Today, we recognize the need for assisting nature in enabling whitetail deer to grow into healthy adults. With a basic understanding of the digestion, feeding behavior, life cycles, and nutritional needs, you can take an active role in promoting the growth of healthy does. By practicing proper deerfield management, and therefore providing the proper nutrition for these whitetail deer we can assist nature. We want does capable of producing future generations we all can enjoy. We also want bigger bucks supporting impressive antlers.
Deer are related to other ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep. For this reason, it was once believed that deer could be raised and maintained on hay and grain. But, unlike cattle or sheep who are grazers, deer have a smaller stomach compared to their body size. The smaller stomach not only affects the type of food a whitetail deer eats but the frequency of feeding as well.
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In general, all deer prefer high-protein, energy-rich plants. For example, whitetail deer prefer to eat browse, leafy plants and acorns over more fibrous grasses. But, as opportunistic feeders, they will make due with what is available. Deer diets change as plant availability and quality change with the season of the year. This digestive adaptability is one reason deer survive as well as they do. But, it takes a few weeks for changes to take place. Deer adapted to a winter diet of highly fibrous food can actually be harmed by well-meaning sportsmen or landowners who put out corn or hay to get them through the winter.
Deer nutrition is affected by physiological needs. Bucks have different nutritional needs at different times. For instance, protein demand is high during antler growth; energy demand is high during the rut. A doe’s nutritional demands are highest during the last third of her pregnancy to just before weaning. Fawns, who triple their birth weight in the first three months, are most demanding in the first six months of life. Each stage of the life cycle is influenced by nutrition.
Nutrition is one of the major factors affecting the health and productivity of deer. Providing deer with a consistent diet that meets their seasonal physiological needs increases the nutritional level of the herd. This allows each deer to reach its genetic potential. A well-planned supplemental feeding program can lower fawn mortality, decrease post-rut mortality in males and encourage the growth of bigger bucks with superior antlers. Supplemental feeding can also compensate for variations in nutrient value and availability of natural range and forage. Deer experience less stress when they are provided with a good quality diet year-round. This is especially true during high demand times such as pregnancy, nursing and antler growth.