White-tailed deer have varying nutritional requirements throughout the year. The highest demands for protein are generally those of fawns, pregnant and lactating does, and bucks during antler growth. Higher demand for carbohydrates (energy) occurs during months when herbaceous and woody vegetation are dormant. Trophy buck hunters commonly feed high protein, pelleted feed year-round with the goal to increase antler size, and then feed corn in the fall and winter to attract deer searching for a source of energy. But shiny bags of deer feed aren’t made of rare or superior forages that Mother Nature can’t provide.
THE NATIVE FOODS DEER EAT, AND WHEN
Native deer foods primarily consist of forbs (herbaceous broadleaf plants sometimes called weeds) and browse (parts of woody plants). Some preferred and abundant forb and browse species in the Cross Timbers and Prairies region of Texas and Oklahoma include ragweed, tick clover, snail-seed, greenbrier, Osage orange and oaks. Foliage from these plants is available in spring and summer when a deer manager may be feeding a high-protein, pelleted feed. Analysis of these common native plants during April reveal protein levels of 27, 25, 21, 26, 21 and 16% crude protein (CP) respectively. Commercial feeds can reach 24% CP and cost $30 per 50 pounds.
Feeding deer is not the silver bullet to growing trophy bucks or maintaining a healthy deer herd.
During fall, deer often shift a portion of their diet to hard mast (tree fruit) such as acorns. In many deer habitats in Texas and Oklahoma, red oak and white oak groups are present, and because of the differing life cycles of the two tree groups (red oak acorns take two years to mature while white oaks take one), deer normally have access to a mast crop, even in years of drought. Many hunters observe less deer around feeders when acorn loads are high. Acorns are an excellent source of energy for deer, and the layer of fat on a harvested deer when acorns are abundant is proof that they love to eat them.
PRESCRIBED FIRE CAN BOOST BROWSE SPECIES
Supplemental feed is not a substitute for good quality deer habitat. Additionally, managing habitat is often cheaper than investing in an intensive feed program. For example, Noble wildlife and fisheries consultant Will Moseley demonstrated how growing-season prescribed fire could extend nutritional quality and increase the use of selected browse species into the hunting season. Moseley sampled five important deer browse species before and after a growing-season prescribed burn. In four of the plant species sampled, growing-season fire had a positive impact on crude protein. Dogwood was the only exception.
Feeding deer is not the silver bullet to growing trophy bucks or maintaining a healthy deer herd. In fact, feeding deer often comes with unintended consequences. Feral hogs, raccoons and other unwanted species may benefit from the feeding more than deer. Feeding also concentrates deer, increases the likelihood of disease transmission, and causes overutilization of habitat near the feeder. All of these responses can make a feeding program costly, not only for the hunter, but for the deer herd as well. If you plan to continue or begin using feeders on your property, understand their utility and their limitations.