If you are a whitetail deer fanatic like myself and you have not tuned into Mississippi State’s Deer University podcasts, you are missing out. In a matter of six episodes, the professors and their students have changed the way I think about whitetail deer and the big buck. They have debunked over 45 years of whitetail deer myths I have read about and studied.
In the span of 45 minutes, they changed my perception of big buck management and have changed the way I am looking at our property and its deer.
Over three posts I will discuss the changes the research has driven in our thinking – 1) genetics vs. nutrition, 2) mature bucks do all the breeding, and finally, 3) culling as a practice for better bucks.
Growing Up Country
I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains and hunting and fishing is still as much a part of everyday life as school. Everyone knew when each season started and ended.
January ended our deer and bear hunting seasons and we transitioned to walleye fishing through February with a sporadic rabbit hunt thrown in. March started some serious trout fishing and as the April showers began we started bass fishing and spring gobbler hunting. May through August was heavy bass, catfish and muskie fishing. August and September saw continued bass fishing with the additional chore of wood cutting and splitting for the upcoming winter. In October, the shotguns began cracking with squirrel season and deer/bear archery. November brought the deer gun season, flooding the terrain with blue jeans and flannel shirts and the aspirations of that monster buck.
We Were Whitetail Big Buck Experts…or maybe not
The biggest myth debunked by MSU’s Deer Lab study was the genetics versus nutrition argument. I grew up believing that 150 inch or larger bucks were only for the hunters in Field and Stream. Occasionally, a hunter would kill a “big buck” – one of superior genetics – and we would all marvel at how he got so big in this area. We knew age was important, however, the culture was “if its brown, its down”.
Regularly and in many areas today, spikes, four points and 1 ½ year old six-points are harvested on a regular basis. We talked of bringing in mid-west bucks to increase our buck’s antler size. Little did we know bringing in a bigger buck was not the answer.
We had the genetics right here already – what we didn’t have was the proper habitat to provide nutrition required to grow them “big”.
MSU’s Study – In a Nut Shell
MSU’s Deer Lab embarked on a multi-year study to determine if genetics played a role in bigger bucks, both in terms of body weight and antler size. What they found was that genetics do play a role in a regional deer’s size, just not the way we thought it did.
MSU captured deer from three regional areas in Mississippi – the delta (agricultural heavy area), the hills (hardwoods dominated) and the coastal plains (poor habitat). They placed the deer in large pens and provided them with the same nutritional foundation – unlimited food and water.
Without reciting the entire study which can be found via their website – the MSU team found the captured deer did not improve much in terms of weight or antler size as many thought they would. The gains of the two herds taken from the “hills and the coastal plains” put on a little weight and showed a slight increase in their antler grow – less than 10 inches on average.
The dramatic change came from the offspring of those groups in the following years. Once the deer were provided with unlimited nutrition, the does from the “hills and the coastal plains” “turned on” genetic markers which told the offspring there is enough nutrition here to support a larger body and hence antlers. The second and third generation bucks and does put on body weight and grew to the size of the “delta” deer. The coastal bucks added over 25 inches of antler length and mass and nearly 30% to their body weight – WOW! Those are the bucks I am looking for.
Applying It Locally
Just to be fair to my deer hunting crew, we knew bucks had to get older to get larger, we just didn’t understand how we could help them.
We also noticed bucks in and around timber harvests seemed to grow bigger, but we attributed that to thicker cover to hide in and that allowed them to get older.
Now we understand you must have the habitat to support year around nutrition to grow bigger deer and let the bucks get older with good nutrition to get bigger racks.
While I understand I do not control the acreage to manage a deer herd, I can improve my piece of the landscape for the deer herd. I can also affect the deer population on and around our property through doe harvests and habitat improvements aimed at carrying capacity.
Next post we will look at “letting the big ones walk so they can breed all the does” – another ill-fated attempt at growing bigger bucks.
A special thanks to the MSU Deer Lab Team for allowing me to share their results in this and upcoming posts.
The work they are doing for the whitetail deer is impressive and they freely share their knowledge and the accomplishments of their professors and students.
Dr. Stricklin, Dr. Demarais, Garret Street and Dr. Lackey have a series of outstanding podcasts you can find in iTunes for download.
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