Editors Blog

Dan Schmidt: Can Brutally Cold Weather Affect When Bucks Shed Antlers?

This season's brutal cold temperatures are adding up quickly. The result: Stress on the deer herd, which means many bucks are losing their antlers more than a month earlier than normal. (photo courtesy of Michael Solberg)

This season’s brutal cold temperatures are adding up quickly. The result: Stress on the deer herd, which means many bucks are losing their antlers more than a month earlier than normal. (photo courtesy of Michael Solberg)

As we head into March, scenes like this (above photo) are now common, as well more than 50 percent of the bucks have shed their antlers in the upper Midwest. In other areas of the country, most bucks have shed their antlers by now. There were several cases of bucks shedding their antlers in January. I’m speculating off of years of experience here, but I’d attribute almost all of these cases to environmental stress on the deer herd.

A common question that we get here at Deer & Deer Hunting goes something like this:

“I’m guessing low stress and a mild winter helps bucks hold onto their antlers longer?”

In general, the answer to that question is a qualified “no.”

Low stress and good nutrition can prolong deer to hold their antlers, but not usually. Of course, nothing is absolute when it comes to whitetails. Interestingly, bucks will shed their antlers (we’re talking adult bucks here) nearly the same time every year. Charles Alsheimer has documented this phenomenon in Deer & Deer Hunting many times over the past 30+ years. When bucks get beyond 4 years old, Alsheimer said they will shed almost to the same date every year — give or take a day or two. Shedding is a genetic predisposition that way.

Now, during really severe winters, mostly during severe nutritional stress, bucks can and do shed their antlers earlier. The overall health of the individual animal plays a big role in these cases. But, all things being equal, an adult buck that sheds his antlers the last week of February this year will most likely shed during that same week for the rest of his life. Yearling bucks are a different story, as they have yet to reach maximum skeletal capacity.

What about deer health in winter?

During normal years, whitetails can withstand almost anything Mother Nature dishes out. Their breaking points, however, are deep winter snow depths and brutally cold temperatures. The 2013/2014 winter was a doozy in many Upper Midwest and Northeast states. This year’s weather has been harsh, but nothing close to what could be considered harsh on the deer herd in general.

Many decades ago, biologists in Minnesota and Wisconsin set out to learn more about winter’s wrath on the whitetail herd. During their studies, the researchers found a direct link between snow depth, wind-chill temperatures and winter dieoffs among whitetails. They also came up with a formula for predicting how bad any given winter would have on the deer herd. It’s called the “Winter Severity Index.” Here’s how it came to be, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources:

“Prior to 1975, Wisconsin did not have a formal procedure for measuring winter severity and predicting its impact on deer herds. Michigan had developed a severity index that used calorimeters to estimate a winter air-chill factor, and snow depth and sinking-depth measurements to estimate a snow-hazard factor (Verme 1968). The air-chill and snow-hazard factors were summed at the end of each week to derive a cumulative severity index. Ontario was using the Passmore-Hepburn Method, which also involved collecting relatively complex snow measurements (Passmore and Hepburn 1955). Our winter severity index (WSI) was developed after testing several procedures for quantifying winter conditions (Kohn 1975). It used the number of days with a minimum temperature of 0°F as a measure of winter air-chill, and the number of days with 18 inches of snow on the ground to estimate the snow hazard. Days when both conditions occurred are scored as 2. These are added together from 1 December through 30 April to obtain the WSI.”

Winters are considered “mild” if the calculated WSI is less than 50, “moderate” if it is between 50 and 80, “severe” if it is between 80 and 100, and “very severe” if the WSI exceeds 100.

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As you can see, last year was bad. Really bad in some areas of northern Wisconsin. What about this year? Not so much. It’s been incredibly mild, based off the numbers so far:

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Throw in one heavy snowfall in March (or even April) — and continued below-zero temps — and we’ll be looking at slight winter die-offs of last year’s fawns, older bucks and, in some cases, even mature does, but nothing to get too alarmed about.

Let’s just hope winter’s worse is already behind us and an early spring is in the cards.

Check out these shed-hunting resources from Deer & Deer Hunting:


How to train your dog to find shed antlers

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Shed antler wax.

7 thoughts on “Dan Schmidt: Can Brutally Cold Weather Affect When Bucks Shed Antlers?

  1. D&DH Editor Dan Schmidt Post author

    White antlers are more the result of bleaching from the sun. Antlers become this color especially in winter because of the low daily activity combined with deer seeking sunlight while bedding. Antler coloration in fall has more to do with the tree and shrub species in which bucks rub their antlers.

  2. exaltedjbowtech

    All the bucks i have seen in the past month are supporting antlers as white as paper could this be do the fact of low nutrients amd long holding period let me know what think

  3. exaltedjbowtech

    Hey Dan also ever buck ive seen the past month, well all they’re antlers are white as paper can this be a lack of nutrients going to the antlers because they are late dropping what do you think ,,,, thanks dan

  4. D&DH Editor Dan Schmidt Post author

    This year has been quite the exception, hasn’t it? We haven’t had one like this, that I can recall anyway, since 1977. Going to take a toll on herds across the country, no doubt. -DS

  5. exaltedjbowtech

    Hi dan, as for brutal temps causing antlers to shed a month early i strongly disagree,,, its feb 27th and.i am located in north east ohio i have been shed hunting for over a month now and found 1 and in the past two weeks ive encountered 15 mature whitetails still holding antlers

  6. exaltedjbowtech

    Also dan another factor that is far from the truth is you claim brutal cold temps cause antlers to shed a month early well i have to disagree bud…..today is feb 27 im located in north east ohio I’ve been out shed hunting over a month so far and found 1 and in the last two weeks ive spotted over 15 mature deer still supporting both antlers .

  7. NWWI


    This couldnt be farther from the truth. Have you looked at the NOAA snow cover map online? A couple MILLION acres of Northern Wisconsin has between 20 and 50″ of snow on the ground right now. They have had 20″+ on the ground for 6 weeks or longer. I know because I havent been able to get into my Deer Camp in Douglas county because it too deep for my truck.

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