White-tailed Deer Protein Needs

Deer Management – Deer Protein Requirements

A deer manager should consider deer nutrition on a seasonal basis. Energy and protein needs change based on the season, physical activity, and the age of individual animals. Changes in the nutritional requirements of deer that occur with gestation, lactation, breeding, and antler growth should be coordinated with seasonal changes in nutrient availability from forage plants. Nutritional requirements of deer are generally separated into five categories, which are protein, energy, minerals, vitamins, and water. Research on white-tailed deer has primarily focused on protein, energy, and minerals (phosphorus and calcium). These requirements are most often the ones that limit growth, reproduction, and antler development.

Protein is very important for body growth in deer, especially for fawns and yearlings. Inadequate protein intake in a given year will also reduce antler development in bucks. In fact, a period of inadequate nutrition (low protein) for buck fawns may adversely influence antler development for several succeeding years. A deer must obtain at least a 6-7% crude protein diet to maintain rumen function, but a protein diet in the 14-16% range is required for successful growth, antler development, and reproduction.

The quality pf deer food plants can sometimes be improved through vegetative management, such as brush management. However, the habitat manager has much less control over forage quality rather than quantity. Forage quality is associated with the growth stage of the plant, the plant species, and environmental factors such as soil type and precipitation. No single plant species maintains year-round nutrient and protein levels required by deer for successful growth and reproduction. However, some plant species are higher in nutrients than most other species in the same plant category. Some browse species may maintain adequate year-round levels of protein, but may be seasonally deficient in energy or certain minerals required by deer.

Deer managers can influence the quality of deer forage by manipulating vegetation and encouraging plant diversity. The greatest influence on deer nutrition can be achieved by managing forage quality. This is done through correct stocking rates, proper harvest of deer, and proper brush management and enhancment. In addition, the manager should be aware of the nutritional value of deer food plants so that informed brush, weed, and grazing management decisions can be made. White-tailed deer need protein, but they also need other items to achieved their nutritional requirements. A good deer management program will seek to provide at least 16% digestible protein and sufficient energy and minerals for optimal white-tailed deer growth.

Many land owners feel uncomfortable about increasing their deer harvest and choose to inflate the carrying capacity of thier ranch through supplemental feeding in the form of protein pellets and food plots. However, deer managers must realize that feeding deer is very expensive and generally the cost of maintaining the additional deer outweigh the financial returns. The best deer management practice is to keep population numbers in line with the carrying capacity of the habitat and provide free-choice supplemental feed. In this manner, the feed actually is supplemental. A well-feed deer herd will be very productive, often producing 60-100% fawn crops. This means that 50 does can regularly produce 30-50 fawns each year. How many deer do you need and how many can you feed?

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