When it comes to raising deer on his farm in Zion Grove, Mike Schlauch’s goals are the same as most hunters: He wants big bucks.
While many hunters will dream of harvesting a trophy buck when the statewide deer season opens on Nov. 27, there are several factors involved in the growth of antlers. Factors that dictate antler growth in the wild are the same that deer farmers like Schlauch deal with in a controlled setting: nutrition, genetics and age.
Schlauch said genetics is the biggest factor when it comes to producing large antlers, and that is dictated moreso by the doe than the breeding buck.
“When we look to purchase a doe, we’re looking at the frame, mass and width of the antlers from her offspring,” he said. “When it comes to genetics, it’s heavier on the mother’s side.”
Nutrition is the second most important factor to antler growth, Schlauch said, and this is an area where deer raised in captivity have a clear advantage over their wild counterparts. While Schlauch said his feed ration isn’t much different than what a wild deer can find in an agricultural area — corn, oats and soybean — his deer have access to an ample supply of food all day long.
“Mineral supplements are a good thing to, but I care more about feeding them properly overall,” Schlauch said.
A buck will hit its prime antler growth when it is 4 years old, according to Schlauch. But he added that age isn’t as critical as genetics or nutrition and it can be misleading.
Sure, it’s critical that a buck live long enough to reach its peak stage of antler growth, but Schlauch said don’t assume a young buck with a small rack is never going to get big.
“I don’t care too much what they do as a yearling. When a buck is 2 years old, then we’ll know what kind of antler frame they’re going to have,” he said. “When they reach ages 3 and 4, that’s when they add the mass and tine length.”
Schlauch said there’s no validity to the notion that a buck that produces spikes in its first year of antler growth will remain small for the rest of its life. He’s had bucks that scored 30 to 40 inches (Boone and Crockett) in their first year, only to reach the 150-inch mark in the following year.
“Stress has a lot to do with antler growth, just as much as age,” Schlauch said. “I remember a buck on another farm that was 260 inches as a yearling, but the next year I wasn’t impressed with him. The farm used the buck to breed with 20 to 30 doe, and that was a lot of stress, similar to what the rut does to wild deer.”
Still, while the factors influencing antler growth are the same in wild and domestic deer, age is the one aspect that many wild bucks don’t have on their side. Schlauch said a lack of feed during the winter months is another difference facing wild deer.
One thing that has helped more wild bucks grow larger racks — primarily by reaching an older age — are antler restrictions. In most of the state a buck has to have at least three points on one side to be legal for harvest, and Schlauch said he’d like to see the provision become higher.
“I’d like to see it three-up on one side, not including the brow tine,” he said. “Ideally it would be nice to see age come into the restrictions, but that would be tough to do.”
After being around enormous bucks on his farm every day, one would think Schlauch isn’t that impressed with a decent buck in the wild. But he said raising deer has given him a greater appreciation for what it takes for a wild buck to grow antlers.
“When I got into this, other farmers told me once I’m around these 200- to 300-inch deer, seeing a 130-inch buck in hunting season won’t get me excited,” Schlauch said. “But I enjoy it now more than I ever did just knowing what it took to produce that rack and seeing that animal in a natural setting.”