr WMA studies indicate that most antler traits are genetically transmitted. Heritability estimates greater than 0.30 are considered to be moderately heritable, and heritability estimates greater than 0.50 are highly heritable. Heritability estimates for weight gain in cattle range from 0.30 to 0.40. Data listed in the table on the right indicate that antler characteristics are moderately to highly heritable.



Spike Line Study

In a companion study, spike antlered males were bred to does from spike antlered sires. This study demonstrated the effects of not harvesting spikes on future antler quality. All deer in this study were fed a high-protein diet, and 78% were spikes as yearlings.

Results of Selection

Each board displays 4 generations of deer. All antlers are from 3 year-old deer. From top to bottom are the great grandfather, grandfather, father, and son.

The antlers on the left are from deer that were forked antlered as yearlings and whose dams were from fork antlered sires.

The antlers on the right were from bucks that were spike antlered as yearlings. Their dams were also sired by spike antlered bucks.

Through selection, antlers of succeeding generations were either made larger or smaller.




Age of Doe

No Kerr WMA studies were specifically designed to determine the effect of dam age on antler production. However, a review of data from the Kerr deer-pen studies indicated that age of the doe had no effect. When age of doe was analyzed by study, no relationship of age to spike production was found. The analysis did show that large numbers of spikes for all age classes were produced by spike-antlered sires.


Time of Birth

No Kerr WMA studies were specifically designed to determine the effect of dam age on antler production. However, a review of data from the Kerr deer-pen studies indicated that age of the doe had no effect. When age of doe was analyzed by study, no relationship of age to spike production was found. The analysis did show that large numbers of spikes for all age classes were produced by spike-antlered sires.



Summary of Results

There are 3 equally important factors that control antler development in white-tailed deer: nutrition, genetics, and age. Antler development is genetically based, environmentally influenced, and reaches its peak at maturity. The key to quality deer management is to remove those bucks which have the least desirable antler characteristics at an early age. Kerr WMA studies show that yearling antlers predict a buck's antler quality at maturity. Kerr genetic studies indicate bucks with the best antlers will produce more progeny with exceptional antlers than will poorer bucks. The does influence antler production as well. Harvest of older does is important to insure younger does are products of better bucks. Habitat should be managed so that deer can achieve their greatest antler potential. There are no methods to "jump-start" a quality deer program.

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[The Rut in Texas White-tailed Deer

The following was based on three years of data collected by Wildlife Technicians and Biologists throughout Texas. Our goal is to get the information out to the hunters and landowners who assisted and helped fund the project. You may have seen parts of the article in outdoor magazines.

This project was funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department through Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Project 95, W-127-R.

The phenomenon known as "the rut" is the period when deer breed. People often ask biologists when the rut is going to occur. It's a question biologists commonly hear in the fall. Many hunters want to make sure that they plan hunting vacations to include that magical time when bucks lose all caution and deer are moving.

Can hunting the rut help? You bet. Anything that encourages bucks to move enhances the chance of seeing one. Buck deer, like most male mammals, seem to lose a lot of their natural caution when the scent of a receptive female is in the air. One of the tips gained from this study is that rutting bucks can be found during most of the hunting season in many regions of the state. Consistently successful hunters spend a lot of time in the field throughout the hunting season, not just during the peak of the rut.

Hunters and ranchers often encourage Texas Parks and Wildlife to move the season later to give deer a chance to breed. The study showed that no matter when the rut occurred, the vast majority of does were bred. Individual ranch and deer herd management are much more important than timing of the hunting season. The data will assist TPWD in determining whether the number of bucks in an area has an effect on breeding season length and success. There are many interacting factors which affect breeding.

The breeding study involved the examination of 2,436 does, the largest number of deer ever utilized in a Texas breeding study. The date of conception can be determined by looking at fetus length. An average of 200 days from conception was used to determine fawning dates. Biologists got as much information as they could from the does collected. They looked at the timing of the rut and at breeding success on 16 study areas throughout Texas for three years.

All years were combined to produce the graphs that show the rut timing. In most areas the rut varied very little from year to year. You can use the map and graphs to determine the timing of the rut in your area of interest. Will the information help with the planning of your hunt? You be the judge.

Breeding Success and Fawn Survival

In some Texas circles, you still hear people talk about the "old barren doe" that lives in a certain pasture. This train of thought blames poor fawn production on the idea that many older does do not get pregnant. In reality, if the doe isn't bred during the first estrous period, she will be receptive again in 28 days. This explains the high breeding success in white-tailed deer even when bucks are scarce. We found that on the average, 92 of every 100 does sampled in the state were pregnant. The western part of the state was in a drought during much of the study. In the Trans-Pecos the number of bred does was the lowest. There the breeding rate dropped to only 81 percent (81 of 100).

White-tailed deer are known for producing twins. Statewide, over half of the does examined had twins. Triplets were not common, and the occurrence of triplets was less than two percent. Quadruplets didn't show up in the study. There were more male fetuses than female fetuses. Males represented 56 percent of the unborn fawns over the three years of the study.

An average sample of ten does had 15 fawns, or 1.5 fetuses per doe. In some parts of the state, though, deer numbers build up slowly. Failure to breed is not a problem, so where do the fawns go? Life is full of dangers for a fawn, and food and cover (the fawning habitat) is the difference in living and dying for fawns. In many parts of the state, predation is severe unless there is adequate hiding cover for young fawns. Imported fire-ants are a problem for fawns in heavily infested areas, but their impact can often mask the real problem. Adequate nutrition is often limiting, and if fawns make it past fire-ants and predators to weaning, they still face the challenge of finding food and cover.

Fawn survival depends primarily on habitat quality. Malnutrition and associated problems are probably responsible for poor fawn survival in much of the state. Dry conditions aggravate the problem of inadequate food. "Empty belly disease" is the most limiting factor on whitetails in Texas. Delayed breeding could cause fawns to be born late, which would be a disadvantage on ranges where food is scarce.

The Early and Late Ruts

What about the early and late ruts? Hunters and outdoor writers often talk about the rut being early or late. In Texas, at least, the breeding season for white-tailed deer is fairly predictable from year to year. Within a specific area, habitat conditions not only affect fawn survival, but can affect thetiming of breeding. A doe in poor condition or a young doe may not breed until late in the season. A doe may be attractive to bucks for about five days, but may be willing to breed for a period of only 24 hours. If the doe is not bred during her first cycle, she will generally come into heat again about 28 days later.

In areas where there are few bucks, a doe may not encounter a buck when she is first receptive and may not be bred until one of her later cycles. A hunter, landowner or biologist who sees the late breeding activity may be convinced that there was a late rut. On the other hand, those who see does attended by bucks in the early part of the season believe there was an early rut. This helps explain the wide variety of opinions on the timing of the rut during a particular year.

"Hunter chronology" has a lot to do with the perceived timing of the rut. Traditionally, hunters are more likely to be afield during cool weather. They will usually be out in force with the onset of the first weekend norther during the deer season. When there are many observers spending time in the field it is more likely that breeding activity will be noticed.

Bucks, like hunters, have a tendency to move around during cool weather. Bucks with hardened antlers are ready to breed and are looking for a willing doe. More movement means more opportunity to encounter a receptive doe. This increased movement helps give rise to the idea that cold weather causes the rut. However, this theory is disproved by white-tailed deer breeding in tropical climates.

We once thought that late fawning could be a problem in areas where survival was low and antlers were poorly developed. Newly weaned fawns on the range in late fall would have a harder time surviving. A lack of adequate nutrition at this time could affect future body and antler production. The study showed that very few fawns are born late in Texas. South Texas has the latest breeding period. Even there, fawns are born before August and are weaned by October.

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Field Aging Whitetail Deer


Field Aging Whitetail Deer
Using Body Structure Indicators


Why Bother to Field Age Deer?

By being able to field judge the age of bucks more accurately, we can better manage our deer herds. We can maintain age class diversification, and better choose which young bucks to eliminate and which ones to keep for genetic improvement of antler characteristics in the future.
Significant amounts of research indicate that a buck deer will usually not grow it's best rack until after it's body has fully developed. Until then, most of the nutritional intake is expended toward making bones and muscle. The full body development is normally complete about age 5 in whitetail. That means, the best rack a deer can grow will usually occur at age 5, 6, 7 or 8. Exactly which one set of antlers becomes the best depends on habitat, weather, amount and quality of supplemental feeding, also any injury and/or sickness to which the buck is subjected. About age 8, and sometimes earlier in very sandy country, the buck's teeth are worn down to where it is difficult to grind his food enough to release the nutrients. Antler size and body condition frequently declines after this. The deer simply can't eat enough to sustain himself.
Based on this research, it only makes sense to pass up young bucks with large racks, since they have a very good chance of becoming even bigger in the near future. That also gives them a chance to pass on those genes for a large rack for another year or two. Conversely, the research also lets us know that a buck of 6 to 8 years has almost no chance of getting a bigger rack, and may actually soon be getting smaller, so he might as well be taken, regardless of rack size.
In General
No single factor can be used to conclusively judge the age of a deer in the field. The picture at right illustrates the main indicators that should be evaluated overall to get a good estimate for a buck. The individual indicators will often vary a little from one region of Texas to the next, and sometimes even within an individual herd. If you can view known age bucks (ear tagged as fawns) in the area, you can quickly get a better read on your local herd's distinguishing characteristics.
Using the Rack as Indication of Age
Notice that the rack (antlers) is not depicted above as an indicator. While some very general statements can be made about antler developmental characteristics at certain ages of  a buck, the rack is the least reliable of any indicator. Remembering that these statements have MANY EXCEPTIONS, antlers generally gain mass as the buck ages, generally get darker as the buck ages, generally get wider as the buck ages, and will get any nontypical points in it's genetics once the buck has matured body wise. So, if a buck's antlers are wider than it's ears, dark in color, seem thick in the beam circumferences, and have some nontypical points,  chances are good that the buck is mature. Because of the tooth wear, a post mature buck's rack may actually start getting smaller from year to year, but they usually keep the basal circumference, then it will thin out quickly from there.
Many people think they could never mistake a buck fawn for a doe, but every year we have too many of those same folks wind up doing just that. On the head, the pedicels (nubs) are the most obvious clue. The ears will appear long, and the nose will appear short. The body will be smaller than the adult doe's, but is bigger than a doe fawn, so be careful. The legs look long and skinny, and the gait is usually frisky, often frolicking. The tarsal glands will be small and snow white. Does seldom travel alone, so give it a few minutes to see if more deer show up for comparison. I've seen many buck fawns by themselves.
At this age, a buck looks like a doe with antlers. There will usually be a slight dip in the back. They have a thin neck, no defined brisket, white tarsal glands, and the belly line has a distinct up turn near the hams. This gives it a greyhound racing dog sort of look. The legs still look very long, and the gait is still pretty frisky. They will make unwanted sexual advances on does, but are very timid in the presence of older bucks. 
At two and a half, the animal starts bulking up a tad, but just a tad. The neck will be bigger than a doe or yearling buck, but not much. The legs still look fairly long. The face looks long and the skin tight. Eyes are near perfectly round. Slightly developed brisket. The belly still has somewhat of an upturn near the hams. The tarsal gland may have some color to it. The rump appears squared off.
A three and a half year old buck reminds me of a racehorse. They are usually very lean muscle, and act ready for action. They may make rubs and scrapes if no bigger bucks are present. The neck continues to get bigger, making the head look shorter. The nose broadens, adding to this illusion. The brisket is noticeable but not pronounced. Legs look the right length now. The belly line is flat, with little up turn at the rear. The tarsal gland will be dark in rut. Rump starts looking more rounded at times and squared off at times, depending on stance. Back line is flat.
If fed well, a 4 and a half year old buck really starts looking like a buck. The giveaways now are the back and belly lines, and the head. On level ground, the back will have a slight dip only, and the belly will not hang below the chest line. The head skin will not look tight or loose, and the eyes almost round but not quite. When one of these bucks walk, they still pick their feet up pretty good, and the front knees won't look bent in when the deer is walking toward you. Rump is getting pretty round, and tarsal glands will be black when near or in rut. Nontypical points may start to show up now.
This one gets hard to pass up. Unless your herd is well managed, most bucks don't make it to this old, but you should actually let a buck get at least 6 before you hammer them to achieve maximum antler potential. Now, the eye will not be round anymore, it starts to look squinty. The brisket is obvious where it joins the neck. The belly hangs even with the chest or starts to hang below it a bit. They start walking knock kneed somewhat. They seem more deliberate in their actions. Skin on head starts looking a bit loose. Often have  nontypical points.
When a six year old walks out, it's usually pretty obvious. All other deer pay attention. He is on top of his game and knows it. Actions are very deliberate, like a big bull swaggering in. The front knees bend in to handle the weight of the neck and rack. The belly and back sags from years of fighting gravity. When relaxed, the ears tend to droop down a bit for the same reason. The rump is well rounded. The brisket obvious. Eyes are squinted; almost mean looking. With good nutrition, all nontypical points in his genes will pop out now. This is what you've waited for. TAKE HIM!
When a buck's teeth wear out, somewhere between 7 and 9 years old in normal habitat, antler and body conditions deteriorate. It is actually fairly easy to mistake a 9 year old deer for a  3 or 4 year old deer. The giveaway indicators though are the head, neck and rump. Also, muscle tone. The head will continue to have the loose skin, and the eyes will still be squinty, as in other mature bucks. The rump, however, will lose mass, not appearing rounded anymore. It won't be smoothly squared off like a young buck, either. It will be bony looking. The back may also be bony looking. Even the shoulders won't look so well muscled, and the neck certainly won't. I've noticed also that just like old men tend to get gray hair, an old buck tends to look lighter in color than other deer in the area. Not gray so much, but more of a lighter brown. Often, the hair also appears course.

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Home Tanning


Home Tanning Process Preserves Pelts

Here is a method of tanning hides that is low cost and low labor compared to other methods of "custom tanning."

After hunting or processing livestock for the table, it's a shame to have to toss out a nice pelt. Here is a method of tanning hides that is low cost and low labor compared to other methods of "custom tanning." I've personally used this system to tan sheepskins, deerskins, groundhog pelts, rabbit hides and goat skins. The procedure can be used for all kinds of mammal pelts when you want the fur to remain on the skin. It results in a soft, workable hide, which can be used as is or cut up for sewing projects.



Fresh hides right off the animal should be cooled immediately. Trim off any flesh and scrape visible fat from the hide. Place the skin in the shade, laying it completely flat with the fur side down, preferably on a cold concrete or rock surface. When the skin feels cool to the touch, immediately cover the fleshy side completely with plain, uniodized salt.

Use three to five pounds for a sheep or deer skin. Don't skimp.

If skins aren't salted within a few hours of removal of the flesh, you might as well forget it. They will have begun to decompose and will probably lose their hair during processing.

Transport the skin flat. We've had problems with predators gnawing the edges of skins, so put the hide somewhere out of reach. You don't need to stretch the skin; just make sure it is perfectly flat, with no curled edges. If you've lost a lot of salt while moving the pelt, add more. The salt will draw moisture from the skin and liquid may pool in low spots. Just add more salt. Let the skin dry until it is crispy. This may take a few days to a couple of weeks. When completely dry, the skin is very stable and won't change or deteriorate appreciably.

"Once your friends know you can tan hides, be prepared for them to bring around their hunting trophies and livestock skins for treatment."


When you're ready to tan the skins, assemble the following:

7 gallons water
2 pounds (16 cups) bran flakes
16 cups plain or pickling salt (not iodized)
2 large plastic trash cans (30 gallon) and one lid
4 foot wooden stirring stick
3 1/2 cups battery acid (from auto parts store)
2 boxes baking soda wood rack or stretcher
neat's-foot oil
wire bristle brush


This recipe makes enough tanning solution to tan four large animal skins; or ten rabbit skins; or about six medium-sized pelts such as groundhog. (Cut the recipe in half for fewer skins).


A couple of hours before you plan to tan, soak the dried skins in clear, fresh water until flexible. Boil three gallons of water and pour over the bran flakes. Let this sit for an hour, then strain the bran flakes out, saving the brownish water solution. Next, bring the remaining four gallons of water to a boil. Put the 16 cups of salt in a plastic trash can. Pour the water over the salt and use the stirring stick to mix until the salt dissolves. Add the brown bran liquid. Stir.

When this solution is lukewarm, you are ready to add the battery acid. Read the warning label and first aid advice on the battery acid container. While wearing gloves and an old, long-sleeved shirt, very carefully pour the battery acid down the inside of the trash can into the solution - don't let it splash. Stir the battery acid in thoroughly.

At this point, you can peel off the hide's dried inner skin. If you have fresh skins, use as is. Add the skins to the solution and stir, pressing the skins down carefully under the liquid until fully saturated. Leave them to soak for 40 minutes, stirring from time to time to make sure all parts of the hides are exposed to the solution. During the soak, fill your other trash can with clear, lukewarm water. After 40 minutes, soaking is complete. Use the stirring stick and carefully move the skins one by one into the other trash can. This is the rinsing process, which removes the excess salt from the skins. Stir and slosh the skins for about five minutes, changing the water when it looks dirty.

At this point, some people add a box of baking soda to the rinse water. Adding baking soda will neutralize some of the acid in the skin - this is good because there will be less possibility of residual acid in the fur to affect sensitive people. However, this also may cause the preserving effects of the acid to be neutralized. You need to make the choice to use baking soda based on your own end use of the skin. If skin or fur will spend a lot of time in contact with human skin, I'd use the baking soda. If the pelt will be used as a rug or wall hanging, I probably wouldn't.


Remove the hides from rinse water; they will be very heavy. Let them hang over a board or the back of a chair or other firm surface to drain. Now, using a sponge, rag or paint brush, swab the still-damp skin side of the hide with an ounce of neat's-foot oil. It should be absorbed quickly, leaving only a slight oily residue. Tack the hide to your "stretcher." We use salvaged wood pallets. Gently pull the hide as you tack it so there's some tension in the skin. No need to exert excess pressure or overstretch. Set the hide in a shady place to dry.
Remove the hides from rinse water; they will be very heavy. Let them hang over a board or the back of a chair or other firm surface to drain. Now, using a sponge, rag or paint brush, swab the still-damp skin side of the hide with an ounce of neat's-foot oil. It should be absorbed quickly, leaving only a slight oily residue. Tack the hide to your "stretcher." We use salvaged wood pallets. Gently pull the hide as you tack it so there's some tension in the skin. No need to exert excess pressure or overstretch. Set the hide in a shady place to dry.


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