Culling Bucks for Herd Improvement: The Ability to Age Deer is Key

I believe there will always be controversy around the culling of white-tailed bucks. It’s one of those topics that never seems to be put to rest. I do feel like the term “cull buck” is way over used, often by hunters as a way to justify the death of the buck they just harvested. The number one problem for most hunters who want to employ culling practices to create a high-quality deer hunting property lies not only in having the opportunity to see and shoot the right bucks, but possessing the ability to precisely identify the age of the deer standing in front of them.

There is a substantial difference between a yearling buck with 8 antler points and a 4 1/2 year old buck with 8 antler points. Sure, most hunters can identify as yearling (1 1/2 year old) buck because they look like does with little antlers. Although these bucks can have from 2 to 10 points, it’s still an easy game to because their bodies are so small compared to older bucks. But after that buck tacks on another year or two in age, then the ability to age that deer on the hoof becomes a lot more complicated.

For example, go ahead and jump on any hunting forum and check out the photo section. There are, without a doubt, game camera photos featuring bucks. The person posting each of the photos will probably be requesting estimates with regards to the buck’s age and score. The most common guess will be 3 1/2 years of age, regardless of whether it’s actually at 2 1/2 year old or a 5 1/2 year old buck. But to be fair, there are a lot of photos of 3 1/2 year old bucks floating around, which is probably representative of the deer herd that hunters are hunting.

Speaking of game cameras, they are a great tool that should be used to help us age deer in the field. For culling to be effective, it also boils down to correctly aging the bucks that we come into contact on our hunting properties. If we do not have the ability to age bucks before pulling the trigger, then the error will be culling deer simply based on antler size. The fact of the matter is that the culling of whitetail bucks should based on both age and antler size, says Dr. Charles DeYoung, a research biologist with the Caesar Kleberg Research Center in Kingsville, Texas.

“It’s fairly easy to tell if a buck is a yearling, but once they get up in the 2- to 3-year-old range, it gets more difficult to accurately estimate their age,” DeYoung says. “I can think of several bucks I estimated to be 2 or 3 only to find out they were 6 when I examined their teeth.” That’s why it’s virtually impossible to judge a deer’s age or potential simply by examining antler points, shape or mass and then deciding if it’s a cull buck. It takes being familiar with deer body characteristics, which varies by area, but even that still leaves you making an educated guess.

For the average hunter that does not deal with white-tailed deer day-in and day-out the best thing we can do is harvest the bucks that we consider shooters and let the others walk. This will vary by area and by hunter. A shooter buck to one hunter may not be a shooter to another hunter. Try to harvest the ones that meet your personal criteria and leave the bucks that do not. Besides, there’s no guarantee that a “cull buck” that appears inferior because of uneven or unusual antlers will remain that way. They might, but the average hunter really has no way of knowing if a deformed antler is the result of poor genetics or just an untimely accident. Of course, if it’s observed in subsequent hunting seasons then it can make the decision quite easy.

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