Given the opportunity, whitetail deer can be extremely picky eaters. They know exactly what their bodies need and when they need it, and they’ll actively seek out required forms of nutrition. When land managers can pinpoint those needs, the results are a healthier deer herd and happier hunters.
Just like humans, whitetail deer need a well-rounded diet throughout the year. During different seasons, the nutritional requirements of bucks, does and fawns will vary slightly, but all three need water, protein, energy (fats and carbohydrates), calcium, phosphorus, sodium and fiber. The key for managers is to provide the deer with what they need most, when they need it most. By breaking down the nutrition calendar into the four seasons and by discussing the specific need of bucks, does and fawns, we can determine the optimal feeding and food plot strategies for your deer herd.
The arrival of spring is easy to recognize. Air and soil temperatures begin to rise and lush green growth starts to canvas the forest floor. Deer recognize this too, as that emerging green growth usually is the best natural browse they encounter each year.
At this point in the year, bucks are still recovering from the rut and the previous winter. They’re looking to rebuild muscle, so protein is absolutely critical. Bucks will also begin growing their new antlers by the end of spring, a function also requiring a high protein diet but also plenty of calcium and phosphorus.
Does are near their fawning dates and thus need to prepare their bodies for nursing, which will deplete their fat stores throughout the summer. Does also have to support a growing fetus in the third trimester, giving it the best chance to survive through the summer. To do this, they are still in need of energy to maintain their body condition and protein to aid the development of the fetus. It is rare to have fawns at the onset of spring but if you do they will be mostly dependent on nursing for their nutritional needs, increasing the importance of energy and protein for the adult does. Bucks, does and fawns also need plenty of sodium during the spring because their daily intake of water is increased significantly by the lush browse.
Supplemental feeding, food plots and mineral supplements are all very beneficial to the deer herd in spring. Provide a high-protein (17-20 percent) feed in trough or gravity feeders (so as not to limit the deer’s intake). I like to start my protein feeding program around May 1 and continue it throughout the summer. As the name suggests, supplemental feed will supplement new browse and spring food plots by providing additional minerals and fats that native browse and most food plot species lack.
When planning food plots for the spring, it is beneficial to look backwards at fall and winter. I think it is critical that if you plant annual food plot blends that you should be sure that there is an adequate clover component in each blend. By simply mowing the plots in the early spring to release the clover, you can have a fantastic, high-protein food source well into summer.
In some parts of the country and for some managers, clover seems to be the “magic plant.” I use clover to fill my nutritional gaps between annual planting. It compliments a year-round program by thriving as forage from February to late May.
Mineral supplements are also useful during this time because they fill a need for sodium, calcium and phosphorus. When evaluating supplements, be sure that there are at least two parts calcium to each part phosphorus in the blend. I like to place mineral stations very close to my feeding areas because they are easier to monitor and maintain. Plus, deer are already eating there, so they can utilize the mineral site at the same time. If you can’t afford supplemental feed and/or don’t have good food plots, you can also choose areas of concentrated favored browse and fertilize them with a “generic” fertilizer at a rate of 200-400 lbs per acre to significantly increase the quality of native browse. You can also make your own mineral blend that is simple, affordable and effective.
Let’s take a look at summer requirements on page 2