Deer and elk antlers are true bone, with the velvet that envelops the growing antler being a modified extension of normal skin of the head. The growing antler is the fastest-growing postnatal bone known. The antlers grow from permanent bony structures, on the skull called pedicles. When antlers are shed, a small segment of the outer portion of the pedicle is lost. This shortens the outer, more than the inner, length of the pedicle, which causes the antler beams to have a greater and greater spread each year.
Antler growth begins when blood testosterone concentrations increase, just as greatly reduced testosterone levels trigger antler shedding. Length of daylight influences changes in testosterone level. Elk antlers in mature bulls begin to regrow as soon as they are shed in February or March.
Deer antlers are shed earlier and scab over for a couple of months before regrowth begins. Antlers of mature bull elk weigh 40 50 pounds, but deer antlers usually weigh less than 10 pounds each.
Deer and elk depend on their habitat for sustenance and production. The quality of that habitat is a direct reflection on the quality of the herd. Competition directly affects the ability of deer and elk to capitalize on the quality of habitat. It is important to understand that competition occurs only when a commodity is limited. The mere presence of other animals does not mean competition is occurring, but when other animals, both wild and domestic, are trying to get the same scarce resource, the benefits of quality habitat will not be realized. Deer are selective feeders. Whereas cattle have a broad, flat muzzle that allows them to clip a large swath of grass, deer have a pointed muzzle that allows them to pick selected forage. This ability allows deer to pick forbs from among grass or to nip or strip specific buds, leaves, or twigs from a shrub. In this way, a deer can select food that is more palatable or higher in nutrition. Elk are between deer and cattle when it comes to selective feeding. The muzzle of an elk, while not as pointed as that of a deer, allows more selective feeding than what cattle can do. Elk will generally eat grass, but they will select forbs if they are available. Elk are primarily grazers and secondarily browsers. Unlike most ruminant grazers, the nutritional needs of elk require that they have higher-quality food than can be obtained through nonselective grazing on grass or grasslike forage. Forbs are the diet components that best allow elk to address their nutritional needs.
Deer and elk are ruminants. They have a four-chambered stomach through which food passes during various stages of digestion. The first chamber, the rumen, contains great quantities of bacteria and protozoa (microflora) that reduce plant materials to nutritional materials. The protozoa are very specialized. Some are able to break down one plant species, while others break down another plant species.
Young deer require 16 20% (dry weight) of their diet as crude protein. Although deer can maintain themselves on diets as low as 8% protein, pregnant and lactating does and bucks growing antlers need the much higher protein level of the growing deer. Elk need 6 7% crude protein in their diet for maintenance, 13 16% for growth, and as much as 20% to maximize weight gain. An advantage of the deer and elk digestive system is that, even though forage protein may vary throughout the year, microbial protein found in the rumen remains of good quality.
Elk and deer expend energy to digest food, to move, to grow, and to reproduce. Additional energy is expended during cold temperatures to stay warm. To maintain condition, all energy must be derived from food eaten each day. When sufficient food is not eaten, such as during rut or severe winter weather, most of the energy must come from body fat.
Ruminants have no need for a dietary source of vitamin C. Vitamin E is attained through consumption of green forage and storage of the vitamin. Vitamin D has a precursor in the body that is activated by the sun. Other vitamins are synthesized within the rumen. Nutritional deficiencies encountered by deer and elk can be traced to energy, nitrogen, or minerals, but not to vitamins.
Minerals are necessary for the growth, development, and metabolism of deer and elk. Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and selenium are usually the minerals of most interest. Because calcium is so important to bones and teeth, it is critical. Calcium can be transported from the bones during times when demand exceeds intake. This may happen during early antler development or during pregnancy and lactation. However, calcium is usually at adequate levels in vegetation.
Phosphorus is important for healthy bones, teeth, and red blood cells. It also aids in the transportation of nutrients throughout the body. In some situations, supplements of phosphorus may be very important. Fertilizing with phosphorus will also increase the amount of phosphorus available in vegetation.
Sodium affects the regulation of pH and plays a role in the transmission of nerve impulses. Deer and elk may use salt blocks or natural salt licks, or drink brackish water, when vegetation is inadequate in sodium. Many types of forage are low in sodium.
Selenium is often espoused as a supplemental mineral that will enhance antlers. However, selenium at too high a level can be toxic. Selenium is required at very low dietary levels. If selenium is absent from the diet, muscular dystrophy can occur.
Other minerals such as potassium, chlorine, magnesium, sulfur, iron, iodine, and copper are very important, but are adequately obtained by deer and elk in common forage plants. Trace minerals such as cobalt, zinc, and manganese are also reported to be at adequate levels in forage.
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