Each year it happens sometime around Labor Day. It’s when whitetail bucks shed the velvet from their antlers.
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 sapling to rub off the dead velvet material.
Since I first saw a whitetail buck when I was a boy I have been fascinated by deer antlers. They are the fastest growing bone material and over a course of 120 days from late March through August, a mature buck can grow in excess of 200 inches of bone on his head.
Most bucks will have completed their antler growth by late August, at which time the blood flow to the antlers diminishes. For the next 20-25 days the antlers will harden. During this time the overall size of the antlers actually appears to decrease because the velvet covering the antlers shrinks as the blood flow slows.
Antler growth is nothing more than an extension of the animal’s body condition. If a buck’s body is not healthy and well maintained with the proper nutrition, maximum antler growth is not possible. As a result it is important that good nutrition be available to bucks every month.
Unlike horns on cattle which are permanent, male deer lose and regrow their antlers every year. In the whitetail deer family only bucks more than 1 year old have antlers. 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 five to six years of age. A whitetail buck’s main antler beam curves forward without dividing or branching. A mule deer bucks major antler beams, on the other hand, grows upward with a dichotomous (dividing or branching) fork.
In contrast, horn, found on pronghorns and bovids such as sheep, goats, bison and cattle, are two-part structures. An interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) is covered by an exterior sheath grown by specialized hair follicles, the same material as human fingernails and toenails. Horns are never shed and continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. The exception to this rule is the pronghorn which sheds and regrows its horn sheath each year, which they usually grow in symmetrical pairs.
It should be noted that there are no cookie cutter buck antlers, each is distinctly different. Some grow antlers that are narrow and tall, while others have drop tines and wide inside spreads. No two have ever been identical, which adds to the whitetail’s uniqueness. Also, the rate at which a buck’s antlers grow is dependent on a number of factors such as genetics, health, age, stress, soil quality and the overall quality of habitat, both natural and agricultural.
Enjoy Boundary County and its wildlife!