Whitetail Deer Antler Facts

Unlike horns on cattle which are permanent, male deer lose and re-grow their antlers every year.  In the whitetail deer family only bucks over 1 year old have antlers.  During winter bucks lose their antlers and then begin to re-grow new antlers. As the antlers grow they are covered in a soft hairy skin called velvet. The velvet supplies blood to the growing antlers and protects and feeds them.

Once antlers reach full size, the velvet begins to die off  and the bucks rub it off on trees and brush. In addition to removing the velvet from their new antlers, buck rubs also help to strengthen the neck for the upcoming rut.

Antler growth in a deer is largely dependent on the age of the deer, genetics, and diet. As a deer matures it will typically grow more tines and eventually max out and then become smaller year after year as the deer ages. In a whitetail buck the antlers typically reach optimal development around 5 to 6 years of age. A whitetail buck’s main antler beam curves forward without dividing or branching. A mule deer bucks major antler beam, on the other hand, grows upward with a dichotomous (dividing or branching) fork.

Facts About Deer Antlers

  • Whitetail deer antlers begin to grow in the early spring (usually  March or April).  By late summer a whitetail’s antlers are fully-grown. 
  • Whitetail deer antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues known to man.
  • The growth of a deer’s antlers usually starts to grow out of the deer’s head toward the back of the deer and then changes direction and grows toward the front of the deer’s head. 
  • Deer antlers have been known to grow as fast as ½ inch per day
  • While a whitetail’s antlers are growing they are covered with velvet.  Velvet is a living tissue that supplies blood to the antlers allowing them to grow. While a deer’s antlers are covered in velvet they are very sensitive to touch and easily broken. 
  • Once the deer’s antlers are fully grown they will become hard and the velvet will begin to fall off.  Bucks will rub their antlers against trees and saplings to rub off the dead velvet material.
  • Bucks don’t grow their fist set of antlers until they are ten months old.  Most younger deer have smaller antlers because much of their nutrition goes to support their growing body.
  • When a mature deer is injured or has poor nutrition it’s antlers will often be smaller then a healthy animal of the same age.
  • Pedicles are the part of the buck’s skull where antlers grow from.  Buck fawns have pedicles but unless very close to the deer it is hard to distinguish a buck fawn from a buck doe by the pedicles.
  • A buck fawn has no antlers and is often referred to as a button buck.
  • Deer antlers are often referred to by hunters as horns.  However antlers are not technically horns. Deer antlers once fully formed are dead tissue and fall off and then are re-grow every year. Horns continue to grow for the life of an animal.
  • Many hunters believe that you can tell how old a whitetail deer is by the size of it’s rack. This is not true. A bucks antler mass peaks around 5 to 8 years of age but the bigger determining factor for antler size is genetics and nutrition of the deer. The only reliable way to age a deer is the teeth.
  • Studies have shown that only around 10 percent of a whitetail buck’s potential antler development is reached by the age 1.5 years.
  • At 2.5 years old a whitetail buck has still only grown around 25-35 percent of his potential antler mass. However most bucks only reach 3 to 4 years old due to hunting pressure.
  • Whitetail does don’t typically grow antlers but under rare circumstances some does have grown antlers.  This is believed to be due to a hormone imbalance and is a very rare occurrence in whitetails.  The only female deer that regularly grow antlers are reindeer.
  • Even though a buck doesn’t grow antlers the first year good nutrition is very important for buck fawns. During the first year of life the young bucks grow pedicles (The future base for the antlers) and as the buck matures the larger the pedical the better the chances that the bucks will have a bigger rack in the future.
  • Whitetails bucks that are taken with bow and arrow are scored by Pope and Young. Rack scoring by Pope and Young or Boone And Crockett (for gun harvests) use a formula to measure the antlers that allows hunters to compare bucks racks in a fair way.
  • Most deer scoring systems break deer antlers into two distinct classes based on the “style” of the rack.  These two scoring classes are typical and non-typical racks.  Both typical and non typical racks are measured exactly the same way except for the fact that for typical racks you subtract for abnormal points and Non-Typical racks you add abnormal points on the rack.

Throughout the year whitetail bucks and the occasional doe grow antlers. The antlers start growing in early spring and throughout the year, until late August/early September, when the antler growth stops.

Throughout the growing season the antlers are coated in a light velvety coating that helps protect the antlers and encourages growth. Underneath the velvet the blood and nutrient flow promoting the growth of antlers. At the end of the growth cycle, the velvet falls or is peeled off by rubbing and scraping and voila, the mature antler is exposed.

There can be a lot of irregularity in antler growth. Throughout the year as antlers grow, bucks get in fights with other bucks, or an antler is dinged or is banged on something. These types of events will cause some type of visible or hidden “splinter” in the antler, and will result in an irregularity in the antler. This type of irregularity can also be caused by something like an injured leg or joint, or equally common – being hit by a car.

What these types of “injuries” do is to draw the attention of the deer’s immune and nutrient system from the antler to the injured part of the body. This will result in an irregular growth of an antler. The injury generally will affect the growth of the antler on the side of the injury. And friends, this is a very common occurrence in whitetails. That’s why perfect and symmetrical racks are so prized.

Typically, when antlers grow, they grow in unison, and as the animal ages and matures, the antlers grow larger and heavier, with more and longer tines. What a deer hunter looks for and can determine from antlers are several different things: The type of nutrients, genetics and deer management in a particular area. Without naming any particular area in Wisconsin, there are areas where trophy bucks are far more common than in others. These areas generally have a lot of exceptionally good deposits of needed nutrients and minerals both in the ground and in available forage.

And then there’s the commitment of that area – -and its hunters – -to closely manage the deer population. Generally in these “big rack” trophy areas, smaller deer are simply not being taken. Cooperation on all fronts means that the trophies will be there, albeit they are never a “gimme.” Deer hunters who frequent these areas often would rather come home empty-handed than with a small deer. “You make your choice and you take your chances” as the old saying goes.

Non-scientific Scenario of Antler Growth.

A new buck to about six months of age will by September or so have a couple of little nubs on his head about an inch or so high. These animals are called “nubber bucks.” It is illegal to hunt them in many states (check your regs! – -as I keep “preaching” to you to do – – before going out). A buck that’s a year-and-a-half old and has carried through its first winter and made it to its second year is called a “spike buck.” They’ll have two spikes sticking straight out of their head, with anywhere from four to eight points, with an average width of seven to eight inches, and tines two to four inches long. From what I’ve seen, I’d estimate that 90% of the bucks taken in Wisconsin in any given year fall into this category.

If a buck makes it through its second year, they really start to put on growth in their antlers – -depending again on their food source, genetics and area management. Their racks will get heavier and wider, with longer tines. You can get bucks with 20 inch spreads, and 14 inch tines. These bucks are called “trophies” (as if you didn’t know – and stop salivating- – they are out there, but they take a lot of patience and effort to bag. I know. The closest I’ve ever gotten to one is seeing a shed here-and-there).