As a serious deer manager, you need to focus on the year-round health of the animals you manage. When you have a stress period or a nutrition gap, the upside potential for your bucks’ antlers decreases. Commercial deer growers are now producing 200-inch 2 1/2 year old bucks. They are doing it through both genetic manipulation and through removing all forms of stress.
Antlers are a second priority to the survival of the animal. His system automatically funnels available resources toward body health and maintenance first, antler development second. Antlers are the result of surplus and the maximum surplus exists where you have the minimum stress. I know of deer growers who actually go so far as to disinfect the deer’s watering trough on a regular basis to assure that there is absolutely no chance for infection which creates stress. Obviously, we can’t go to these lengths with a free ranging deer herd, but anything we can do remove stress from their daily lives will be rewarded with bigger antlers. Supplying great nutrition is the first, and most important, step in that direction.
Let’s take another look at the kinds of food that deer eat in the summer. Obviously, they are browsers and eat hundreds of different weeds and plants. In fact, when I’m out during the summer looking at my food plots or scouting, I am always researching what the deer are nibbling on along the fringes of open fields. I am amazed at what they eat. For example, some years they eat common weeds like Queen Anne’s lace as if it were candy even though it is growing right in the middle of an alfalfa field. I have even seen evidence that they will browse common ragweed, again right in the middle of a sea of alfalfa.
Deer love diversity and will seek it even in the midst of prime foods. It is obvious that at certain times in their growth, these common weeds are very palatable. It seems the list of plants deer won’t eat is shorter than the list of those they will.
However, as the summer drags on and these browse plants begin to mature and dry out, the deer abandon them in favor of agricultural crops and food plots where they can find them. I see this transition the heaviest, where I live in the Midwest, during early July. The deer literally come out of the woodwork. This transition will likely occur slightly sooner in areas where the growing season is longer and in areas with less available browse.
Now if you have limited agriculture and no food plots, you are right at the beginning of the summer stress period. Without highly palatable and highly digestible food sources, those deer have few options during this prime antler growing time. Unless you provide high quality, protein-rich food sources your bucks will not grow their biggest antlers and fawn health will suffer. It is that simple.