Nutrition vs. Genetics & Their Affects on Antler Growth

Next to putting meat in the freezer, antlers are the most coveted thing among the majority of hunters. Often people enjoy eating wild game, but on the day to day hunters actually want to get a nice set of antlers to hang in the den above their stone fireplace. There are those that consider themselves, meat hunters: people who hunt mainly or strictly for the meat. I would say most of who I know in my tiny hometown area are meat hunters. However, the good news is that whether you want some delicious meat or a giant rack of antlers you can find both in similar areas.

There has been a long-standing debate: does a good scoring buck have more to do with genetics or nutrition? Outfitters that try to keep wildlife on their property to ensure exciting private hunting access want to be able to maintain big bucks and bulls. The question that comes into play for them so often is, “How does one accomplish having large bucks and bulls so you can gain returning customers and build a reputation?” Do they need to bring in bigger bucks and bulls for better genetics or can this problem be solved through meeting nutritional needs?

It turns out all the evidence points to nutrients being the heftiest factor regarding antler growth over genetics. Of course, genetics and age play a role in the growth of antlers; but it seems that nutrients take precedence. Understandably, the type of food the animal eats will affect the way the antlers grow. It is comparable to humans consuming enough calcium for proper bone health. According to, the MSU Deer Lab, salts, minerals, and protein are important factors in antler growth. Some outfitters even go as far as to buy these salt blocks and minerals to feed and foster large antler growth for those animals that graze their property.

I remember one beautiful summer day, in the middle of our haying season—a time when all the elk are gathered by the hundreds in the fields every evening—we had an elk come meandering right into our backyard. Our backyard happens to be hills and forest, so it was quite normal to see wildlife. However, this elk was always alone and never wandered too far. He was older than dirt and sickly. His head drooped over his thin body exposing his ribs. Despite his frail appearance he carried a substantial set of antlers on his skull.

We put a bale of hay in the area he claimed as his resting place for the next couple of weeks. It served him as bedding and easy access meals, a mercy to an animal that had low mobility. This area became his final resting place. Once he had passed, we came to move the body to prevent predators from coming into our yard. Lucky us! We also collected some interesting antlers. They were broad and tall, but most interestingly, the last two points horizontally sprawled out in the shape of what I thought looked like a whale tale.

Though this bull had been disease ridden for some time, he had clearly had the right circumstance for some serious antler growth; due to rich grasses in the areas this elk had been migrating to throughout the year. The process of antler growth takes place over years. In a study done by, MSU Deer Lab, they followed a deer throughout its life. This deer typically lived in an area with low scoring bucks. The researchers moved him to a new place full of all the delicious foods he could ask for. They found that because of proper nutrition this bucks rack increased in sized every year until he was about seven. The growth then experienced decadence. Just as the bull elk in my backyard had lost his health, this deer started to as well. Once he turned seven his measurements slowly decreased, it was speculated that something must be wrong with this deer toward the end of its life. Low and behold, its body contained a disease that sucked the nutrients from it. This definitely led to a decrease in antler size, though, age does effect this as well.

The deer spent his life in lush lands filled with nutrients. It was not the deer’s original habitat. This experiment was done to prove that it matters more what kind of food the deer gets than what herd it belongs to when it comes to achieving desirable antler growth. Though genetics could play a small role, nutrition wins the day when it comes to substantial effects.

The bull that died in our yard that summer seemed to have ideal grazing lands. He had a large rack but became unhealthy later in life. We speculated he was an older bull making us curious about his prime time of life. What a beauty he must have been!

Fortunately for us, the debate being won by nutrition only helps when finding the best deer or elk to hunt. If you learn of the migration pattern of these animals and what kind of food is available for them where you hunt, then you increase the odds of finding big, mature antlered animals.

Places with clover are going to give deer ample amounts of the healthy diet foods for good looking antlers. Alfalfa is also going to be prime food for a big scoring buck. Deer Vetch, cowpeas, and soybeans will also be rich sources of nutrients for any deer herd. Keep a look out for profitable areas to hunt in the coming years. Even mountain regions have their food rich areas, clover can be found all over, meadows with flowers are also good sources, any ivy in areas is also a good source of nutrition.

All in all, it sounds like the best racks and steaks come from the areas of wealthy grazing! I am going to start selecting hunting grounds with more nutrient dense foods in the area, that way I can fulfill all the best parts of hunting. The deer and I will both be happily frolicking through the lush grasses and beautiful forests. I hope this helps settle all the debates out there among hunters. We are what we eat, folks, keep searching for the best of the best when you are in Hunt Mode!