MISSISSIPPI STATE, Miss. — Long before a hunter can display a trophy buck on the wall, a landowner somewhere had to follow a plan that encouraged that buck's growth.

Quality deer management is the strategy used to produce big deer by controlling the environment and deer population. The goal is to produce older bucks with big antlers.

Ben West, assistant professor of wildlife with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said unmanaged deer populations grow large and tend not to produce the trophy bucks.

"Most hunters in Mississippi want to see big bucks and want a chance to harvest a big buck," West said. "Bucks reach their peak antler size around five to six years of age, then decline in size after that."

West said quality deer management involves three concepts.

"First, allow the bucks to become mature," West said. "This is tough for some hunters because it means they have to let some two- and three-year-old deer pass without harvesting them. They already have large antlers, but you have to remember they have not maximized yet, so you have to be willing to let those deer walk."

While hunters have to let larger, young bucks walk away, they do need to harvest does to keep the population in check.

"As the population becomes larger, there are fewer resources and less nutrition to go around," West said. "It becomes limiting and makes it more difficult for bucks to get the nutrition they need to grow large antlers."

Many years ago, poor management nearly wiped out the deer population in the Southeast. To help restore deer numbers, laws prohibited the harvest of does. Those restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, but many hunters still are hesitant to shoot does. With too many does, the deer population in an area can grow rapidly.

"What most people want is a population where the number of does and bucks is about the same," West said. "You achieve this by harvesting does."

The third part of quality deer management is habitat management. West said most landowners in Mississippi spend too much time thinking of what they can plant rather than managing what they have year-round to optimize nutrition for deer.

"Food plots are one strategy that landowners can use, but prescribed burning and timber management give more bang for your buck," West said. "Many native plants are excellent forage for deer. Timber harvest creates open areas where native plants can grow, and prescribed burnings often stimulate the growth of grasses and herbaceous plants that attract deer."

West said the best deer management plan is one that controls at least 1,000 acres. Adjoining landowners can form wildlife management associations to work together to meet deer management goals.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks offers the Deer Management Assistance Program. This is a free service where biologists make specific recommendations for deer management based on goals and objectives of the landowner and the data provided.

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.