Do Deer Really Need Supplemental Feed Year Round?
By: John Dedwylder D.V.M., Whitetail Veterinary Services
I have learned that deer must have superior, consistent nutrition year round or their health and production suffers. Unfortunately, for the wildlife watcher, hunter, or wildlife manager, mother nature does not always cooperate by providing it. Unforeseen changes in weather patterns can severely affect the nutrients available during different times of the year. Deer also have natural physiological and metabolic challenges that occur annually. If their nutritional needs are not met, it can have a major impact on both bucks and does. Antler growth and reproduction can and will be negatively affected. It is for this reason that we must strive to provide our deer a multitude of choices nutritionally. If one source fails, the deer will have other options. This gives us the best chance of success while managing our deer.
No matter where your property is located, deer typically depend on three possible sources of nutrition in some combination:
- Natural food sources
- Food plots
- Supplemental feed
On my ranch in Texas I concentrate my nutritional improvements using all of the above. I manage my native pasture to maximize the existing plant life. This is the most critical component of nutritional management as this source of nutrition makes up the largest part of their total dietary intake. Native food sources are very important wherever you live. These plants are adapted to the environmental conditions of the region and they usually produce superior nutrients. I also have created seasonal food plots, but the dry land farming in Texas is challenging at best. In other areas of the country food plots can be easily grown most and can be an invaluable food resource.
Finally, I have chosen to supplementally feed the deer on my ranch year round. This protein based food source is available at all times. It allows me to support their nutritional needs no matter what the environmental conditions or physiological state the deer on my ranch are facing at any given time. I strongly believe this can be a critical resource to the deer manager in many parts of the country.
What happens to the deer in Texas when it's 105 degrees and there is no rain for months? How about the deer in the Midwest or Northeast when there are extended periods of subarctic temperatures. Some properties in the Southeast do not have the nutritional quality necessary to support their deer under normal circumstances. All of these deer becomes tremendously stressed and have a hard time maintaining general health, much less grow antlers during critical times. Bucks need consistent nutrition to grow antlers or gain weight post rut. Does need the same nutritional support to raise multiple healthy fawns. Supplemental feeding is a game changer in these situations.
When I realized that a deer's nutritional needs last longer than the hunting season, a light bulb in my head finally came on. In order for big bucks to thrive on your property they must be healthy ALL year. The health of your doe herd is also very important. Let me try to explain this nutritional principle using a couple different examples, a buck and a doe.
First, let's look at your average 3 year old buck. It's early October and the rut has begun. The days run into nights and he is a calorie burning machine. He is eating infrequently and his food is usually of poor quality. By late December he has lost 30% of his body weight. His dietary choices are very limited in late winter. By mid February his antlers have dropped and he is still in poor body condition. Spring begins and all his food intake is directed toward weight gain and recovery from the stress of rut and poor quality food options. What do you think is sacrificed with the example described above? The correct answer is 15-20" of antler. Are you starting to understand the importance of maintaining consistent quality nutrition?
Let's look at the one thing most people completely overlook. The doe side of the equation. It's early October and the chasing has begun. Does also burn a high number of calories during the rut. They become pregnant in the Fall or early winter and their nutrition supports their pregnancy. Once again, in most areas of the country late winter is difficult nutritionally. This stress may cause low fawn birth weights. Smaller fawns have lower survival rates. These same buck fawns start developing later than healthy buck fawns. Smaller body weight means later or smaller antler development. Nutritional stress may also cause abortions in some does. Guess what? Fewer fawns means fewer bucks to hunt in the future. I bet you never thought that doe nutritional stress could affect your buck herd. Does are also very stressed when lactating during the summer. Most of their energy is used to feed their hungry fawns. If her nutritional needs are not met she will be in poor body condition by late Summer or early Fall. The rut begins again and she is not prepared to sustain a healthy pregnancy. This negative stress cycle may continue.
I hope it has become evident that superior, consistent nutrition for your deer is worth the time and financial commitment. Using a supplemental feeding program, whether in your backyard for the enjoyment of seeing deer or as a part of your deer farm or ranch's management program, will help you have healthy deer year round.