“Ageing Deer” (Breakthrough Magazine) fall 2011-issue 103

“Quite often we encounter a non-taxidermy idea or processes that can be of value to taxidermists. A recent contact with writer Rick Asmus and his association with a company that offers cementum-aging service is one of those encounters. This process, which is the most accurate way of aging deer, is a perfect way of enhancing customer relations. Our friend and subscriber, Kip Adams with the Quality Deer Management Association, frequently writes in the QDMA magazine, Quality Whitetails, about the accuracy and value of this process. Many years ago I wrote an article on the process of aging deer by tooth wear and the value of this knowledge for customer relations. The cementum method, a more exact process, is now affordable and is definitely something to consider. We felt it would be good to learn how the process is done and a good service you can offer your customers.”

How old do you think he is? This is a question that is almost certainly asked by every person that brings a trophy whitetail to be mounted by his taxidermist. And why is that question being asked when a hunter already has his prize rack on the ground? Because positively knowing a whitetails age is important to the hunter, and being accurate is getting to be more important with each passing year. And that’s why getting that exact age can make a win-win situation for you and as well as your customers.

Deer hunting for many is a total “experience”, from the planning stage ( food plots, trail cams, topo maps and scouting, to the hunt, with all of it’s details and memories, and then, if successful, on to the taxidermist for the lucky hunter. And knowing the exact age of their trophy adds to that “experience” for hunters. A trophy deer that has accumulated some years adds another dimension of pride to a hunters accomplishment and can add value for the taxidermist as well.

How then can you get a true reading on a deers age? Well when it comes to aging deer there are several ideas out there, but “tooth wear”is most often used. But as John Ozoga. famed outdoor writer, and whitetail research biologist as well as former Research Editor for “Deer and Deer Hunting” stated, “Tooth wear” is not a very accurate aging technique for deer over 2 ½ years of age. I recommend cementum-aging to anyone who has an older deer and genuinely wants to know how old it is!”.

Tooth wear aging is based on the amount of wear on a whitetails teeth. The problem is that deer are individuals; some deer may chew on one side more than the other or forage in grittier and sandier soils which can cause teeth to wear faster. These factors and others can throw the age estimates off, sometimes way off. Lets take a look at a research study executed out west and see how the experts did.
Six wildlife biologists, 2 from the state of Washington and 4 from Montana participated in aging 126 “known age” whitetails. The study included elk, mule deer and whitetail deer but for the purpose of this article we’ll look only at the whitetail data.

Of 126 whitetails that were evaluated by their tooth wear, 42.9 percent (54 of 126) were aged correctly. There were no fawns in the study group but 2 and 3 year old’s were well represented with 76.1 percent (96 of 126). Of the two and three year old’s the percentage correctly aged was 48.9 percent (47 of 96), less than 50%, with some estimates off by as much as 3 years. You can see by the results of these experts, with just under 43% being correct, that they were not very accurate and in some cases way off the mark.

How does cementum-aging stack up? Well cementum-aging is the very best way to know a bucks age hands down.

For Colby Bettis (“Skipper”), manager of The Legends Ranch in Big Rapids Michigan accurate aging is very important and he knows that the cementum-annuli method produces the best results.
“We like to be as natural as possible so our deer eat what is available to them, not pellets like some managers feed their deer. Tooth wear isn’t always the same, that’s why cross-sectioning the teeth gives us the best results”, cites Colby. The success he has experienced is outstanding.

“We tag some of our fawns so we know exactly how old they are. We then send the teeth from a hundred deer or so a year and have been doing so since the late 80’s. We also send the teeth of the deer that are tagged but don’t give the lab that information. This year their numbers were a bit lower than normal but up until this year the lab was right on 99 out of a 100 of our tagged deer”.

And as Washington state hunter Jon Timmer stated after he had downed a good buck and had the deer aged to satisfy his curiosity,” I couldn’t believe the buck was 11 1/2 years old. Finding he was that old really adds to the pride I have for him”.

So how does it cementum aging work? The first step is the removal of the teeth which is very simple. The two incisors in the center of the bottom jaw are needed. It’s best when the tissue is relatively fresh, just take a knife and make a slice on either side of the tooth and across the bottom where the root lies, then gently wiggle the teeth out being careful not to break the root tip. The tooth is then placed in a small paper envelope and mailed to the aging company for results.

After arriving at the lab the first step is to de-calcify the teeth by soaking them in a weak acid solution. A tooth becomes rubbery like the eraser on the end of a pencil. The teeth are then frozen for ease of cutting and placed in a cryostat. A cryostat is a machine that slices the teeth to a thickness measured in microns. These ultra thin slices of tooth are in turn placed on a slide.
Then a special stain is added to die the wafer thin slice of tooth and enhance it for viewing. A second glass slide is placed on top and the tooth slice is moved to a high power microscope for viewing by a technician. At this point the rings on the teeth will be clearly visible and may be counted just like the rings on a tree.

Each ring represents what scientists believe to be a line of stress. Perhaps it’s the animal’s response to an oncoming winter or it’s reaction to the stresses created by the breeding season. Biologists aren’t exactly sure why the rings form, but they do know that they form at regular yearly intervals.

Most teeth are very easy to read but occasionally there will be some noise in a tissue sample. Noise is a word for a ring that isn’t completely clear. If there is enough noise in a tooth it may create an error in aging but that doesn’t happen often with the cementum-annuli method.

So how does offering a service like aging your customers deer add value for the customer and the taxidermist?

Well Ted Pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Taxidermy in Menahga, Minnesota started providing an aging service for his customers 2 years ago. The service has grown from a few the first year to 35 last season.
Ted stated,”It’s not just about inches anymore but age as well! Heck I got guys calling me to see if I’ve gotten the age back on their buck even though they know their mount isn’t ready. I’ve also noticed that because of the added contact the aging service allows me more of a relationship with the hunter, it’s not just about dollars and cents anymore.”

I was told by several taxidermists that all things being equal in terms of quality of workmanship that it came down to the service a taxidermist can offer a customer and that’s just why offering an aging service is a great add-on service for taxidermists.

Dale Selby of “Wildlife Taxidermy” said, “ I can offer my customers something they really appreciate with the aging.”

The first year Dale offered the aging service he wasn’t all that familiar with it so he presented it in a low-keyed way to his customers with only three taking the service. After he saw the excitement it created for those customers his approach was full steam ahead.

Last year Dale had 28 customers that wanted the service.”I had a Certificate of Authenticity on my counter and showed it to my customers telling them there’s a place in Michigan that takes the two bottom teeth and counts the rings on the teeth to tell you how old your deer really is, and I told them it only costs about as much as a couple of drinks while pointing at the Certificate of Authenticity.”
The results were that eight out of ten hunters wanted the service.

Cost for the service is a reasonable $16.00 per buck which includes a “Certificate of Authenticity”. A very cool document for hanging and displaying the age of the buck. Some taxidermists offer the service at cost while others mark it up as they see fit. The bottom line is it adds value for any hunter with a trophy buck.

As Joe Edlund, a chiropractor from Minnesota stated,”It gives me more contact with my taxidermist and I truly know how old my deer really is”.

So if you would like to retain your customers, increase the bottom line and offer a service that gives your customers the exact age of their trophy, offering an aging service might be the ticket. For more information go to ageyourdeer.com or call Whitetail Labs at 989-739-0903.