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Half-Rack and Broken Beam Bucks
May 22, 2018

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Last year, I got more trail camera photos of half-rack and broken-beam bucks than ever before. I was hunting an area with doe-to-buck ratios in the range of two-to-one, at most, which meant that bucks had to fight harder for the right to breed. The result was that by first week of November, spotting a half-rack or a buck with a busted antler became fairly common.

The disheartening part was that some of the bucks were ones I'd considered shooters. One of them, a heavy-antlered six-year-old, was by all measures a trophy whitetail. His right side was completely gone, and although his remaining left side had five points, I didn't know if I could pull the trigger if I found him in my sights. Part of me knew I'd be disappointed to harvest him, and no matter how much of a trophy that deer would still be, I'd lament the loss of that other side. Deep down, I couldn't appreciate the animal the way it deserved to be appreciated. Fortunately, I never saw that buck while hunting, so I never had to make the crucial decision to pass or shoot.

It's hard to know what to do with a half-rack or broken-beam buck. It's equally hard to anticipate what will happen to that buck over winter, or how its injuries will affect its rack the next growing season. Will the buck recover and grow similar (and hopefully bigger) headgear next year?

There's no clear answer to that question. A lot depends on any damage to the deer's antlerogenic periosteum, which includes the pedicle and surrounding areas of the frontal bone. Any damage to this area can result in non-typical, and often stunted, growth.

Have you ever seen a buck with four perfect points on one side but only a spike on the other? We all have, I suppose, and I'm sure most of us have viewed that as a sign of poor genetics. Outfitters and deer managers even have a name for these deer: cull bucks. Cull bucks are seen as genetically inferior deer that should be removed from the herd before breeding. In truth, removing them from the herd does little to improve genes because the deformity typically has nothing to do with genetics in the first place. It was most likely caused by some sort of injury to the body, skeleton, or pedicle.

Several years ago, I killed one of these bucks in Ohio. It had four perfect points on its right side but only a blade-like spike on the left. When I cut off the skull cap, sure enough, on the side with the spike, there was a pocket of green pus in the pedicle that extended deep into the bone. A common belief is that a deer like that will never recover and grow a typical rack again, but that's not necessarily true. Research has shown that even bucks with substantial pedicle injuries can recover as quickly as the following year, and in some cases two or three years down the road.

Before deciding whether or not to cull an "inferior" buck from the herd, consider that deer's history, including its previous antlers. If it grew a typical rack the first two years of its life and then one side suddenly grows stunted, genetics might not be at fault. It's possible the deer's pedicle had been injured the previous fall.

If a yearling buck has stunted antlers on one side, the injury could have been to its body or skeleton, and if given enough time, it could heal and eventually grow typical antlers, too. Which is why cull bucks don't become cull bucks until they reach full maturity. Only after a deer reaches prime age is its potential known.

Considering how violent some fights can be, it's amazing bucks don't sustain injuries more often than they do. Try breaking the main beam of even a small rack with your bare hands. Unless you're a lumberjack, or can find the right leverage, it's very difficult. Likewise, it's difficult to pry an attached antler off of a pedicle. Yet, when bucks fight, they seem to do both with ease, so imagine the trauma incurred when they violently lock antlers.

Even a buck that emerges from a fight seemingly unscathed can suffer consequences later on. Any trauma to the antlerogenic periosteum can affect how that buck eventually sheds its antlers. Damage to the pedicle can produce a cast antler that fails to separate cleanly from its base. In some cases, the bottom of the antler can appear jagged and even contain dried, hardened fragments of the pedicle. Ideally, the surviving deer's pedicle will heal in time before the new antler regenerates, but if it doesn't, it can produce a stunted, non-typical side.

Of course, not all half-rack bucks are victims of the rut. Some lose a side or break their beams while still in velvet, before the antler has had time to harden. This can happen while sparring with other bucks or by inadvertently bumping against hard objects.

In the case of broken beams, the roundness of the remaining point or beam can sometimes tell a lot about when the break happened. If it's rubbed smooth and heavily-rounded, chances are it occurred before the deer shed its velvet or very soon afterward. Sharp, jagged edges indicate a recent break.

The more balanced the doe-to-buck ratio, the harder bucks must compete for receptive does. Next time you see a buck missing one antler or sporting a broken beam, keep in mind that love isn't easy, and some bucks will continue paying for the right to breed long after the fight has ended.

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