Food For Deer


If you are a deer hunter, blogger or just interested in feeding deer, please join us. We will be writing about what foods are safest and most effective to feed deer as well as alerting our readers to hunting and food safety issues. We will be hunting and observing the behavior of deer at various times of year around the country with the help of our friends at Nature’s Way Foods.

Food For Deer

Buck Eating in Fall

Understanding diet selection by white-tailed deer is best accomplished by first knowing what whitetails “should” eat. Their anatomy, behavior, and physiology are adapted to selection of specific types of forage that differ from other potential forage competitors like cattle, elk, and moose. A narrow snout and long tongue allow them to delicately seek out specific plant parts.

Their highly active salivary glands produce enzymes that help deactivate secondary plant compounds, such as tannins, that disrupt digestion. These enzymes allow them to eat a quantity of acorns that would kill a cow. Their relatively smaller and less complex gastro-intestinal tract requires they eat forages that are of relatively higher quality and more easily digestible than forages eaten by cattle, elk and moose.

Although low quality forages such as mature grasses provide adequate nutrition to animals such as elk and cattle, the quicker digestive process of whitetails requires more readily digestible forages to fulfill their energy and protein requirements. On severely overpopulated and depleted ranges, white-tailed deer have starved to death with their stomachs full of low quality forages.

A list of plants consumed by white-tailed deer would be quite long. For example, whitetails have been documented to eat over 400 species of plants in the Southeast alone. Regular sampling from a wide range of species allows deer to continually evaluate new sources of nutrients. However, the majority of their diet comes from a relatively small number of forages. Although deer consumed over 140 plant species in one study, about a third of those species accounted for 93 percent of the overall diet (Gee et al. 2011).

Diet selection changes in response to seasonal changes in forage abundance, quality, and metabolic needs of the animal. Deer eat a variety of food types, including browse (leafy parts of woody plants), forbs (herbaceous broad-leaved plants, including agricultural crops), hard and soft mast (seeds), grass and mushrooms/lichens.

Vaccinium Plant
Aspen Plant

Throughout the range of white-tailed deer, greater than 85 % of their overall diet consists of browse, forbs, and mast.

Browse and forbs are the most important forages supplying the nutritional needs of deer because they provide over 80% of the diet in all seasons except during autumn. Mast is highly preferred, so its presence drives the seasonal variation in forage selection. Mast consumption increases from 11% during summer (primarily soft mast, such as berries) up to 28% during autumn (primarily hard mast, such as acorns). Leaf buds and evergreen leaves are especially important during winter in northern areas. A wide variety of agricultural crops are used readily whenever available because they tend to be highly nutritious, palatable and readily digestible.

Do’s and Don’ts of Feeding Deer

Old man winter has shown mercy this year, and both the deer and hunters are grateful! With that being said, we still have the rest of February and March to get through before “green life” returns to our neck of the woods. Once spring does arrive, turkey fans won’t be the only thing we see shoot up. Fresh protein rich food sources will also spring up, and once again flourish in the hardwoods and in our food plots. While the country is still in old man winter’s frozen grip, this spring green up is in sight and with it, the end of a 4 month long struggle for life. Deer are hurting right now, maybe not as bad as previous years, but don’t let the lack of snowfall fool you. It is this struggle that we hunters start to become concerned about this time of year and as a result, we naturally feel obligated to intervene. This intervention is often in the form of a bag of “deer corn”, and it could spell disaster for you. Feeding deer during the winter is not a subject to lightly dismiss as a “common sense subject”, there is a right way and a wrong and in some situations fatal way to do it. To understand every piece that is required before feeding deer during the winter, we first need to take a walk in the shoes of a whitetail.

Imagine if you will, you’re a hog of a buck, one of those southern Iowa whoppers we all know exist. Its late October your busy eating acorns and stacking up the energy and carbs before the rut, putting on the pounds of fat. You feel your testosterone rising and those little bucks are really pestering you. Once November rolls around your weight is at an astonishing 255 pounds! You’re having fun running does throughout the southern Iowa corn fields and hardwoods, occasionally locking one down in your favorite thicket. It’s all fun and games until that first snowflake falls, then it’s back to survival. Now let’s fast forward to late February, you now weigh 180 pounds, you have shed your antlers, your fat reserves are almost spent, there is no corn left in the fields, and the snow is a foot deep. You need energy and protein to repair your body condition after the long rut. The worst news is that your instincts understand new food isn’t coming anytime soon, and more winter is still likely to be had!

From any deer hunters perspective this buck basically seems to be up “you know which creek,” right? Absolutely, and it’s not just the buck, every whitetail in the woods struggles in late February and March. The skinny, rut-worn buck, the pregnant nanny, and the 8-9 month old fawn are all in trouble. Don’t get us wrong, deer are given the correct tools to survive winter, a thick insulated coat, an internal computer telling them what and when to eat, and the knowledge to find food and a warm bed in tough conditions. Even with all of these tools the facts still remain, a whitetail is running out of fat reserves, food sources are slim, and there is still a month to go before the buffet opens. Out of time and out of options, supplemental feeding seems to be the golden ticket for our deer herds. Unfortunately this ticket could be real and helpful…or a trap and fatal, all depending on you, your area, and your situation!

East to west, states across the country have restrictions or have outlawed baiting and feeding deer …as much as you hate to hear it. Why? A lot focuses around deer to deer transmission of diseases, such as Chronic Wasting Disease. However, in the winter, disease within a deer can develop. It’s called Acidosis, the fatal and ugly side of improper supplemental feeding! When ruminants (deer) get ahold of large quantities of carbohydrates that are low in fiber, not normally not found in their diet this time of year, they lack the microorganisms in their stomach to digest the food. Adjustments in the stomach are made within 6 hours of digesting large amounts of this food source (commonly corn) changing the makeup of the stomach entirely, leading to a flush of lactic acid. This results in a fall of pH, destruction of the digestion and absorption process, and eventual dehydration and death of the deer! This is the number one, big concern over feeding deer during the winter. Now before you comment with your opinions on the subject, and say that we are against feeding, finish this article through and get all the information.

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