In my last blog, I focused on some deer nutrition basics. This blog will contain some seasonal basics on deer feeding habits because many landowners or managers plan deer food plots for Trophy sized whitetail deer year around. That is to say deer food plots that provide nutrition and attraction in the late fall and winter months, I’ll emphasize nutritional needs during these months.
While specific plants consumed by whitetail deer may vary by geographical region, an important feeding characteristic of deer—and an essential consideration for food plot design —will not vary by your geography. It’s this: cover and habitat, not the attractiveness or availability of food sources, is a major consideration for where the deer go to eat. This helps explain why deer graze on a variety of plant matter throughout the year—they’re utilizing the food that fits both into their habitat/cover preferences, as well as food that also happens to meet their seasonal nutritional needs.
That is critical to keep in mind as you decide when and where to position the food plot that will help meet the nutritional and seasonal dietary needs of the deer on your land.
Spring means both doe and buck need lots of protein, and young plant growth helps provide a ready protein source. Grasses that green early, forbs, and shrubs all provide tender new growth selected by deer in the spring. Early-maturing legumes provide tender plants that help supply the higher protein requirements during the later spring.
Moving into summer months, deer typically reduce their grass consumption. Maturing legumes like alfalfa and clover are important summer food sources, especially for lactating doe and growing fawns. In many parts of northern and western North America, forbs become the most important food choice for Trophy whitetail deer in the summer. During the later summer, shrubs become a preferred source. In Minnesota, for example, asters, sumac, goldenrod, honeysuckle and jewelweed are all preferred by deer in the late summer.
Fall finds white-tailed deer transitioning to shrubby vegetation that is not as affected by fall frosts. The “woody browse” season is here, as deer utilize shrubs and forbs in the native stand. In farm areas, deer will also begin to utilize grains like corn and soybeans still standing before harvest.
Part of the purpose of fall-feeding for deer is to begin storing fat and energy for the winter months. A well-designed deer food plot will provide crops that can help deer accomplish this.
During the winter months, deer respond to less daylight with a lower metabolism. Their appetites are naturally reduced, as they conserve energy and reduce the amount of food needed. Trees and shrubs are making up at least three-quarters or their food supply, along with hard mast like acorns.
While some food plot crops might supply deer with in-season protein needs and some mixes might promise to maximize the rack, responsible food plot design has to keep the nutritional needs of deer in the winter months in mind. Providing crops like brassicas (like turnip) and grains (like soybean) that can be browsed through the winter will help ensure high-energy food sources during the lean winter months.
Source Consulted (Summer section, “In Minnesota, for example….”)“Managing Your Woodland For White-tailed Deer” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, January 2007