The pitfalls and rewards of providing supplemental feed to whitetails.
One of the many things the antis don’t understand about deer hunters is how much we care about whitetails. It’s that love that drives so many hunters in the North to put out food during rough winters.
Although feeding deer sounds like a great idea, deer pellets, shelled corn or just about any type of grain can do more harm than good.
Nobody knows that better than Dave Wheeler from Marvo Mineral and Lucky Buck Mineral.
“Because so many hunters see deer feeding in cornfields, they think a deer can eat at a corn feeder all day,” Wheeler said. “That is not the case.”
Whitetails, he explained, have four stomachs in which microbes break down food in stages. In each of those stomachs, the microbe balance slowly adjusts for whatever type of food is usually available at a given time of year.
If a deer’s diet changes suddenly, or it concentrates almost exclusively on one type of food, it can struggle to break down the food for nourishment and energy.
The best way to feed deer in the winter is to plant food plots. Naturally growing foods are easier to digest and provide lots of energy.
Food plots also keep deer spread out over a larger area, which helps avoid the disease risk associated with crowding at a feeder. Further, more deer will benefit from a food plot since dominant deer won’t be able to keep other deer from feeding there.
When it comes to food plots for whitetails, Steve Scott from the Whitetail Institute has seen and done it all.
“In a perfect world, it would be best if a person had enough land to plant several different kinds of food plots with winter forage in mind,” Scott said. “The number of plots and their size should depend on how many deer are in the area.”
There’s no one right answer for every situation, but Scott said one type of winter forage stands out: brassicas. Brassicas sweeten when temperatures drop, which makes them more attractive to deer. They have high levels of sugar, which gives deer energy to help them through a hard winter.
“Hunters need a food plot that can handle extremely cold weather,” he said. “Our Imperial Greens contains turnips and a leafy lettuce-type brassica. Deer love them, and they provide plenty of energy.”
Ideal winter plots grow rapidly and keep growing after the temperatures cool, Scott said. “When deer find a good food source, they tend to love it to death, especially during the winter when there aren’t many options.”
It’s important to grow something that provides a lot of tonnage per acre to stand up to heavy browsing pressure.
Pure Attraction is an example of a Whitetail Institute seed blend that contains a variety of plants known to provide high amounts of energy.
“This blend has Whitetail Oats, which is very high in sugar,” Scott said. “It also contains winter peas, which grow well in colder climates.”
An alternative to planting winter food plots is to set aside a portion of traditional standing crops just for deer.
“If you can work out a deal with a farmer, get him to leave a few rows of crops,” Wheeler said. “Deer will eat from standing crops, but they tend to browse more than when being fed shelled corn. It’s also safer for their digestive system than shelled corn.”
A third option, as noted in the September issue article “Fruit and Nuts,” is mast-bearing trees.
There are more hybrid fruit and nut trees on the market than ever, and some varieties hang on to their fruit until late in the season when deer need it most.
“We are now offering a persimmon tree called Deer Magnet that holds its fruit until late October, even into November,” said Robert Wallace from Chestnut Hill Outdoors. “A few of those persimmons mixed with some late-dropping oaks and a few pear trees can be a great late season food source for whitetails. The fruit trees provide energy, and the late dropping oak trees help them put on extra fat as they head into the winter.”
If trees make more sense for you than food plots, don’t skimp. Plant as many as you can afford.
“The more trees, the better, especially in northern climates,” Wallace said. “With several trees dropping fruit and nuts, the crop could last a long time, especially if snow covers some of the crop. The mast from a few trees will be eaten in a few days, so more is better.”
If you don’t have enough land to plant trees or food plots, Wheeler recommends feeding hay instead of corn.
“Hay is much easier to digest than other forms of feed,” he said. “Grass in general is something deer are always eating, so it doesn’t create the problems associated with corn.
“Depending on the type of hay, it is often packed with protein and can give deer the nutrition they need to make it through a tough winter.”
While the experts discourage the use of shelled corn and protein pellets as winter deer food, a healthy percentage of hunters who feed in winter will continue to use them. Corn and pellets are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. If you feed with corn or grain, Scott suggests giving it a boost.
“We offer a product called Cutting Edge Sustain that can be mixed with any type of feed,” he said. “This product gives deer the protein, nutrients, vitamins and minerals they need to stay strong. It even helps them build fat reserves.”
Another practice that reduces the risks of feeding with corn and pellets is to control delivery with a timer.
“Set up several feeders that go off at certain times every day,” Wheeler said. “Spreading out the feeders and using timers helps keep deer from overeating from one food source.”
If you plan to provide food in the winter, it’s critical to keep it up until spring green-up.
“If you start a winter feeding program, you have to stick with it,” Wheeler said. “Deer will alter habits and bed in areas based on a food source. If it’s the middle of February and you decide your feeding program is too time consuming or too expensive, it could be extremely harmful.
“Not only have the deer’s stomachs adjusted to the steady food source, an abrupt halt to a feeding program means there will be a lot of hungry whitetails concentrated in a small area that cannot support them.”
The best way to ensure whitetails make it through a long winter is to provide high quality food sources all year.
“Helping deer get through winter should start in the summer and fall,” Scott said. “A buck can lose a significant amount of its body weight during the rut. The healthier he is heading into the rut, the healthier he will be coming out of it. Food plots, mast-bearing trees and supplemental feeding throughout the spring and summer is the best combination.”
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This article was published in the Winter 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.