Why Are Some Bucks Dropping Antlers Early?

Some bucks are dropping antlers early, especially in the Midwest. Observant hunters may know why, especially if they also happen to be farmers who were stuck on their combines well into November.

Why Are Some Bucks Dropping Antlers Early?

One of the most popular articles on our website over the past few years has been a simple post that asks and answers the question, “why do deer shed their antlers?” The article’s teaser starts with what most hunters already know: Deer drop their antlers between January and April.

Except, in 2018, this process started early. At least this was true for a surprising number of bucks in the Midwest. Meateater, the outdoor media brand founded by Steven Rinella, addressed December shedding on its Instagram account earlier this month. “A whitetail buck shedding its antlers in December isn’t unheard of,” according to the social post. “But it’s not common either ... however, 2018 has been the exception to that rule.” 

In a corresponding articleMeateater offers anecdotal accounts of hunters who reported discovering midwestern bucks that dropped antlers early. But they went a step further and reached out to the wildlife biologists at Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) to pinpoint the cause.

“I’ve had a ton of reports of bucks shedding early in the area,” says Kip Adams, Pennsylvania resident and QDMA’s director of conservation. As Meateater reports, early shedding seems to be most prevalent from Ohio to New York. 

“Although we get hunters contacting us about whitetails dropping early every year," Adams says, " 2018 has been on another level.”

Explanations for early sheds require a good understanding of the antler cycle. This shedding process takes two to three weeks to complete, while the regeneration takes an entire summer to complete — before the cycle starts all over again. The antlers will grow rapidly for two to four months. During the summer, higher levels of the male hormone testosterone slow antler growth, and the veins and arteries around the velvet constrict and cut off the blood and nutrient supply to the antlers. The velvet then withers and begins to fall off. This is helped along by a deer's tendency to rub his antlers against trees. The whole process is repeated every year for the rest of the buck's life.

So the whole cycle largely depends on a deer's testosterone levels. Often times, poor health can lead to low testosterone. And the dominoes begin to fall — one nuanced cause-and-effect after another — until you have bucks shedding in December rather than after the holiday season. 

So why have hunters seen this early shedding phenomenon in Ohio to New York, and areas of the Midwest? What was up with the health of the deer herds? 

Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest contributed to the environmental stressors on local deer herds last fall. These factors, including how they impact nutrition, contribute to a deer's health and its antler growth process. Pictured, a flooded cornfield in Iowa. Photo: iStock
Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest contributed to the environmental stressors on local deer herds last fall. These factors, including how they impact nutrition, contribute to a deer's health and its antler growth process. Pictured, a flooded cornfield in Iowa. Photo: iStock

A clue may be inside the pages of The Progressive Farmer. It’s a magazine many farm kids observe laying on the coffee tables or dusty home offices of their parents’ or grandparents’ homes. A leading trade magazines for U.S. farmers, ag reports from last fall cited weather events in the region that impacted Midwestern farmers and, as such, the local deer herds. 

According to Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson, corn and soybean harvests were expected to be late due to heavy rains and flooding in August and the article, written in early September, forecasted more rains for the upcoming weeks.

Anytime you have environmental stressors — which can include excessive flooding and cold temperatures in early fall, and the affects these weather conditions have on natural food sources and agricultural crops — deer, like the midwestern farmers, feel the impact. 

Keith Peters, whose farm operation is located in central Ohio, told Progressive Farmer in an article posted last December, that he had been staring down a soggy 65-acre cornfield for weeks, waiting for the rain to end and the ground to freeze. "Toughest harvest I've had in years," Peters said, which saw above-average rainfall for most of the season.  Another farmer Zack Rendel told the farm publication that he was still in harvest mode on Thanksgiving Day. “Thanksgiving for us this year was cold sandwiches in the combine cab, rolling hard trying to finish up," he said.

But in this corn- and soybean-rich agricultural region, it wasn’t so much that harvest yields were way down. In fact, in spite of the torrential rains, harvests remained fairly steady in the region. As one reader emailed after this article was initially published, "wouldn't the fact that the crops were left on longer provide more nutrients opposed to less?" 

The assumption by this writer was 2018's fall flooding could impact not only a farmer's access, but a deer herd's access to the crops as well. More so, could it be that crop maturation was delayed by adverse weather, leaving deer less time to collect winter food stores through late summer and early fall? Having revisited each of these factors — delayed crop maturation and deer access to flooded crops — the adverse effect would appear possible, but negligible.  

What seems most likely is a perfect storm of many factors. In some areas, flooding was severe enough over an extended amount of time that it did create access problems for deer herds. Flooding did likely destroy natural food sources. And colder temperatures earlier in the fall season did impact normal deer patterns. Together these factors added environmental stressors, which impacted deer health (and, in turn, normal testosterone levels) headed into winter. Outside stressors, in turn, affected the antler growth process, including when a buck sheds its antlers. 

But perhaps another, more succinct answer at this stage is this: it is not know exactly why some Midwestern deer dropped antlers earlier than normal. If this current antler cycle becomes a pattern, factors influencing early shedding will likely become more clear. Still, one thing is certain. Hunters have taken notice. Only a couple of days after this article was published, guys from Iowa, Idaho, New York and Wisconsin offered their own theories on cause-and-effect. Those included the influence of an extended rut, older bucks finding themselves more run down from the rut and an EHD breakout that was documented the previous year in one reader's home area.  

If you found December sheds this hunting season, we’d like to hear about it. Leave a note in the comments below or send an email to amy.hatfield@grandviewoutdoors.com.


Featured photo: Bernie Barringer

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