Tips for Feeding Deer in the Winter

In the northeastern part of the United States, winter is the toughest time of the year nutritionally for native vegetation for white-tailed deer. In comparison, for our fellow hunters in the southern U.S., the summer months typically produce extensive periods of less than adequate native forage in quality and quantity. These times of inadequate quality forage, can negatively impact bucks who are trying to exhibit their true genetic potential in antler growth. With that being said, what are our options for those of us in the north, in regards to helping ease the nutritional constraints our deer herds face in the winter months? Let’s consider what supplemental feed is, its value during the winter months, and tips for implementing a successful supplemental forage program.

Note: Remember in a deer’s world, the familiar native forage is always preferred over a supplement product. Therefore, as good land managers, we begin management by striving to maximize the quality and quantity of native vegetation we can produce via beneficial land management techniques, executing sufficient annual deer harvest quotas and by properly managing grazing actions of livestock. But let’s be honest, for some areas, even with the best management actions being implemented the native plants are just not as strong nutritionally, as we would like them to be especially in winter. In addition, we are always dealing with factors we cannot control such as heavy/deep snow, extended periods of cold temperatures, wind, etc., and thus we look to the benefits of supplemental feed.

What Is Supplemental Feeding

Supplemental feed is just that, a supplement to the native forage. The goal is to provide a product that delivers adequate amounts of digestible protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that the native forage is not currently providing or cannot provide but is required by deer in order to meet their daily physiological needs. As we know, the winter months can take a massive toll on the body condition of deer as they recover from the rigors of the rut and are growing a young fetus. The supplemental feed can definitely alleviate some of the nutritional constraints that occur at this time of year. Supplemental feed is prevalent in a variety of forms from food plots, to pellets, to raw materials such as minerals, alfalfa hay, and even in blocks. The two most common forms used throughout the U.S. are spring and/or fall food plots and pellets.

Late Season and Winter Food Plots

Winter food plots generally allow for large quantities (pounds per acre) of quality forage to be produced and with properly sized food plots, allow large numbers of deer to access them at any given time. Ideal winter food plot plants are the cereal grains such as rye, wheat, and oats, in addition to winter peas, clovers, and brassicas.

Note: Food plots are only as good as the soils they are planted in. Legumes, such as clovers, have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Thus, legumes naturally improve the soil conditions and reduce nitrogen fertilization costs for future plantings. Brassicas, such as turnips and rapes produce large tubers, that as they grow help break up the compaction of the soil that occurred due to tractor or ATV weight. In addition, as the tuber decomposes, the decomposition process further improves the quality of the soil. Food plots can definitely benefit and help alleviate some of the nutritional stresses that occur in the winter months. In addition to food plots, many managers and landowners choose to provide a quality protein pellet product.

Supplemental Feed

Supplemental feed pellets are generally low in cost, are easy to distribute through feeders and are for the most part weather resistant. The amount “produced” or available to deer at any given time is simply a factor of one’s budget. They provide an ideal food source immediately and are never at the mercy of the weather or soil conditions. In addition, pellets can be formulated to provide the near exact nutrition required by deer in a given area. Fortunately, there are many quality, commercial pellets available to the land manager. If there is a negative aspect to pellets it is that they are prone to attracting high numbers of non-target species such as squirrels, raccoons, and bears. Also, pellet feeder locations can be dominated by a particular adult does or bucks thus minimizing exposure of the supplement to the whole herd.

Monitoring Supplement Stations

Finally, with such plots, protein feeders, and block sites strategically placed on one’s property this presents a great opportunity for a land manager to evaluate and learn more about his/her herd. Placing trail cameras at these locations and acquiring photos and/or video lets us learn the real-time body condition of those deer as well as providing an educated guess to total deer numbers as well as individual yearlings, does, and bucks. We really can’t have too much data.

Remember winter supplemental feeding is meant to provide a consistent, reliable product that can maintain the health of deer through this nutritionally stressful time of year. A combination of food plots, pellet feed, blocks, and minerals can be used to achieve these results. We desire to meet if not exceed the daily nutritional needs required by deer which will provide the opportunity to maintain a high level of fawn production and have the potential to produce greater antler growth.