Energy and Nutrient Needs for Antler Growth

Deer : Nutrition

Michael Schlegel, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS-Nutrition

Sr. Nutritionist, Wildlife & Small Ruminant Technical Solutions

A recent study demonstrated that does prefer bucks with larger antlers.15 Whether to attract does or to use as a weapon, antler development is a nutritional and energy dependent endeavor.  Poor nutrition, regardless of genetics has a negative impact on antler growth.14,19 There are a number of nutritional components that are important for antler development namely energy, protein, minerals and vitamins.6,21
In both white-tailed deer and mule deer, poor body condition resulted in more spike bucks in the population.1,9,17  Antler growth requires energy above that which is required for maintenance.22 This higher energy requirement is one explanation that yearling bucks that require energy first for growth have smaller antlers than adults bucks.21 When dietary energy was restricted antler beam diameter, length, and points were reduced.7,21
Not only is energy critical for antler development, but the nutrients supplied with the energy and important. The growing antler is 80% protein (dry matter basis).6 Fawns require up to 20% protein to support growth and antler pedicle development.20 After weaning through the next year, buck fawns fed a 16% protein diet had larger antlers than those fed 4.5% and 9.5% protein diets.7 This is true for two-year old bucks as well.8  Across all age classes, a 16% protein diet is ideal during the antler growing period.6  Additionally, the use of by-pass protein has been shown to support body condition in fallow deer5 and antler beam length in red deer.13
Cervids are unique among mammals having the ability to utilize calcium from their bones for antler deposition and then replacing bone calcium from the diet after the antlers harden.2,3 Low calcium diets have been shown to decrease bone specific gravity.21 While there is a minimum dietary phosphorus to meet every day metabolic needs, supplemental phosphorus has not been shown to improve antler growth.21  Calcium content of the antler is positively related to antler strength and along with magnesium content is positively associated with antler density.12 The amount of iodine available in the environment has been positively associated with antler weights in roe deer.11 Zinc supplementation has been shown to improved daily gain of antler weights in sika bucks10 and manganese supplementation increased mineral content of adult red deer antlers and improved antler mechanical properties reducing potential fractures.4
The two vitamins that are related to antler development include vitamin A and vitamin D.21 Vitamin A derived from beta-carotene in green plants and supplemental feed supports antler growth. Vitamin D derived from sun exposure and dietary supplements is critical for calcium absorption and antler mineralization.21
While white-tailed bucks typically reach maximum antler size at five to seven years of age, poor nutrition can delay the attainment of maximum size.16,18 The key in supporting antler growth of deer is to provide a well-balanced diet all year. This includes helping the deer during and after the rut to regain body weight and body condition lost and supporting calcium bone deposition. During the critical antler growing period energy and nutrients are not only needed to support body maintenance but to support the extra needs to assist the buck in reaching its genetic potential for antler growth.

1Anderson, A.E. 1981. Morphological and physiological characteristics. In: Mule and Black-tailed Deer of North America, O.C Wallmo, ed., Pp. 27-97. Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
2Banks, W.J., Jr., P.E. Glenwood, R.A. Kainer, and R.W. Davis. 1968a. Antler growth and osteoporosis. I. Morphological and morphometric changes in the costa compacta during the antler growth cycle. Anatomical Record. 162:387-398.
3Banks, W.J., Jr., P.E. Glenwood, R.A. Kainer, and R.W. Davis. 1968b. Antler growth and osteoporosis. I. Gravimetric and chemical changes in the costa compacta during the antler growth cycle. Anatomical Record. 162:399-406.
4Cappelli, J., A. Garcia, F. Ceacero, S. Gomez, S. Luna, L. Gallego, P. Gambin, and T. Landete-Castillejos. 2015. Manganese supplementation in deer under balanced diet increases impact energy and contents in minerals of antler bone tissue. PLoS One. 10(7):e0132738.
5Ceacero, F. M.A. Clar-Serrano, R. Kotrba, V. Ny, and O. Faltus. 2018. Effects of lysine and methionine supplementation on fattening and blood protein metabolites in Fallow deer (Dama dama).  Abstract presented at the 9th International Deer Biology Congress. Available at:
6Demarais, S. and B.K. Strickland. 2011. Antlers. In: Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer, D.G. Hewitt, ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, Pp. 107-145.
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8Hirth, D.H., 1977. Observations on loss of antler velvet in white-tailed deer.  The Southwestern Naturalist. 22:269-296.
9Kun, B., S. Weili, L. Chunyi, W. Kaiying, L. Zhipeng, B. Shidan, and L. Guangyu. 2016. Effects of dietary zinc supplementation on nutrient digestibility, haematologial biochemical parameters and production performance in male sika deer (Cervus nippon). Animal Production Science. 56:997-1001.
10Lehoczki, R., K. Erdelyi, K. Sonkoly, L. Szemethy, and S. Csanyi. 2011. Iodine distribution in the environment as a limiting factor for roe deer antler development. Biological Trace Element Research 139:168-176.
11McDonald, C.G., S. Demarais, T.A. Campbell, H.F. Janssen, V.G. Allen, and A.M. Kelley. 2005. Physical and chemical characteristics of antlers and antler breakage in white-tailed deer. The Southwestern Naturalist 50:356-362.
12Harmel, D.E., J.D. Williams, and W.E. Armstrong. 1989. Effects of genetics and nutrition on antler development and body size of white-tailed deer. Federal Aid Report series No. 26. Projects W-56-D, W-76-R, W-109-R, and W-14-C. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin Texas.
13Mendoza-Nazar, P., G.D. Mendoza-Martinez, J. Herrera-Haro, B. Ruiz-Sesama, R. Barcena-Gama, and L. Tarango-Arambula. Effect of ruminally protected methionine on body weight gain and growth of antlers in red deer (Cervus elaphus) in humid tropics. Tropical Animal Health and Production. 44:681-684.
14Michel, E.S., E.B. Flinn, S. Demarais, B.K. Strickland. G.Wang, and C.M. Dacus. 2016. Improved nutrition cues switch from efficiency to luxury phenotypes for a long-live ungulate. Ecology and Evolution. 6:7276-7285.
15Morina, D.L., S. Demarais, B.K. Strickland, J.E. Larson. 2018. While males fight, females choose: male phenotypic quality informs female mate choice in mammals. Animal Behavior. 138:69-74.
16Sauer, P.R. 1984. Physical characteristics. In: L.K. Halls, ed. White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. Pp. 73-90.
17Scanlon, P.F. 1977. The antler cycle in white-tailed deer- A review of recent development. N.E.-S.E. Deer Study Group Meeting, Fort Pickett, VA 1:64-69.
18Strickland, B.K. and S. Demarais. 2000. Age and regional differences in antlers and mass of white-tailed deer. Journal of Wildlife Management. 64:903-911.
19Suttie, J.M., and R.N.B. Kay. 1983. The influence of nutrition and photoperiod on the growth of antlers of young red deer. In: R.D. Brown, ed. Antler Development in Cervidae. Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Kingsville, TX. Pp. 61-71.
20Ullrey, D.E., W.G. Youatt, H.E. Johnson, L.D. Fay, and B.L. Bradley. 1967. Protein requirement of white-tailed deer fawns. Journal of Wildlife Management 31:679-685.
21Ullrey, D.E. 1983. Nutrition and antler development in white-tailed deer. In: R.D. Brown, ed. Antler Development in Cervidae. Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Kingsville, TX. Pp. 49-59.
22Verme, L.J. and D.E. Ullrey. 1984. Physiology and Nutrition. In: L.K. Halls, ed. White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. Pp. 91-118.