Feeding Whitetail Deer
In the State of Texas, and many other locations, feeding deer is a popular pastime. Hunters feed them, ranchers feed them, wildlife managers, park visitors, and even many homeowners feed them. Some homeowners feed deer because they enjoy watching them, and others do so thinking that it will encourage the deer to eat the feed they provide, and leave the flowers and shrubs alone. The trouble is, the feeding tends to attract even more deer and things can get out of hand pretty fast in the limited acreage found in most backyards.
The feed of choice is generally corn. Corn is economical, and whitetail deer love it. Is it good for them? Well, yes and no. It depends on the time of the year, and the condition of the available forage. In the fall and winter when cold weather begins to arrive, corn is an excellent source of energy for deer. It helps to keep their internal furnaces stoked up to help them face the cold, and often wet or icy weather. Corn only has about 7 or 8 % protein, but during the fall and winter, deer don't generally need a high protein diet nearly as much as they need it during the following months. They do need something in their bellies, though, and if a deer is hungry, corn sure beats the heck out of nothing.
If there is a good acorn crop, the deer will seek out acorns and usually ignore corn until almost all the acorns are gone. In the absence of acorns, though, whitetail deer generally crave corn. While it is true that with decent forage conditions they may not need corn, on the other hand, it shouldn't harm them, either--assuming, of course, that the corn does not contain excessive amounts of aflatoxin.
If corn is fed in a drought year, it should always be bought from a reputable dealer. If the bag doesn't even state the processor's name and phone number, it is in violation of the law, and there is probably a very good reason why proper identification was omitted. Be especially suspicious if the corn is unidentified and priced significantly lower than the typical price at reputable feedstores. Do the deer a favor, and don't feed them suspicious grain. Reputable processors and dealers do not distribute contaminated corn. It is illegal to do so. For more information about aflatoxin, see the pages on Aflatoxin, and Aflatoxin and Wildlife.
Along about February or so, the dietary needs of whitetail deer change, as the bucks start preparing to sprout new antlers, and the nutritional requirements of the fetuses that the does are carrying, place increased demands on the does. Bucks may shed their antlers later, in years when they have plenty of protein in their diets. Corn is not a very good choice for this time of year.
A diet consisting of roughly 14-18 % protein is generally desirable for whitetails during this period of time. Additional protein may not harm them, but they normally efficiently can't utilize more than about 18 %. Unless browse is abnormally good for that time of the year, protein supplementation can often provide significant benefits for the deer.
If the weather, climate, and soil permit, food plots constitute one of the best ways to provide some additional protein for the deer herd. Crops like oats or wheat, for example, can be planted in the September/October timeframe, and should be a big help during the critical late winter/early spring period of time. These small grains will mature and cease production by about May, but by then, here in the South, at least, a crop such as lab lab, or milo, planted in March, (or what ever timeframe is appropriate for the location under consideration), should be far enough along to take up where the small grains left off. Forages such as cowpeas, vetch, or clover are also excellent protein sources for deer and other wildlife. This is assuming, of course, that sufficient acreage is available for planting. To provide a practical level of forage production, food plot acreage will probably need to be in the range of at least one or two percent of the total habitat acreage, on most ranches with typical native habitat.
The problem with food plots, of course, is that when deer need them the most, such as during a drought, they probably will not provide any significant production. Conversly, when they produce a bountiful crop, the deer probably will not need the extra supplementation, due to the fact that they will already be surrounded by better than normal production of native forage.
If food plots of adequate size are not feasible, due to the weather, climate, or type of soil, then the feeding of some type of supplemental feed may be the only option, other than to just let nature take its course. Many processors make pellets that will do the job, though in most cases the deer will have to learn to eat them, and some deer, for some reason or other, seem to refuse to learn to eat them.
Pelleted feeds, in general, do not work very well in typical electric feeders that utilize spinning disks to distribute the feed, unless they are specially encapsulated pellets, to help prevent breakdown by moisture. Conventional pellets attract moisture, and will persistently plug the feeder's outlet, and stop it from working. Pellets of this type work much better when fed free choice in troughs, or in self-feeders which are designed to minimize the plugging problem.
Another alternative for protein supplementation is peas, since they will not disintigrate in a feeder, simply due to the moisture in the atmosphere. If the peas are properly cleaned before they are bagged, they will normally flow through feeders as readily as clean corn. In fact, since most peas have more protein than is necessary for deer, (black-eyed peas, and other types of cowpeas, for example, normally have from 20 to about 25 % protein), they can be blended with corn to lower the cost, while still providing adequate protein. The corn in the blend can provide the additional benefit of helping to train the deer to eat the peas, also, since deer that are not familiar with peas will usually have to learn to eat them, just as they have to learn to eat pellets.
To guarantee that the bucks have sufficient protein available to promote maximum antler growth, some wildlife managers continue to feed supplemental protein through August, or until antler development is completed. Then they switch back to corn. By then, the fawns should have also significantly benefited from the extra protein, by way of the higher quality milk, and the greater volume of milk that their dams should have derived from the additional protein. The bigger and healthier the fawns are as yearlings, the better they will be throughout their lives.
For additional information see Managing for Quality.
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