Bucks need protein for general body maintenance as soon as possible in spring both to build their winter-stressed bodies and to begin the process of growing antlers. Hardened antlers are 40 to 50% protein; the remainder is primarily phosphorus and calcium. At first, these minerals come from stores in the buck’s skeletal system but he must replace them at some point through his diet. For all this to come together in the best way possible for maximum antler growth, he needs a diet rich in protein, phosphorus and calcium.
Does also need the correct diet to produce healthy fawns. Again, they need protein as soon as they can get it in spring for general body maintenance and the benefit the health of the fawns they are carrying. Getting fawns into the best condition possible insures that they too will have the best chance of reaching their genetic potential later in life. The future potential of the fawn starts with the health of the doe while the fawn is still in the womb.
The need for high quality nutrition doesn’t stop when the fawns are born, in fact it only intensifies. The solid matter making up a doe’s milk is composed of an amazing 32% protein. Biologists believe that a diet that is low in protein does not simply produce lower quality milk; it actually produces less milk. I grew up on a small dairy farm. Dairy farmers know the recipe for maximum milk production and it always includes a high protein diet. Obviously, less milk means reduced fawn health. You may think, “How does fawn health relate to growing big antlers?” It is all tied together.
A buck’s antlers are a two-generation project. Recently, Dr. Grant Woods gave a seminar on deer management in a nearby town for a group of local hunters who hired him to consult on their hunting property. They invited me to attend. One of the subjects that came up was the importance of nutrition not just after the buck fawns are born but also before they are even conceived. Grant noted that the health of the doe relates directly to the later health and antler growing potential of her buck fawns.
If you need more proof of the value of getting a fawn off on the right foot, I have actually seen buck fawns that are as large as their mothers by November; some even carried small spikes rather than just buttons. I’m guessing most of these were born a month earlier than normal, but the fact that they have a head start is indisputable. Those bucks have a big jump on their cousins when it comes to over-winter health and also in growing antlers the following year. An old saying that has roots in the 14th century states, “The head grows according to the pasture.” When it comes to deer, nothing could be truer.
So having a high protein diet is even more critical for lactating does than for antler growing bucks, but both benefit greatly from a terrific food supply. If they were human, you would have them drinking protein shakes from spring through summer.