Minerals, Minerals, Minerals...

By Matt Harper

“Look at the mass on that brute. He’s got Coke cans coming out of his head,” my buddy said. My over-excited buddy was looking at some trail camera pictures from a card we had just pulled on a camera set up overlooking a mineral site on my farm.
I was mindlessly looking at some aerial photos of food plots, and Andy was giving me a fever pitched commentary on what we had photo captured over the past couple of weeks. Well, I have heard “Coke cans,” or more accurately “beer cans” (go figure), many times. It takes a pretty dang big base to even come close to the circumference of a Coke can. So I pondered my map a bit more because after the 300th look at it I might see something different, and only after the third urging did I saunter over to take a peek. My mouth hit the floor. I could almost read Miller Brewing Co. between the burr and brow tine.

I have to admit, I am a sucker for heavy, massive antlers. Sure, width looks cool, and tall tines jack up your score, but personally a buck with cranial bone that looks like a medieval skull crusher fires me up. I have been fortunate enough to take a small handful of these heavy-boned critters, and each time I do, it never ceases to amaze me how much mineral it must have taken to build such a monstrosity. That’s right, I said mineral. You might have guessed that I would have said protein because, after all, protein is what everyone talks about when it comes to antler growth. Protein nutrition is critical, but it is only one of the rack-building components. There are actually several nutrients involved in antler growth, but one of the major components is mineral. In fact, if you were to analyze a hardened antler, you would find that it is made up of 55 percent mineral and 45 percent protein.

While mineral nutrition has not received as much press as protein through the years, more people are realizing the benefit of mineral supplementation. For years, ranchers and farmers have fed supplementation mineral to cows and saw the positive effects of heavier body weights, faster growing calves, improved overall health, higher milk production, improved breeding success rates and much more. Considering that the mineral needs of cattle are actually lower (based on body weight) than a lactating doe or a buck during antler growth, it would make sense that mineral supplementation could benefit deer as well. The lack of talk amongst the scientific community about mineral supplementation in whitetail deer is caused by the difficulty in traditional mineral studies on a wild animal.

The way the mineral testing protocols are designed, all other variables must be taken away, and only the specific mineral in question is altered to find a result. Obviously, studying free-ranging whitetails would present a multitude of variables, so most researchers say that the benefits of mineral supplementation cannot be definitively proven, at least by traditional methods. However, after that official line is uttered, most would agree that from a nutritional, biological and physiological standpoint, supplemental minerals would very likely produce positive results. I have done academic research, and I understand the rules that must be followed and don’t necessarily disagree with them in principle. However, I also lean toward common sense thinking, and from that perspective, mineral supplementation, without question, is beneficial.

Again, the benefit of mineral supplementation has been proven time and again in livestock, and considering the mineral needs of deer are higher than that of all major livestock species, it goes without saying that mineral supplementation in deer would produce positive results. But it is not just theoretical comparisons that prove the benefit of mineral supplementation. There are also a multitude of hard facts.

First, if you take a map of the United States that depicts the mineral content of the soil by region and then over-lay a map from Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett, you will see that they nearly match. Where soils are high in mineral, big bucks are found. Even if you break it down to properties within a region, you will find that the farms with the highest mineral content regularly produce bigger bucks. Have you ever heard someone say that river bottoms are where the big bucks live? There are a couple of reasons for this. First, cover tends to be better along rivers and creeks, and second, river and creek bottoms have a higher mineral content because of water-induced erosion that builds up mineral over time.

In my opinion the most telling example of the benefits of mineral is the results hunters and managers have experienced through the years when using a professionally formulated mineral supplement. Several years ago, Whitetail Institute introduced Imperial 30- 06 Mineral/Vitamin Supplement followed by Imperial 30-06 Plus Protein and later Cutting Edge Nutritional Supplements. Testimonials immediately started pouring in from every region of the country where whitetails live. “See bigger-bodied deer,” “fawns bigger and healthier,” “antler mass is bigger than we have ever seen” and so on. Year after year, and from all whitetail regions, these testimonials flood into the offices at Whitetail Institute. The enormous data set derived from all of these testimonials effectively removes most of the variables that clouds the answer that mineral supplementation is beneficial.

OK, so we know that mineral supplementation can be beneficial in several ways to a deer herd. But what is the mode of action? How does it work, and why is it needed? Let’s tackle the why first. Can deer survive without mineral supplements? Of course, deer can and have for thousands of years. Can deer survive without mineral in the diet? Absolutely not. Mineral intake is essential for a deer’s life.

But if you are concerned about more than mere survivability and instead want to improve the quality of the deer herd through nutrition, mineral supplementation is something to consider. It goes without saying that the better the nutritional plane of a deer herd, the higher the quality that deer herd will be. So if are wanting to try and improve deer body weights, fawn survivability or antler growth from their current levels, you will have to improve the nutritional plane, part of which is mineral content in the diet. Minerals have a host of functions that are directly and indirectly involved in the aforementioned herd characteristics.

I am not going to delve into each one of these, but the reference chart above explains the specific functions of minerals. Deer naturally obtain mineral from the soil via the vegetation they consume or in some cases directly from the dirt. Mineral content of soils varies greatly from region to region and even from farm to farm within a region. This variation is based on several factors, such as the rock/mineral make-up of the soil sub-layers, the age of the soil and erosion just to name a few. Ranching and farming practices also will affect mineral content of the soil. Plants require minerals to grow, and they uptake these out of the soil which in turn can be used by whatever animal consumes the vegetation. Unless properly managed, years of crop production and grazing will lower mineral content of the soil. It is a simple matter of more mineral coming out than what can be replaced, thus the lower mineral level. Therefore, even in highly productive agricultural areas, the soil is likely deficient in one or more nutritionally critical minerals. When managing for high-quality whitetails, one or more deficient minerals in the deer’s diet will result in less than maximum herd productivity.

The mode of action or how minerals function in a deer’s body depends largely on the particular mineral and the specific physiological function. The antler-growing process for example involves several minerals, directly or indirectly. In particular, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and copper play critical roles. Copper is involved in the production of collagen, which is a protein substance that forms the structural matrix of an antler. Calcium and phosphorus are the two most prevalent minerals found in a hardened antler. The transformation of velvet antlers to hardened antlers is accomplished by mineral deposits of calcium, phosphorus and others on the protein matrix of the velvet antler. These mineral deposits do not necessarily come directly from the diet but are pulled from the deer’s skeletal system and deposited in the antler. Antler growth is secondary to body health and condition, so if there are not enough minerals in a deer’s diet to replenish those pulled for antler growth, less mineral will be transported from the skeletal system to the growing antler. This will result in decreased antler density and likely less mass and overall growth. Mineral supplementation helps to ensure that these minerals are adequately available in the diet, and thus the maximum amount can be transported to the growing antler. Understanding how minerals work in a deer’s body, the important roles they play, the likely deficiency in most soils and the overwhelming positive results hunters and managers have realized has created a higher awareness, and more people have starting using mineral supplements.

However, there still remains quite a bit of confusion when it comes to comparing mineral products that are out there on the market. As you probably already know, there are no shortages of them. All have claims of containing nutrients that will “pack on the bone,” or whatever it is that some clever marketing guy came up with. The truth, however, is that a close examination of these products will show some dramatic differences. To compare products, you must first have a general understanding of a few important factors of mineral supplements. Consider ratios. You might have heard or read something about calcium-to-phosphorus ratios. Minerals have complicated interactions amongst themselves, and each is only effective if formulated in the right ratios. In other words, you need so many parts of this one and so many parts of another one and so on. Think of it as a recipe, which is really what a mineral formula is. Too much calcium to phosphorus, or vice versa, will result in both being less effective. However, it does not stop with calcium and phosphorus. All minerals, macro and trace, have complicated interactions that must be considered when putting the recipe together. The particular form or compound that is used as a mineral source is also important. For instance, copper sulfate is far more digestible than copper oxide. The actual level of each mineral is also a key factor. There are products on the market saying that they contain 30-some odd minerals vital to antler growth but upon examination, you will find that the levels are often only .00001 percent or some such craziness, which amounts to basically zip when it comes to actual benefit. Finally, consumption is critical. Deer have to eat enough of the mineral to get the appropriate levels. So you need the right formulation with the right ratios, from the right sources with proper amounts all combined with targeted amount of consumption. Pretty simple huh? If you haven’t started a mineral supplementation program on your hunting property and it is legal in the state where you live, I would highly encourage you to start. I put out my first 30-06 Mineral/Vitamin Supplement several years ago and continue using mineral/vitamin supplements to this day. Even though I live in a highly productive agricultural area, the results I have seen have been dramatic and consistent. Higher body weights, heavier and healthier fawns and, yes, more massively big antlers. Food plots are important, and I have several acres of them on my farms. But I also realize the importance of the second piece of the puzzle of “packin’ on the bone,” is mineral/vitamin supplements.