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FROM 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 variables.

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.

Since 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.

What It Takes
It takes four basic ingredients to produce a buck with a 170-inch rack - genetics, habitat, herd management, and age.

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.

To 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.

Environment
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 of habitat.

No matter 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 potential.

Insects are another environmental stressor. Swarms of insects have been known to kill domestic animals, but they also take the lives of deer.

Food
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 capacity.

Unfortunately, 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.

Population
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.

Dave 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.

"We know that if bucks are forced to be around too many deer, they'll seldom reach their full antler potential."

Adult Doe-to-Antlered Buck Ratio
A 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.

Tom Morgan is a deer breeder from Union City, Pennsylvania. Over the years, he has studied how stress affects deer herds.

"Everyone 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 previous year."

Dave 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."

The Rut
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.

On 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
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.

Non-contact predation 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.

In 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 wolf howls.

The average 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 per minute.

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.

Although 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 of hunters.

What does 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.

Lessons Behind Fences
By reducing 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.

Some 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 be manipulated.

Many deer 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.

"After 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.

"I've 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.

The 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 record-class whitetails.

"To 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."

Realistic Expectations
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.

That is 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.

When 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 more.

Conclusion
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.

As 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.

Unfortunately, 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 table.

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.

In 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.

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