Interest in white-tailed deer management decades ago spurred all sorts of research on improving deer herds. Since that time, many habitat management practices have been implemented on properties across the whitetail’s range, but none are more popular than providing supplemental foods. Supplemental forages are often presented as food plots or as protein pellets for deer. And no matter how you slice it, there is nothing easier than providing good, stable nutrition to ensure that the whitetail deer on your property meet their genetic potential.
If asked, most managers and hunters would tell you that the foods with the highest percentage protein are best for deer. Although it is true that deer prefer high protein foods, there are no foods occurring in nature that are 100 percent protein. In fact, a whitetail deer would die if all it had to eat was a pure-protein diet. It just would not provide proper nutrition for the animal.
Of course, the flip side is a diet with no protein. This is bad too. As you might expect, a diet with a protein level somewhere between zero and 100 is ideal for maintaining and producing quality deer year after year. Too much of a good thing is never good, and so the same principle applies to protein. It can help with fawn production and make for better deer hunting, but an excess of protein will not help and will likely cost you more in the end.
Specifically, the consumption of too many protein pellets by individual deer can be a real problem when natural vegetation is of very poor quality or completely absent. When natural foods are lacking, whitetail will consume pellets in an attempt to over-compensate for natural foods that are absent. If pellets are very high in protein, say well over 20 percent or more, then deer can have physiological issues.
Remember, protein pellets for free-ranging deer are supposed to be supplemental to their diets, not complete rations. Too many pellets of too high a protein content will harm deer. Under normal circumstances, deer will eat pellets and also consume natural vegetation. When natural vegetation disappears, then the ratio of pellets to natural foods gets skewed, harming the deer from the inside out.
During severe drought, habitat, particularly browse plants but also forbs, will not produce adequate leafy foods. It is during this time that managers providing protein pellets for deer should reduce the protein content of the pellets they are feeding to 16 percent to prevent rumen problems in free-ranging deer. This may also apply during the winter period if browse or herbaceous plants, either natural or in food plots, are not available.