Maximize Antler ROI

Here's how the average hunting club and landowner can maximize their return on investment when managing for quality bucks.

Brian Murphy | June 25, 2020

Let’s face it, deer hunters love antlers. This is certainly not a new phenomenon as evidenced by the numerous paintings, etchings and rituals involving deer in nearly every culture where deer and humans have coexisted throughout the millennia. Not only were deer antlers used as weapons, tools and adornment, they were revered for their fascinating shapes and sizes. This fascination and reverence remain today with few subjects generating more discussion among deer hunters.

By age 4.5 year of age, the average whitetail buck will exhibit more than 80 percent of its total antler growth potential. For this reason, many deer managers believe this age provides the greatest ROI from an antler perspective.

Amazing Antlers

Antlers are wonderfully complex and unique structures. They are among the fastest growing structures in nature, requiring less than six months from start to finish and growing an inch or more per day. Recent research has revealed that antler growth is governed by a unique combination of bone cancer and osteoporosis. Bone cancer is the process through which antler-growth cells can multiply so rapidly in such a short period. Because of this rapid cell growth, deer cannot meet their mineral demands through diet alone (even if supplemented) and are forced to “rob” nutrients from their skeletal system through a form of osteoporosis. Amazingly, no other animal on Earth can start and stop cancer, or reverse osteoporosis, as deer can. Because of these unique abilities, antlers are the subject of human medical research for cancer, osteoporosis and limb regeneration.

While antlers are often called “horns,” the two differ in many ways. Horns are permanent, while antlers are shed and regrown annually. Horns are largest at the animal’s death, whereas antlers are largest during peak maturity years, often from 5.5 to 7.5 years of age in whitetails. Horns grow from the base, antlers from the tip. Horns are composed of compressed hair, antlers of true bone. Horns are hollow, antlers are solid. While both serve the same general functions—defense and mate attraction—the two are very different.

It’s interesting to note that the ancestor to the modern whitetail didn’t have antlers at all, but large upper canine teeth. A handful of deer from other parts of the world, such as muntjac and water deer, still possess large canines today. Over several million years, the upper canines in whitetails were replaced with permanent, antler-like structures that later gave way to the modern “disposable” antlers we know today. Believe it or not, a very small percentage of whitetails still exhibit this evolutionary “throwback,” though their canines are generally very small (less than 1/2-inch long). Because of this, most go unnoticed by hunters. So, be sure to check your next deer for these unique treasures of days of long ago.

The greatest one-year increase in antler size in whitetails occurs from 1.5 to 2.5 years of age. If this yearling buck is allowed to make it another year, its antlers will be approximately twice as large as they are now.

The Big 3: Age, Nutrition and Genetics

Antlers vary considerably in size and shape according to age, nutrition, genetics and many other factors. As a result, deer hunters and managers commonly analyze and debate ways to maximize the antler size of bucks in a particular area. According to the latest research, age still reigns supreme when it comes to bucks with large antlers in wild, free-ranging deer herds. Regardless of genetics and nutrition, young bucks simply cannot grow the amount of “bone” on their heads that older bucks can. And, it’s easy to understand why. In young bucks, priority is given to attaining skeletal maturity, which generally occurs at 4.5 years of age. Until then, antlers must take a back seat. Nutrition is next most important and why deer hunters and managers work so hard to optimize nutrition through habitat management, food plots, mineral supplementation and, occasionally, supplemental feeding. Much to the surprise of many deer hunters, genetics is the least important of the “Big 3.” Multiple studies have clearly demonstrated the value of age and nutrition and the futility of trying to impact genetics through culling in free-ranging deer herds.

Maximizing Your Antler ROI

In today’s rough-and-tumble economy, most people would be ecstatic with a return on their investment (ROI) of 100 percent in year one, 30% in year two and 20% in year three. But what if the ROI dropped below 10% during years four through seven? Some would stay the course, while others would cash-in and invest elsewhere.

I’m not referring to money, but whitetail antlers. Based on research at Mississippi State University and elsewhere, the ROIs previously stated are fairly normal when it comes to the increase in gross Boone & Crockett (B&C) scores for bucks from 1.5 to 4.5 years of age (see table below). Obviously, the average score for each age class varies considerably from the sandhills of Florida to the agricultural fields of Iowa, but the overall trend remains similar.

When it comes to maximizing the antler ROI on your hunting property, what’s the best age to cash-in and harvest a particular buck? The answer requires more than basic financial skills, but a broader discussion regarding your management objectives, number of acres under management, habitat quality, etc.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume you are part of a hunting club in the southeastern U.S. that adheres to Quality Deer Management (QDM) principles. Your club is 600 acres, you plant food plots, shoot does and protect most young bucks (1.5 and 2.5-year-olds). Your goal is to harvest bucks that are 3.5 years old and older.

With this in mind, it is worth noting that average antler size of yearling bucks in your area will double from 1.5 to 2.5 years of age (see column for Gross B&C Score column in the table on page 43). This is your 100% ROI year and “easy money” for hunters who routinely pass yearling bucks.

At 2.5 years of age, the average buck will be sporting 40% to 50% of its maximum antler size (mass) at maturity (see Percent of Maximum Antler Mass column in table). If this buck is allowed to reach 3.5 years of age, its antlers will typically increase another 30% in size and approach 70% to 75% of its eventual maximum antler size. By passing it just one more year, the buck will grow another 15% to 20% and attain 80% to 85% of its eventual maximum antler size. Let me repeat this. By age 4.5, the average buck will be expressing 80% or more of its antler growth potential.

Because of this, I consider 4.5-year-old bucks the ultimate ROI for those interested in QDM.

However, many factors must be considered when determining the best age at which to harvest bucks in a particular area. In some areas, hunting pressure will make it difficult, if not virtually impossible, for bucks to reach 4.5 years of age. In such cases, a more realistic goal may be 3.5 years of age. However, if you have never harvested a 2.5-year-old buck, and that’s a trophy to you, there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a buck of this age and working up from there.

On the other hand, those blessed with very large properties, low hunting pressure and hunters willing to pass numerous high-quality young bucks may be able to allow bucks to reach full maturity (5.5+ years old) before harvest. The key is balancing your personal objectives with the overall health of the herd and the quality of the hunting experience. The take-home message here is not the age at which you should harvest bucks, but rather what you could reasonably expect to produce and harvest on your hunting property based on the latest whitetail science.

Antlers are among the most complex, unique and fascinating structures in nature. They are controlled by a form of bone cancer and can grow an inch or more in a single day.

The Power of Cooperation

I can hear your response now: “We try to get our bucks to 3.5 or 4.5 years of age, but our property is too small and the hunters across the fence shoot everything that moves.”

I’ve heard this countless times over the years while working with hunting clubs. On several occasions, I’ve also had the chance to speak with those hunters across the fence. Guess what? They generally say the same thing about you! In most cases, the two groups simply haven’t talked and don’t really know how deer are being managed across the fence.

Given the growing interest in QDM, it’s not surprising that more hunters are talking with their neighbors and establishing QDM Cooperatives.  A QDM Cooperative is a group of neighboring landowners and hunters voluntarily working together to improve the quality of the deer herd and hunting experiences on their collective acreage. Cooperatives vary in size, number of participants and structure depending on the needs and objectives of members.

Cooperatives provide numerous benefits from a deer hunting and management perspective. A primary benefit is that they enable hunters with small properties to participate in QDM programs that push more bucks into the older age classes before harvest. Cooperatives also provide the opportunity to pool deer harvest and observation data. Typically, so few deer are harvested on small properties that harvest data is of limited value. Another benefit is the improved relationships with surrounding landowners and hunters. As groups unite in a common goal, they develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their collective effort. This requires the establishment of honesty and trust—the two most important ingredients in a successful cooperative. This will not happen overnight, and occasional setbacks will occur. Cooperatives also provide better control of trespassing and poaching. As hunters unite to produce quality deer, they will have an increased interest in preventing illegal access. In many cases, trespassers and poachers go unnoticed because area hunters do not know who is authorized to hunt on the adjoining properties.

For more information on QDM Cooperatives and estimating the age of bucks on the hoof, visit

Keep It Real

Establishing realistic deer management goals is paramount to success. Goals should include the minimum size or age of bucks to be harvested and the desired doe harvest goal for the cooperative. It is highly recommended that a qualified wildlife biologist assist with establishing your deer management goals. The time required to achieve these goals depends on the management strategies selected, habitat quality and commitment level of participants. Changes will not occur overnight, and participants should commit for a minimum of three to five years. Remember, cooperatives and voluntary and don’t prevent young or first-time hunters from harvesting a young buck.      

For hunters interested in maximizing antler ROI, especially on small properties, QDM cooperatives offer the greatest potential for success. While cooperatives take time and effort, their benefits are well worth it. They also are great ways to develop new friendships and to share in the success of a group effort. Comments like, “Look at the buck I harvested” often shift to “Look at the buck we produced.” The focus shifts from the accomplishment of the individual to that of a dedicated group of deer managers and wildlife stewards. So, why not contact your hunting neighbors? They just might not be the “dirtbags” you think they are. And, they may say the same about you. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.    

Editor’s Note: Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist with more than 30 years of experience researching, managing and hunting deer around the world. He has worked previously as a Wildlife Research Coordinator for the University of Georgia, Deer Project Biologist for the Australian government and CEO for the Quality Deer Management Association. 

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