Can you help deer through harsh winters without doing more harm than good?
It seems like such a simple equation. Because winter is when natural whitetail food is at its lowest in terms of nutrition and abundance, if you provide them with supplemental feed, more will survive until spring and be healthier coming out of winter. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
While supplemental feeding can work under certain circumstances, it is ineffective in others. It can also have negative effects that range from innocuous to devastating.
As difficult as it is for hunters to grasp, one of the worst things you can do for whitetails struggling through a rough winter is to dump a pile of food on the snow.
Even where supplemental feeding does work, there are some significant limitations. Fortunately, there are also some alternatives.
Before you weigh the pros and cons of supplemental feeding, make sure you understand the term. Supplemental feeding is providing food in addition to what grows on the landscape. It does not include food plots, nor does it include agricultural crops.
It is also not the same as baiting. Bait is usually placed in small amounts over a short period. Its purpose is to attract deer to a specific area so you can kill them and is not intended to supplement the deer’s diet.
When supplemental feeding fails, the primary reason is improper application. In other words, it’s usually not the feed, but the feeder and a lack of knowledge of the deer’s digestive system. A better understanding of a whitetail’s digestive process is the foundation of proper winter feeding, supplemental or otherwise.
White-tailed deer are ruminants. They have a complex digestive system specifically adapted to breaking down and digesting coarse plant materials.
The rumen — the first part of a deer’s four-chambered stomach — is where food is broken down into usable components in one of two ways. Some nutrients are absorbed directly. Others, particularly woody plant material, require a two-stage process where the plant matter is first broken down by microorganisms that live in the deer’s stomach. By-products of this process are then taken up as nutrients by the deer.
That process is why maintaining proper rumen function is so important to deer health.
“If you mess around with the deer’s rumen, you’ve messed around with the whole deer,” says Les Ray of Heartland Wildlife Institute. Improper supplemental feeding, he notes, messes with the rumen.
Over the course of the year, a whitetail’s digestive system goes through several slow, subtle changes as it adjusts to nutritional needs and food availability. Moving from summer to fall, whitetails shift from higher protein requirements — for growing antlers and nursing fawns — to more fats and carbohydrates that provide fat for the winter.
Going from fall to winter, nutritious natural food becomes scarce and deer must gradually build up the microorganisms necessary to digest less nutritious food.
This process takes several weeks, and the sudden introduction of different food can have dramatic effects. Well-meaning folks might see the deer struggling through deep winter snow and throw out a bale of hay or alfalfa. But the deer no longer have the necessary microorganisms to digest it and could literally starve to death with a full stomach.
A sudden abundance of high-carb food like corn might provide a quick energy boost in extreme cold, but it does not contain enough protein. It could destroy beneficial microorganisms, leaving deer incapable of digesting natural food.
There are other compelling reasons why supplemental winter feeding might not be a good idea.
One of the biggest is that it concentrates deer into smaller areas, which can have several detrimental effects. The first is increased stress. Another is increased opportunity for the spread of diseases.
Also, deer compete more aggressively for scarce, high-quality foods. The weakest, and those most vulnerable to winter starvation, like fawns, are the ones denied access to supplemental feed by more aggressive, older deer.
Concentrating deer also makes them more susceptible to predators and dogs.
Even without supplemental feeding, predation can have a significant effect on winter survival. An effective predator control program can go a long way to helping your deer make it through tough times.
Concentrating deer around feeding stations can also have some long-term effects on habitat. Between visits, and when moving to and from a feeding station, deer feed on natural vegetation. Highly concentrated deer can and will eat all vegetation within their reach, potentially impacting dozens of acres. Not only does this eliminate natural food, it also limits forest regeneration, which can have an economic impact if timber production is among the landowner’s goals.
Further, feeding stations need to be visited on a regular basis and often are located near roads. Proximity to roads increases the potential for car/deer collisions.
There is a plus side. Supplemental feeding is a very viable means of providing winter nutrition under the right circumstances and if done correctly. First, that means understanding and avoiding the potential pitfalls and risks described above.
Next, it requires having the means to feed properly.
Supplemental feeding is very expensive. A single deer will consume two to three pounds of grain each day. Multiply that by how many deer you think you’ll be supporting, and the number of days you’re supporting them, and the cost quickly skyrockets.
Remember, too, that you have to start them on the feed before they really need it. You should begin winter feeding long before winter conditions and the accompanying scarcity of natural foods so deer have sufficient time to build up rumen cultures. Once you begin, you’re committed. You can’t stop until spring green-up, or it could lead to serious negative consequences.
What you feed is also important. According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, deer need a diet of at least 6 to 7 percent crude protein just to maintain rumen function. Anything less than 10 percent protein will result in inferior animals and poor antler development.
The recommended daily diet for optimum development of bone and muscle is 12 to 16 percent protein. If your supplemental feeding program extends beyond winter, you should consider other dietary needs such as vitamins and minerals.
It’s worth noting that proper supplemental feeding offers other advantages beyond carrying more deer through the winter. It also helps post-rut bucks recover more quickly, better realize their genetic antler potential and reach trophy class at an earlier age. And it helps to smooth out boom-or-bust population cycles resulting from natural food scarcities.
It’s also important to understand there are significant geographical differences. Were it not for supplemental feeding, many parts of Texas would not have the tremendous deer resource they do. But many managers there feed throughout the year.
Supplemental feeding is also popular and widely used in many parts of the Southeast. There, food is not such a limiting factor in the winter.
In many parts of the agricultural Midwest, there’s no need for supplemental feeding because winter food is abundant.
It is mostly in northern states where the detrimental effects of supplemental winter feeding are so pronounced.
There are alternatives to supplemental feeding that promote the health and survival of deer during winter. The key is maintaining sufficient amounts of high-quality winter habitat and keeping deer balanced within that habitat.
Another method is planting food plots, specifically winter plots.
Hunting plots are designed to attract and feed deer during the fall. Feeding plots are intended to provide year-round nutrition, although most folks concentrate more on the warm growing season.
Planting foods that persist through the winter, like turnips and soybeans, can have a much more profound effect, particularly in colder, northern climates. And because food is consistently available through the fall, the deer’s digestive tract can adjust at a natural pace.
Enhancing natural vegetation is another way to improve nutritional habitat. A simple thinning that favors older, more productive oak trees could have a big impact on deer health.
Even the act of cutting hardwoods produces stump sprouts that provide a source of woody browse. Conversely, deer burn fewer calories and require less energy if they can find shelter from cold, wind and snow. You can provide shelter by maintaining sufficient softwood cover, particularly in lower elevations and south-facing slopes.
Regardless of whether you use supplemental feed or not, the real key to winter deer health is keeping the deer herd balanced with available food resources.
All things considered, it might be more efficient, cost effective and sensible to reduce the number of deer on the property before winter so those that survive will do so in better health.
If you want to maintain higher densities and healthier deer, you need to provide more food, either with feeding, or through food plots and habitat management.
You can also help your deer through the winter by maintaining or improving winter cover and reducing human disturbance and predation.
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