This is the video transcript. To watch the video for this episode click here.
GRANT: Even throughout my professional career – literally from Florida to Canada – I’ve heard hunters say, “Well, I don’t hunt so and so, because they’ve got bad genetics in that area.” There’s no doubt about it, many of those observations are correct. States like Mississippi have areas where deer traditionally produce large bodies and large antlers. Other areas within the same state, and sometimes, not very far away, produce deer with much smaller bodies and much smaller antlers.
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GRANT: Staying with the example from Mississippi, deer along the Mississippi River tend to have large bodies and antlers. And I’ve heard a lot of hunters say, “Well, that’s due to those northern bucks going up and down the river and spreading their genetics.”
GRANT: For more than 25 years, almost every year without exception, I’ve been attending the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. It’s a scientific meeting held every year in a different state where three to 400 deer biologists get together and share the latest research. And this year, one presentation really caught my attention. That presentation was by Eric Michel. He’s finishing his Ph.D at Mississippi State University. The subject of his research is exactly what we’ve been talking about and he’s agreed to share his research and his very interesting findings with the GrowingDeer Team.
ERIC: Thanks, Grant. By using harvest data from the Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP, we know that we have huge differences in body and antler size of deer across the state of Mississippi.
ERIC: For example, when we’re looking at differences in body weight, we know that, generally, bucks that are harvested in good quality soil region are heavier than bucks that are harvested in a poorer quality soil region, with there being about a 41 pound difference, on average, at three years of age, between these two regions. When we’re looking at antler score, we say, see the same similar trend, with bucks that are generally harvested in a good quality soil region being larger than bucks that are harvested in a poorer quality soil region, again, with there being about a 25 inch difference in antler size between the two regions.
ERIC: Now, those are huge differences and landowners and hunters from the poor quality soil region are very concerned with how much smaller their deer are that they’re harvesting in that part of the state. They thought that they knew what was causing that issue. They thought that they had deer that had inferior genetics in that part of the state and all they needed to do was to bring in some genetically superior bucks from across the country to breed out the problem.
ERIC: Well, we also know that there’s quite a bit of difference in the land use associated with these different soil qualities. So for example, the primary land use in the good quality soil region is agriculture. And again, the primary land use in the medium quality soil region is, again, agriculture, although, it’s not quite as common as what we see in the good quality soil region. However, we have really sandy soils in the poor quality soil region, which really limits the land use to pine production. So as biologists, we understand this basic relationship between land use and antler and body size of deer. However, we can’t totally dismiss the influence of genetics on antler and body size.
ERIC: So that’s why we need to develop this study where we get to actually tell whether or not the differences that we see in antler and body size in the wild are due to differences in nutrition or are they due to differences in genetics.
ERIC: In a free ranging, wild deer herd, there’s generally two things that we can control, as managers. Those two things being age and nutrition. Obviously, we can control age by only harvesting deer of a certain age class. We can, we can control nutrition through habitat management. So if you control age, and you control the nutrition and level the playing field for all deer, if we see that deer from the medium quality soil regions and the poor quality soil regions catch up and grow antler and body sizes as large as deer from the good quality soil region, then, we know that the differences that we’re seeing are due to differences in nutrition. However, after leveling the playing field and controlling age and nutrition, if we don’t see increases in antler and body size for deer from the medium and poor quality soil regions, then, we know that genetics actually had something more to do with these differences.
ERIC: So, in order to control age and nutrition, we went out and started capturing deer in 2004, with the help of Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. We captured these deer from the wild and brought ‘em back to our research facility here in Mississippi State.
ERIC: Each day, during the summer, we would search our pens for fawns. When we found a fawn, we would take a body weight measurement on it, and we’d tag it. We’d then go ahead and sedate those animals in the fall as, as adults, so we could take another body weight measurement, and also, measure their antlers.
ERIC: We allow these animals to breed within their specific regions. So for example, bucks from a good quality soil region were only breeding does from the good quality soil region, and so on, and so forth. And we allow these animals to produce two generations of offspring. The first generation of offspring were simply fawns that are produced from wild born adults. Those, those fawns were then raised on a high quality 20% crude protein diet throughout their life.
ERIC: Our second generation fawns were simply fawns that are produced from the first generation parents, and again, raised on that high quality diet.
ERIC: Now, it’s important to remember that the second generation fawns, not only were they raised on a high quality diet, but so were their parents.
ERIC: So what do we find with our results? Are the differences in body and antler size that we see in the wild here in Mississippi due to differences in nutrition or are they due to differences in genetics?
ERIC: Well, first, let’s look at body weight. In this graph, we’re looking at that same harvest data that I showed at the beginning of the presentation. And this is gonna serve as a reference for comparison to our other two generations.
ERIC: So after one generation of improved nutrition – again, our first generation fawns being produced by wild born adults and raised on a high quality diet – we saw some improvements in body weight for the good and medium quality soil regions, with both regions increasing about nine pounds after that one generation of improved nutrition. However, we only saw minimal improvements in body weight from bucks from the poor quality soil region, with there only being about a pound difference compared to their wild harvested counterparts.
ERIC: Now, with our second generation – remember our second generation fawns were produced from first generation parents and raised on high quality diet, so now we had two generations of offspring that were raised on this high quality diet – after that, we saw huge increases in body weight, with there being about a 35 pound increase from first to second generation for bucks from our poor quality soil region. Again, we saw an additional 11 pound increase from first to second generation for bucks from our medium quality soil region.
ERIC: Now, we were expecting those types of dramatic increases from our medium and poor quality soil region bucks but we weren’t expecting a 24 pound increase from bucks from our good quality soil region. If you remember, bucks from the good quality soil region generally have agriculture as a primary land use, so they have a lot of really high quality, high abundant food in the wild. So we didn’t think there was much room for improvement for those animals.
ERIC: However, if you compare, our second generation bucks from the medium and poor quality soil region to the wild harvested bucks from the good quality soil region, they caught up. There’s really no much, there’s no longer a difference in body weight among the three soil regions. So we saw minimal improvements after one generation of improved nutrition for bucks from the poor quality soil region, and some pretty large improvements after one generation of improved nutrition for bucks for the good and medium quality soil regions. But after two generations, all three soil regions, uh, really increased their body weights.
ERIC: So how did we do with antlers? Well, again, in this graph, we’re looking at that same harvest data that I showed at the beginning of the presentation, and again, we’ll use this for comparison to our two generations.
ERIC: So after one generation of improved nutrition, we saw huge increases in antler size for bucks with medium and poor quality soil regions, with there being about a 12 inch increase for bucks from the poor quality soil region, and about a seven inch increase for bucks from the medium quality soil region. And that seven inch increase for bucks for the medium quality soil region actually allowed them to catch up to bucks from the good quality soil region. So after one generation of improved nutrition, there’s no longer a real difference in antler score between bucks from the good and medium quality soil regions. However, we still had quite a bit of ground to make up from bucks from the poor quality soil region, even though they experienced a 12 inch increase.
ERIC: So next, let’s, let’s look at our second generation bucks for antler score. After two generations of improved nutrition, we saw a huge increase in antler score from bucks from the poor quality soil region, with those bucks increasing about 21 inches from first to second generation. And when compared to the other two regions, there’s no longer a difference in antler score among the three regions, uh, of bucks. So we saw bucks from the medium and poor quality soil regions actually catch up, and now, are as large and growing large, as large antlers as compared to bucks from the good quality soil region.
ERIC: So let’s review those results real quick. Well, we saw that after two generations of improved nutrition, there’s no longer a difference in antler or body size from bucks from all three regions. So they’re able to catch up after we gave them a high quality diet. So we know that the differences in antler and body size that we see in the wild are due to differences in nutrition and not differences in genetics. But we also saw a continued increase in antler and body size across two generations for deer for each region, so we really don’t know what the upper limit is for antler and body size for deer in Mississippi.
ERIC: Well, why did it take so long? It took two full generations to see animals from the medium and poor quality soil regions fully catch up. Well, anytime there’s a nutritional limitation in the wild and deer are exposed to this limitation for multiple generations, they’re going to adapt their antler and body sizes to fit that quality nutrition that they have available. So when you start to reverse that trend and start to improve the quality of habitat and quality of nutrition that these deer have available, it’s still gonna take generations for them to adapt antler and body sizes that fits that high quality nutrition that they now have available.
ERIC: So how do we start to reverse that trend, so you can start producing as large of animals as possible on your property? Well, we know that nutrition is often times limiting, so you have to ensure that there’s a high quality forage and high quality nutrition available year round on your property. Here at the MSU Deer Lab, we always promote doing this through quality habitat management practices, such as timber stand improvement, and prescribed burns, and supplemental food plantings. Well, whatever method you chose to do, you have to ensure that there’s a high quality forage available year round for these animals, in order for them to express their potential.
ERIC: We also have to start managing our expectations about the amount of time it’s gonna take to see these drastic improvements. When you increase the quality of forage available to these animals, you will see some immediate improvements. But in order to see the dramatic improvements that we report here, it’s gonna take generations, so you really need to start managing those expectations about the amount of time it’ll take to see some of these dramatic improvements that we’ve shown.
ERIC: And finally, we need to adjust the original concern of our landowners from the poor quality soil region. Remember, they thought that deer in that part of the state had inferior genetics, and that’s why they were producing smaller antlers and body sizes compared to deer from the rest of the state. And they thought their, they could solve this problem by just bringing in some genetically superior bucks and allowing them to breed out this problem.
ERIC: We’ve shown that our genetics in Mississippi is just fine. We don’t need to bring in any genetically superior deer. As hunters, we need to worry less about genetics and more about nutrition. If we can do this, and manage our expectations about the amount of time it’ll take to see improvements, we’ll do just fine.
ERIC: Funding for this research was provided by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, using resources through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which is a federal excise tax in firearms and ammunition. If you’d like to learn more about the type of research that we do here at the MSU Deer Lab, visit our website at MSUdeerlab.com.
GRANT: I think Eric pretty much drove a nail in the coffin that deer in certain areas are larger just because they have different, or better, genetics. This is great news for hunters throughout the whitetails’ range. Most of us could work where we hunt to do better native habitat management – add some food plots, use prescribed fire, whatever it is, and increase the quality of forage in our area, knowing that over time we’ll grow deer that have larger antlers and bigger bodies.
SETH: Look at that. Wow. That is cool. What a beauty.
GRANT: In a nutshell, it all starts in the dirt, and that’s what we’ve been talking a lot about here at GrowingDeer.tv. Plants are nutrient transfer agents. Some plants are better transfer agents than others – like soybeans, for example – but if the nutrients aren’t in the dirt, it can’t transfer ‘em to the deer. And good soil management is good deer management.
GRANT: I would like to thank Eric, and Doctors Bronson and Demarais at Mississippi State for sharing their great research. You can click on this link, to go to their website and find out more about the good research at Mississippi State.
GRANT: I hope this puts the genetics argument to bed. I hope it inspires you to go outside and improve the habitat, wherever you hunt, knowing that in time, you’ll produce deer with bigger antlers and larger bodies. But most importantly, take time each day to enjoy Creation and listen to what the Creator is saying to you. Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.tv.