Managing for proper white-tailed deer nutrition can be accomplished through habitat management, supplemental feeding, and the planting of food plots. Supplemental feeding is expensive and can artificially maintain excessive numbers of deer on already marginal habitat. In general, supplemental feeding is not a recommended deer management practice unless integrated with other deer population management practices. Managing habitat for proper nutrition should be the primary management goal. In short, supplemental feeding and food plots are not a substitute for good habitat management.
Deer Nutrition and Diet
Three classes of forage are availble to white-tailed deer. These three classes are forbs, browse, and grass. All herbaceous plants in a deer’s habitat can be placed into one of these three classes. For deer nutrition, the two most important classes are forbs and browse because these classes make up the majority of a whitetail’s diet. Although grass comprises less than 10% of a deer’s diet, it is important in deer management because it can provide excellent fawning cover. In addition, a good stand of grass is also a good indicator of overall habitat conditions.
Forbs are generally seasonal plants whose abundance is related to rainfall patterns and are usually very high in protein. Forbs are either annuals or perinnials. Many of these palnts are preferred deer foods and are extremely important to deer for optimum growth and reproduction. Forbs, more commonly called weeds by farmers and ranchers, are most abundant during the spring and fall, when precipitation is high and temperatures are cooler. Most wild flowers and broad-leafed weedy plants are very palatable forbs.
Browse plants are woody or shrubby plants. Many are tree-like and are usually lower in protein content than forbs. However, browse plants are more deeply rooted, more drought resistant plants, and more responsible for providing deer food during periods of stress/poor forb growth. Browse plants are a more dependable food source and are the most important plants when managing for a stable deer herd. Important browse plants vary by region, but can include trees and shrubs such as oaks, yaupon, hawthorne, grape, poison ivy, and elm.
White-tailed deer eat a variety of plants and different plants become important during different times of the year. From the discussion above, you probably realize the seasonal importance of forbs. Forb production is dependent upon rainfall and temperature. Browse plants, on the other hand, have deeper roots and are more dependable for whitetail. Because browse plants tend to be more reliable, these plants can also be good indicators of habitat conditions. A trained biologist can read browse plants to determine habitat conditions and determine if supplemental feeding is necessary. Obviously, if browse plants are becoming devoid of leaves, stems, and twigs, then a deer overpopulation problem is brewing. At this point, supplemental feed must increase and annual harvest must increase.
As I’ve mentioned before, individual white-tailed deer body condition is the building blocks of your deer herd. White-tailed deer require a minimum 16% protein diet and get all the necessary vitamins and minerals from their environment. Because deer management is based on food quantity and quality, it’s habitat management and supplemental food, when necessary, is critical to improving your deer herd.