Old man winter has shown mercy this year, and both the deer and hunters are grateful! With that being said, we still have the rest of February and March to get through before “green life” returns to our neck of the woods. Once spring does arrive, turkey fans won’t be the only thing we see shoot up.
Fresh protein rich food sources will also spring up, and once again flourish in the hardwoods and in our food plots. While the country is still in old man winter’s frozen grip, this spring green up is in sight and with it, the end of a 4 month long struggle for life. Deer are hurting right now, maybe not as bad as previous years, but don’t let the lack of snowfall fool you. It is this struggle that we hunters start to become concerned about this time of year and as a result, we naturally feel obligated to intervene. This intervention is often in the form of a bag of “deer corn”, and it could spell disaster for you. Feeding deer during the winter is not a subject to lightly dismiss as a “common sense subject”, there is a right way and a wrong and in some situations fatal way to do it. To understand every piece that is required before feeding deer during the winter, we first need to take a walk in the shoes of a whitetail.
Imagine if you will, you’re a hog of a buck, one of those southern Iowa whoppers we all know exist. Its late October your busy eating acorns and stacking up the energy and carbs before the rut, putting on the pounds of fat. You feel your testosterone rising and those little bucks are really pestering you. Once November rolls around your weight is at an astonishing 255 pounds! You’re having fun running does throughout the southern Iowa corn fields and hardwoods, occasionally locking one down in your favorite thicket. It’s all fun and games until that first snowflake falls, then it’s back to survival. Now let’s fast forward to late February, you now weigh 180 pounds, you have shed your antlers, your fat reserves are almost spent, there is no corn left in the fields, and the snow is a foot deep. You need energy and protein to repair your body condition after the long rut. The worst news is that your instincts understand new food isn’t coming anytime soon, and more winter is still likely to be had!
From any deer hunters perspective this buck basically seems to be up “you know which creek,” right? Absolutely, and it’s not just the buck, every whitetail in the woods struggles in late February and March. The skinny, rut-worn buck, the pregnant nanny, and the 8-9 month old fawn are all in trouble. Don’t get us wrong, deer are given the correct tools to survive winter, a thick insulated coat, an internal computer telling them what and when to eat, and the knowledge to find food and a warm bed in tough conditions. Even with all of these tools the facts still remain, a whitetail is running out of fat reserves, food sources are slim, and there is still a month to go before the buffet opens. Out of time and out of options, supplemental feeding seems to be the golden ticket for our deer herds. Unfortunately this ticket could be real and helpful…or a trap and fatal, all depending on you, your area, and your situation!
East to west, states across the country have restrictions or have outlawed baiting and feeding deer …as much as you hate to hear it. Why? A lot focuses around deer to deer transmission of diseases, such as Chronic Wasting Disease. However, in the winter, disease within a deer can develop. It’s called Acidosis, the fatal and ugly side of improper supplemental feeding! When ruminants (deer) get ahold of large quantities of carbohydrates that are low in fiber, not normally not found in their diet this time of year, they lack the microorganisms in their stomach to digest the food. Adjustments in the stomach are made within 6 hours of digesting large amounts of this food source (commonly corn) changing the makeup of the stomach entirely, leading to a flush of lactic acid. This results in a fall of pH, destruction of the digestion and absorption process, and eventual dehydration and death of the deer! This is the number one, big concern over feeding deer during the winter. Now before you comment with your opinions on the subject, and say that we are against feeding, finish this article through and get all the information.
With this information it’s a wonder how there are any deer in the Midwest at all! “With all that corn laying in the fields after harvest any one of those states are giant minefields just waiting to kill deer” – this type of statement is exactly why the subject takes some explaining. Photoperiods tell a whitetail’s internal computer to restrict movement, eat less, and also suggests what to eat. A deer will rely on its fat reserves for most of their bodily functions and energy requirements, but they do still need to eat. Their diet consists mostly of woody browse this time of year, early successional species like blackberries and greenbriers, and saplings. This diet is high in fiber and the microflora in a deer’s gut are adjusted for this type of diet. But, deer in areas like the Midwest (and other properties or areas with large scale Ag) are locked on corn as a primary food source from November till the last kernel is gone in the field – usually in February or spring green up in some situations. In those situations deer and their stomachs will not bat an eye over a sudden corn pile in the woods. But in areas without the corn food source consistently availability, the corn pile could spell disaster!
So with this information you can now determine whether or not your neighbors feeding deer in their backyard are killing their “pets.” So yeah…now might be the time to break the news to that old, kind-hearted couple across the street. But be cautious…they might be smarter than they look! You can be successful at feeding deer during the winter by using the right type of feed and at the right amount.
Let’s briefly return to the deer’s gut again. If a sudden switch of food sources is bad, how do they naturally switch from a food source like acorns to corn, then back from corn to woody browse…without problems? It’s all about the timing and amount.
If feeding and baiting in your state is legal, and you have been feeding all year long, then you are good to go. For those just starting to feed now, you need to pay attention! You can introduce a new food source in small amounts (around 10lbs over a period of a couple days, more or less according to deer density) successfully. The right type of deer feed still needs to be addressed but for now let’s stick to the right amount.
The deer’s gut flora need anywhere from a week to 3 weeks to adjust to a new type of diet. Small amounts of the new food source will not cause a sudden shock and switch, resulting in a negative pH change and death. If the deer on your property are only given small and increasing amounts of the new food source over a long period of time, the gut flora will adjust and the introduction will be successful. Now for you this is bad news. Your family, day job, and other obligations will keep you from properly introducing small amounts of feed on your property. Are you really going to spread a half a bucket of feed out every 2 days? What makes more sense is investing in a feeder. Feeders will allow you to control the when and how much without spending your valuable time. Increasing spread time, amount, and refilling the feeder every other weekend sounds more manageable. But this introduction will fail if you use the wrong feed.
Quiz time, what food source consists more than 60% of a whitetail’s diet right now? How about woody browse like saplings, briars, and honeysuckle! That’s right, it is the correct feed for this time of year. But you can’t supplement those types of foods when times get hard, it’s more of a long term management process.
However, with the best deer feed for the winter being woody browse, our feed needs to be similar. At least in nutritional make up. Loading the feeder up with corn is not going to cut it. Did you forget? You’re that hog of a buck in southern Iowa. You’re worn out and need protein and energy to repair recover your body condition and carry out normal everyday functions. Woody browse give you this, corn does not. The correct feed needs to supply the right amount of protein, fat, and that crucial fiber factor for similarity with woody browse.