BUTTONS TO BOONE AND CROCKETT: WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Text and photos
by Charles J. Alsheimer
The Quality Deer Management movement has the attention of deer hunters everywhere.
Wherever I go, people want to talk about it. If you were to hear their questions,
you would think there is a magic formula for producing record-class bucks.
I'm amazed at the number of people who believe big bucks can be raised from a
bag of minerals or clover seed. I'm equally amazed by the number of times I have
heard hunters say that age is all it takes to grow a buck of Boone and Crockett
proportions. In fact, getting a whitetail from the "button buck" stage
to the B&C category is a mystical journey that includes a complex assortment of
As a teen,
I believed age and quality food sources were the magical ingredients needed to
produce a buck with the minimum 170 inches required for entry into the Boone and
Crockett record book. As time passed, my thinking changed. I realized that even
if the equation for growing a B&C set of antlers is defined, it doesn't guarantee
a buck will actually produce a Boone and Crockett rack.
building my whitetail research facility in 1995, I have had the pleasure of working
with some of the most knowledgeable whitetail experts in North America in the
hope of learning more about the growth potential of bucks. Their insights and
the results from our studies shed new light on this topic.
It takes four basic
ingredients to produce a buck with a 170-inch rack - genetics, habitat, herd management,
Despite the explosion
of deer knowledge, many hunters still wonder why their areas cannot produce record-class
bucks. In reality, the environment required to produce high numbers of B&C bucks
does not exist, at least not in the wild. Furthermore, even if an area provides
the four ingredients, those components must align flawlessly to produce several
record-class whitetails. Even perfect conditions do not guarantee B&C bucks.
see how tough it is to raise a whitetail from a fawn to a Booner, let's look at
two scenarios - the real world and a controlled environment - to see how various
factors affect antler growth.
The real world refers to any place in North America with free-roaming whitetails.
These deer must cope with everything nature and humans throw at them. The stress
heaped on them often reaches absurd levels, resulting in suppressed antler growth.
I believe stress on free-ranging deer is cumulative and antler growth is suppressed
in varying degrees depending on how many stress factors are placed on a herd.
Whitetails still deal with
environmental stress factors even when human activity is removed from an area.
For example, in remote southern locations, extreme heat and parasites heavily
burden deer herds. In northern climates, whitetails have a far different problem:
brutal winters with deep snow and bitter cold temperatures. Winter's stress can
severely suppress antler growth, especially when it leads to substantial over-browsing
where it occurs, drought is a major suppressant of antler growth, especially if
it occurs during the critical antler-growing season of April through July. Bucks
need large quantities of lush nutritional food to fully realize their antler-growing
another environmental stressor. Swarms of insects have been known to kill domestic
animals, but they also take the lives of deer.
Most deer need between one
and a half and two tons of food per year to maintain optimum health. For the best
antler growth, it is critical that the nutritional composition of food is high
at all times. Therefore, during the antler-growing season, food sources must be
high in protein and provide essential vitamins and minerals. During the non-antler-growing
season - fall through early spring - food sources need to be high in carbohydrates
to provide deer with the high energy levels they need.
The ability of the habitat to support the wildlife living in it is key to antler
growth. Bucks can grow impressive antlers when they receive a variety of highly
nutritious foods. However, these food sources disappear quickly when too many
deer are on a property. Therefore, bucks living on over-populated range won't
always grow large racks, at least not what they are capable of. This is why it
is so important to keep the whitetail population in line with the range's carrying
the food equation cannot be solved by simply planting farm crops and food plots.
For example, soil is often overlooked. As discussed in Chapter Five, it is no
coincidence that some of the biggest bucks come from regions with fertile soil.
For example, the Midwest's "Grain Belt" contains some of the most productive
soil in North America. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the region
has produced over sixty-five percent of the white-tailed bucks entered in the
B&C record book.
A region's deer population
is as important as food availability in allowing a buck to reach maximum antler
potential. Antler growth suffers when an area becomes too densely populated.
Griffith and his brother Rick operate a state-of-the-art whitetail gene/semen
collection operation in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. After years of observing antler
growth in their breeder bucks, the Griffiths have reached some interesting conclusions.
"Whitetails are very
sensitive to overpopulation and do poorly if there are too many deer," Dave
Griffith notes. "We've found that if we leave a breeder buck with a group
of does from breeding time to fawning time the buck's antlers are almost always
smaller the next year. When we remove the buck from the does right after the breeding
is over, antler growth doesn't suffer. Bucks - especially top-end bucks - do better
when they can be alone or in bachelor groups.
know that if bucks are forced to be around too many deer, they'll seldom reach
their full antler potential."
Doe-to-Antlered Buck Ratio
deer herd's sex ratio is a significant suppressant of antler growth, and it doesn't
take many deer to skew the odds against bucks. For example, antler growth suffers
in areas that have more than three adult does for every antlered buck. When herds
exceed this ratio, the rut stretches to a danger point for bucks, especially mature
bucks. A two-to-one ratio isn't bad, but, for maximum growth potential, an area
should have only one adult doe for every antlered buck.
The rut lasts about forty-five days in areas with balanced ratios. However, when
the adult doe-to-antlered buck ratio exceeds three adult does for every antlered
buck, the rut can last ninety days or more. This is dangerous, because in the
North, it means the rut will stretch into the winter months. In turn, rutting
bucks enter this critical period so worn down they cannot recover before their
antlers begin to grow in April. In such instances, it is not uncommon for mature
bucks to die from additional winter stress.
Morgan is a deer breeder from Union City, Pennsylvania. Over the years, he has
studied how stress affects deer herds.
knows that the rut drives a white-tailed buck crazy, and it doesn't matter if
the buck is behind a high fence or roaming in the wild," Morgan says. "We've
discovered that if you let a buck breed more than ten does there is a high probability
that his body cannot recover before he begins to grow another set of antlers.
And, if he's physically behind in April, his antlers will be smaller than the
Griffith agrees. "Allowing a buck access to too many does is not the way
to go if maximum antler growth is your goal. A buck cannot control himself during
the rut, and too many does will drain a buck of everything he has in him,"
Griffith says. "When a doe comes into estrous she takes a buck on a two to
three day ride he can't control. Because he doesn't know when enough is enough,
he gets himself into all kinds of trouble - often trouble he can't recover from."
If all those stresses aren't enough, bucks receive another dose of pressure when
the rut begins. If you add the fierce competition waged between bucks to the list
of stress factors they endure the rest of the year, it is easy to determine why
free-ranging bucks have difficulty reaching their full antler potential.
good range, bucks are rolling in fat when the seeking phase of the rut begins.
However, during the two-week period just before full-blown breeding, bucks begin
to move constantly, searching for estrous does. This non-stop dash to ensure survival
of the species involves everything from chasing to scrape making to rubbing to
fighting. Clearly, bucks expend a lot of energy during the rut, and they often
do so without eating. This increases the strain on their bodies.
Predation is another stress factor
that affects antler growth potential. Dogs, coyotes, wolves, and humans kill hundreds
of thousands of deer each year. However, non-contact predation also affects deer.
includes the mere presence of predators. Several projects conducted by Dr. Aaron
Moen of Cornell University have indicated this form of stress can cause bucks
to grow underdeveloped antlers.
one project, Moen studied the effects of disturbance by snowmobiles on the heart
rates of captive deer. He also studied the heart rates of fawns in response to
heart rate of a white-tailed deer varies in different settings. A bedded deer
has a heart rate of about seventy-two beats per minute. Other rates include standing,
eighty-six beats per minute; walking, 102 beats per minute; and running, 155 beats
In the fawn
study, Moen found that wolf howls increased a deer's heart rate to as much as
265 beats per minute. In the snowmobile study, heart rates were as high as 209
beats per minute.
it has not been documented, hunting pressure certainly has a similar effect on
whitetails. Stress on deer can be great in areas with long seasons and high numbers
this research prove? Well, an increased heart rate increases metabolism, which
depletes fat reserves. The bottom line is any form of predation places some stress
on whitetails, which can have a negative impact from a physical standpoint and
prevent them from reaching their full growth potential.
the stress associated with the six factors listed above, you can improve the odds
of watching a buck fawn grow into a B&C-class whitetail.
people might argue that it is impossible to reduce some of the stress factors
because of the region in which they live. However, today's high-tech age has made
it possible to create controlled environments in which the sources of stress can
breeders have experimented and discovered what it takes to raise trophy-class
antlered bucks. Of course, their work is done behind high fences, where deer are
raised in relatively stress-free conditions.
To produce big-racked bucks, most breeders become students of genetics, and they
meticulously study individual deer for desired characteristics.
genetics I look at a host of factors that I have to build on to get full antler
potential," Tom Morgan says. "I see habitat as critical. If a buck's
environment is not right, it doesn't matter what kind of genetics he has. He will
not reach his full potential. So this means controlling and improving everything
from natural settings to a balanced diet to eliminating the number of other deer
he can interact with to allowing no dogs near the buck.
been in this game long enough to know that if I can't provide a top breeder buck
with the best conditions, I can't expect him to grow the kind of antlers I think
he's capable of," Morgan adds.
Griffith brothers employ a similar approach. They use elaborate breeding and handling
facilities to keep their top-end bucks calm and comfortable. By catering to a
buck's every need and purging stress from the animal's life, the Griffiths produce
reach optimum antler growth, every white-tailed buck needs to go into a new antler-growing
season with a full tank, so to speak," Dave Griffith points out. "Think
of it this way - a whitetail's bone marrow system is like a fuel tank. If their
bone marrow and body condition are not in top condition when the sun says 'Start
growing antlers!' they can't possibly reach their full antler potential. So, body
maintenance is critical when it comes to antler growth. Removing stress helps
achieve the results we're looking for."
Despite the fact that
Tom Morgan and the Griffith brothers grow their huge bucks in controlled environments,
there is no question much can be learned from these deer. Knowing their full potential
puts many other things in perspective.
For example, when analyzing various regions for antler potential, I look at how
an area stacks up against the six stress factors. If all six affect an area, there
is strong reason to believe top-end potential will not exist. However, if only
two factors affect a region, I want to hunt there because I know it probably holds
many big bucks.
not to say I'm a trophy hunter. In fact, I believe many hunters put too much emphasis
on the magic antler score of 170 - the minimum score for entry into Boone and
Crockett's record book for typical white-tailed bucks.
It is unrealistic for hunters to believe they actually stand a chance of killing
a buck that big in the wild, where there are no high fences. I have hunted whitetails
more than thirty-five years, and only twice have I killed a buck that grossed
more than 170 inches on the B&C scale. In other words, a 170-class wild buck is
truly a freak of nature.
hunters ask me what kind of bucks they can expect to see in places like western
Canada and Texas, I tell them not to base their goals on what they read in magazines
or see on television. Be realistic and try to find out what the average size is
for bucks in a given area. I believe a realistic expectation for hunts in the
best deer habitat in North America is 140 B&C. The bottom line is this: considering
all the stress factors that weigh on a deer herd, it is difficult to find 150-inch
bucks in the wild. In many places, few, if any, exist.
In fact, research tells us that the 140- and 150-inch bucks living in Saskatchewan,
Wisconsin, and New York could easily be 160- to 170-inch bucks if they lived in
controlled environments. Furthermore, most deer researchers will tell you that
heavy stress, whether it comes in the form of drought, predators, severe winters,
or other environmental factors, can suppress antler growth by twenty percent or
There is a whole lot more to getting a white-tailed buck from buttons to B&C antlers
than meets the eye. In fact, for most bucks roaming North America, it is an impossible
or, at best, nearly impossible mission.
Future hunters probably will kill huge bucks that rival the whitetails taken by
Milo Hanson and James Jordan. These awesome bucks are a part of the mystery of
life, just like seven-foot basketball players and home-run hitters like Hank Aaron,
Mark McGwire, and Babe Ruth. However, is it realistic to think the road from buttons
to B&C is a given? Not hardly. For my money, 140 to 150 inches is about as good
as it gets in the best fair chase environments.
Stress comes in myriad forms, and one thing is certain - it hurts the hat size
of every buck in the wild.
A Real World Example
Understanding what it takes
to raise whitetails in varying environments can be complex and is often misunderstood.
The four photos that accompany this side bar show what can happen when good food,
average genetics, and age come together.
This particular buck was born in the wild on our farm in the spring of 1995. During
the summer of 1995 our thirty-five-acre research enclosure was built. In spite
of going to great pains to make sure no wild deer were trapped inside, this buck
(which was a fawn at the time) managed to elude us when we drove out the wild
deer. After gaining permission to keep the buck, time took over. With the enclosure's
great feed and low deer population, the buck was able to thrive.
a yearling it had a beautiful seven-point rack. At age two the buck sported a
rack that scored 122 Boone and Crockett. By the time the buck was three years
old, it carried antlers scoring just over 150 B&C. Then at age four, the buck
we named "Spook" had a rack that scored 168 Boone and Crockett.
in December of his fourth year this buck was involved in a fight with another
mature buck in the enclosure and died after breaking his neck. It is anyone's
guess what his antlers would have looked like from ages five to seven, when bucks
generally grow their biggest racks. However, this buck, born in the wild on our
farm, is a testimony to what can be expected when age and nutrition are blended
together and is further proof of what quality deer management can bring to the
Because this buck
is a "real world" example of what can happen when age is allowed to
play itself out the fours images offer guidance for setting up QDM harvest guidelines.
As mentioned earlier one of the first steps in a quality deer management program
is to place yearling bucks off limits. However, what is seldom mentioned is the
importance of also letting the 2-1/2 year old bucks walk.
most cases there is a significant jump in antler growth at every age from 1-1/2
to 4-1/2 years of age. However, the increase in antler size between 2-1/2 and
3-1/2 years of age and then 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 is most impressive. As you can see,
this buck grew from a 120 to a 150 class buck between 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 years of
age. Because of this most QDM participants strive to insure that no buck is
harvested before it is 3-1/2 years of age.