When raising whitetails, the decision to cut the antlers off your bucks every year should be strictly one of management and economics. The reason for such a statement is because if it were one of aesthetics, Iím sure no one would cut the antlers off these majestic animals, which are the pride of all our ranches, not to mention our bread and butter.
A decision to cut or not to cut will not necessarily be the same for every farmer, or even for every pen. Many criteria and circumstances will affect your decision. To better explain this controversial issue, I would like to tell you my experiences with raising whitetails.
When I first started raising whitetails some 15 years ago, I read a New Zealand article that said if you wanted to minimize your losses, you had better cut the antlers off your bucks. Unable to find more information on this topic, we made the decision to remove the antlers. Well, let me tell you, this was easier said than done!
We did not have the equipment, the expertise nor the facilities that are available today. Our first year of cutting resulted in probably more losses than if we had chosen to leave the antlers on. Nevertheless, we continued cutting and every year things slowly improved.
These improvements can be directly attributed to changes we constantly kept making to our techniques, timing, equipment, farm layout and handling facilities. Our losses were becoming very manageable and close to non-existent. Itís too bad they did not remain there.
By this time, producers in Alberta (Canada) had formed an elk and deer association. I started attending meetings. With the exchange of ideas that comes at those meetings, it became obvious that our farm was the only one cutting antlers off whitetails. Shortly after that, our farm joined the majority and halted these annual cuttings.
The first year, we had no losses. I remember trying to convince myself that maybe with whitetail bucks it is different and cutting is not necessary. My resolve did not last very long.
The following year I lost four bucks out of 32 to puncture wounds. All of the bucks in that particular 10 acre pen were two years and older. They had been together all summer. One of the casualties was my biggest and most promising three-year old.
You guessed it! The next year we were cutting antlers. Since then we have cut hundreds and hundreds of bucks over the years. The task on our farm has always been performed without darting and during daytime hours. Today, I am more convinced than ever that if someone wants to raise bucks and grow them out to maturity, they will have to cut antlers to minimize their losses.
Why cut antlers?
We need to understand the type of animal we are raising. I believe too often these animals are imprinted in our minds as Bambiís parents. This image is justified for the does only. The bucks, in reality, turn into unpredictable roaming, fighting, killing machines, prior, during and for a period, after the rut. If one was to learn the number of bucks that die in the wild due to fighting, one would be shocked. Iím convinced the numbers are staggering. Look at the size of their pen! Pen size has really nothing to do with it. So what is it?
These animals carry weapons on their heads that are triggered by testosterone. We all know how explosive and unpredictable that can be. Mother Nature has made it that way to preserve the strength in the genetic pool. There is no way man will ever, or should ever attempt to, breed this instinct out of these animals. Fighting is all about dominancy within the pecking order. It is impossible for anyone to know which bucks to keep apart! Disarming these critters of their deadly weapons is the only safe way. Cutting is proving to be a smart management decision ad most deer farmers in Alberta have realized.
Another good reason for cutting is that this procedure allows you to be able to match the antlers to the buck without having to go and search them in the pastures and then use DNA. This is very important when keeping antler growth records for management and marketing purposes.
Who should cut antlers?
Anyone growing whitetail bucks in groups for supplying hunting preserves and breeding stock markets should be cutting off the antlers. But they should NOT be doing it if they do not have a proper farm layout with good handling facilities and the expertise to do the job. The task should not be attempted with any of the above components missing. It is important to keep the level of stress in these animals as low as possible. This can only be accomplished if the task is performed safely, efficiently and within the least amount of time.
When should antlers be cut?
The best time to start cutting antlers is when approximately 60% to 70% of the bucks in the group have scraped their antlers clean. The dates will vary slightly from year to year and even from pen to pen. Over the years we have found that between August 20th and September 10th is the optimum time.
If the temperatures tend to be too hot, we start very early in the morning and only work until mid-morning. This is a time in summer when bucks are still mostly in their bachelor camaraderie mood. It is also a good time of year when daylight hours havenít shortened enough to kick -start their testosterone factory. This makes them less aggressive towards each other.
We like to use cutting cables to saw off hard dry antler only. The two main reasons for this is hard dry clean antler has more value and the cutting cables will not clog up with blood. If a buck still has its antler covered with velvet, take time to grab a hold of the main beam with your bare hands just above the burr. If you can feel heat, it means blood is still flowing Ė this buck is not ready to cut. Bucks that are not ready get sent to a different pen and brought back for cutting in a week or two.
Which bucks to cut?
All bucks from yearlings and older ones being kept in groups, which do not require their antlers for marketing reasons, should be cut. The exceptions could be breeder bucks in single-sire breeding situations that you know are not aggressive towards does, and bucks in individual pens that are not adjacent to each other.
Where to cut antlers?
The best place to cut is as close above the burr as possible. It is also possible on many animals to cut below the burr if one is careful and the burr is not too close to the skull. Below the burr is often desired when antlers are to be entered in competitions, mounted for trophies or simply for increasing their market value.
How to solve buck fighting?
There are only four ways I know of to solve buck fights:
1. Keeping all of your bucks in individual, solid-wall pens.
2. Removing your bucksí testosterone-producing equipment by castration.
3. Sending them to a hunting preserve and having them shot.
4. Raising only does.
Whitetails are probably the most aggressive fighters of all the deer species. That is why serious deer farmers who want to reduce their losses to improve their bottom line should be cutting off the antlers.