Does supplemental food help whitetails?
Ask a wildlife biologist almost any question about white-tailed deer, and the first answer you’ll get is, “It depends.”
We biologists tend to be cautious and seldom give a direct answer without first obtaining ample information about the circumstances behind the question. That certainly applies to supplemental feeding.
Some states prohibit hunting over bait, while others have outright bans on feeding deer.
Meanwhile, other states sanction and carry out supplemental feeding programs.
Who’s right? It depends.
First, let’s define supplemental feeding. It could include almost anything you add to the environment that increases the amount and type of food available, including food plots or agricultural crops.
However, most hunters’ definition involves something other than food plots, like whole kernel corn, soybeans, cottonseed, minerals and pelletized feed or blocks.
Each can benefit a deer’s diet, if applied properly. That involves knowing not only what deer need, but also when they need it.
A whitetail’s nutritional requirements vary over the course of the year, and any supplements you introduce should change accordingly.
We’ll start our nutrition calendar with the end of hunting season.
THE WINTER BOTTLENECK
Winter is a period of nutritional and environmental stress for white-tailed deer, particularly in the north. Bucks have depleted important energy reserves during the rut, and new life is growing inside does.
Meanwhile, preferred natural foods are at their least abundant and least nutritious.
For many deer populations, winter food sources can directly affect how many deer the land can support. Providing supplemental nutrition at this critical period effectively increases the carrying capacity of the land, and the number of deer that can survive.
However, supplemental winter feeding can have negative effects, such as disrupting migration to natural wintering areas, making deer more vulnerable to severe weather and predation.
Feeding near developed areas can increase deer-vehicle collisions, while concentrating deer at feeding sites increases stress and vulnerability to diseases. It can also harm the natural habitat.
Even when provided ample supplemental feed, deer still browse natural foods, like woody browse. The more concentrated they are, the more they’ll eat in a particular area. That can severely limit forest regeneration, which reduces future food availability.
Concentrating deer might not be palatable to the landowner either, particularly if he’s in the business of growing trees.
There are significant nutrition concerns. Some foods are not easily digested by deer during winter. It takes several weeks for their stomachs to adjust to a change in diet. Supplementally fed deer could die from eating too much high-energy supplemental feed at one time. And if fed highly indigestible food, like hay, they could literally die of starvation with a full stomach.
CLEAN YOUR RUMEN
The key is to follow some general guidelines to address specific nutritional needs and limitations.
Whitetails are classified as ruminants, a reference to the complex four-chambered stomach that breaks food down into usable components.
In the summer and early fall, highly nutritious and easily digestible food is readily available. As fall turns to winter, their natural diet contains an increasingly higher proportion of coarse fiber, which is very difficult to digest. This is where their complex stomach really comes in handy.
Microfauna (bacteria) in the deer’s rumen digest the coarse fiber, converting it into compounds the deer’s digestive system can then absorb. It takes several weeks to build up the required type and amount of microfauna, which is why a drastic change in their diet can be so harmful.
This is also why a supplemental feeding program must be tailored for proper rumen function.
The best supplemental winter feed is a block or pellet formulation containing at least 14 percent protein. It should also provide sufficient energy in the form of fat and carbs and contain enough fiber to promote normal digestive function.
Late winter to early spring is an important transition period for whitetails, as food remains scarce and energy demands increase. Bucks are preparing to grow antlers, and fawns are growing to maturity in the bellies of the does. Both sexes require higher levels of protein and energy, which plants cannot yet provide.
Making them available through supplements can help bucks recover from winter weight loss and direct more nutrients toward antler development. It also helps pregnant does meet the increasing energy demands of their yet-to-be-born young.
Eventually, the deer’s diet will transition from coarse fiber to greens, and the best thing you can offer is protein.
Pellets or a block with a higher protein level of at least 20 percent can help enhance both nutritional intake and rumen function without shocking the deer’s system. They also need vitamins like those found in quality blocks and pellet formulations.
If you need to take a break from feeding, late spring and summer is the time to do so. Herbaceous plants are at their most nutritious and abundant. Deer should be able to find most of what they need, with one notable exception.
Antlers are a luxury. Deer first direct minerals toward skeletal growth and maintenance and other body functions. If there is a surplus, it’s directed toward antler growth.
Whitetails get the minerals they need for skeletal and antler growth from plants. If the proper minerals don’t naturally occur in the soil, plants can’t convert them into a form that’s usable for deer.
This is a great time for mineral supplements. Antler growth is at its peak, and younger deer need minerals to fill out their frames. Keep in mind they need more than salt, which is predominantly sodium. Salt provides no nutrition, but it will attract deer and get them to consume more valuable minerals.
If you want improved antler and bone growth, provide mineral supplements containing elements like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, copper, selenium, zinc and manganese.
Late summer is another period of nutritional stress, one that’s often overlooked. Antlers are reaching peak growth rates while nearly-grown fawns are still nursing, placing tremendous energy demands on bucks and does. Meanwhile, herbaceous plants are maturing and becoming less nutritious.
Supplemental feeding this time of year most often consists of corn. It’s a strong attractant and a good source of quick energy, but it provides less of the proper nutrition deer need. Furthermore, it can inhibit the ability of a deer’s complex digestive system to fully process an increasingly high fiber diet.
A far better option is to provide a formulation that contains a good mix of carbohydrates, fiber and protein, like deer blocks or pelletized feed. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use corn. Just don’t use it exclusively. Deer don’t need it yet, but they soon will.
Shorter days and cooler nights flip a physiological switch buried in the whitetail’s genetic code, telling them it’s time to lay on fat for breeding season and the impending winter. They still need protein, vitamins and minerals, but what they need most is energy and carbs.
They can find it in natural foods like hard and soft mast and even some food plot species. But you can certainly supplement that diet with things like corn, soybeans and blocks. All will help prepare deer for the rigors of the rut and the start of another nutritional year.
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This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.