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What Is the Right Way to Feed Deer?

With so much misinformation available to hunters, we take a look at a properly conducted supplemental deer feeding program.

When it comes to feeding whitetails, you’re likely to hear about as many strong positions as in a deer camp discussion of fixed-blade vs. mechanical broadheads. It seems everyone has an opinion. However, even among scientists, few of those opinions are based on documented facts.

To further complicate the discussion, some states now ban feeding deer even outside hunting seasons. As the furor over chronic wasting disease has increased, some agency biologists have used it as an excuse to eliminate legal feeding.

I have no desire to become embroiled in such controversies, so I’ll leave them to the bloggers. But as a whitetail scientist and manager for over four decades now, I’ll simply note that I’ve come to incorporate supplemental feeding into my comprehensive management wherever legal, while dutifully avoiding it where it isn’t.

Let’s look into the practice of feeding whitetails and see where and how it can serve a purpose for those with the legal option to use it.

Rescue vs. Supplemental Feeding

There are two types of feeding: rescue and nutritional supplementation. Rescue feeding takes place when local deer are starving due to some terrible climatic event, such as a blizzard, drought or flood. Feedstuffs are carried in on a regular basis in an attempt to save the lives of affected deer. This practice is temporary, and unfortunately, more often a feel-good approach than an effective strategy.

True feeding is supplementing the native nutrition with what deer need, when they need it. What constitutes an effective, ecologically sound feeding program is the focus of this column. Let’s examine the what, when, where and how of proper feeding.

What Is a Good Deer Feed?

Here at the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research, we developed the first feed constructed specifically for deer. Interestingly, back in those days people often asked why anyone would want to feed deer. Today, there are hundreds of national and local brands, many of which are anything but good for deer! A “good” feed is usually a pelleted ration and has the following characteristics:

  • crude protein ranging from 16-18 percent, delivered mostly from an alfalfa base.
  • crude fiber roughly matched to protein, range 12-15 percent.
  • carbohydrate source, such as corn or cereal grain, to provide adequate digestible energy.
  • a balanced mineral packet specifically aimed at whitetails.
  • Dr-Deer-July-2020-Protein-Supplements-lead.jpg
    Based on the author’s research, most of the best whitetail feeds are alfalfa-based pellets that include other ingredients to promote a balanced diet. (Photo by Gordon Whittington)

    Yes, other feeds are being used by managers. However, formulations such as “textured” feeds, constructed of soybeans, peas, peanuts, grains, etc. can create real problems.

    That’s why I recommend feeds with the above traits.

    When Do Deer Need Feed?

    I prefer to let the deer “tell” me when they need a supplement. That means supplemental feed should be supplied free choice on a year-round basis, where legal.

    Remember, the purpose of feeding is to supplement deficiencies in what the native vegetation is providing at a point in time. This varies year-to-year because of variations in rainfall and other climatic conditions. If you keep records, over time you can pretty well predict how much supplement your deer will consume during a given month of the year, and under which conditions.

    At our facility, on average each deer consumes about 1.8 pounds of feed per day from late spring into late summer. We plant food plots of winter oats, chicory and clover the last week of September. (In the North, we do so the last week of August.) Ten days after our plots emerge, feed consumption drops to about a half-pound per deer per day!


    There’s no substitute for good record-keeping or good, growing forage.

    Where to Feed?

    We’ve long recommended a “one-stop shopping” approach to deer nutrition. Early research on movements and behavior taught me whitetails would like to live within a home range of under 100 acres. The reason we don’t see it more often is inadequate habitat diversity. So I prefer to create a “nutrition station,” near the center of every 100 acres.

    Where legal, there will be one free-choice feeder (two is a better strategy, at 25-yard spacing), a water source (natural or artificial) and a food plot (where climate permits).

    We place our feeders where deer feel comfortable coming to eat. That means we never hunt over them, even where it’s legal to feed during the season. These areas should be part of a designated sanctuary for your deer. Remember: There’s a difference between feeding and baiting.

    How to Supply Feed

    Now we move into the complicated and often controversial topic of feeder construction. I’ll try to be generic in my recommendations on what a “good” deer feeder is.First, what the feeder is made from is very important. Most commercial deer feeders are constructed from metal: steel, aluminum or galvanized. A good one should last you the rest of your life. Chances are, if you can’t afford a quality feeder, you probably won’t be able to afford adequate feed, either.

    Aluminum construction or thin metal isn’t acceptable, as such feeders are easily damaged. Galvanized materials are great for longevity, but the galvanizing material can introduce toxins into the feed. So that leaves us with only two good options: steel and polypropylene or similar material.

    Steel feeders should be placed in shady locations, as our research has shown that temperatures exceeding 140 degrees F. are easily achieved in steel feeders exposed to the sun. Heat degrades protein, and any feed that remains in a feeder over 45 days in warm to hot weather begins to degrade. Polypropylene feeders tend to have lower internal temperatures. However, they do have the problem of being susceptible to squirrel damage if placed near trees. We generally use polypropylene feeders, but steel is acceptable when properly placed.

    The next important attribute is the type of delivery device. Timed feeders that dispense a set amount of feed at preprogrammed intervals are especially popular where used for hunting. However, they often limit consumption and discourage 24-hour use by deer. For that reason, we generally prefer free-choice feeders. These are gravity-fed, meaning the feed is housed in an upper reservoir that allows feed to fall into one or more delivery tubes.

    Believe it or not, the shape of these tubes has a great deal to do with acceptance and use by deer. After two decades of research, we’ve come to firmly believe that round tubes four inches in diameter are best for feeding. Square, oval or fluted tubes will see significantly less use than will round tubes.

    We prefer to have three or four feeder tubes, thus allowing more than one deer to feed at a time. Looking into another deer’s eyes is a direct threat, so if feeding simultaneously, they tend to turn their heads in opposite directions to avoid direct eye contact. These feeder tube heads should be no less than 42 inches off the ground, and feeder support legs should be 40 inches apart at the feeder tube level.

    This height virtually eliminates use of the feed by “non-target” animals such as raccoons, which have been shown to consume as much as 50 percent of pelleted feeds. In areas with wild hogs, the 42-inch height deters most of their theft from the tubes, as only the largest boars can reach that high.

    In Conclusion

    Where legal, we’ve been able to demonstrate that a properly conducted supplemental feeding program can significantly increase antler growth and recruitment. We also feel that a proper feeding program coupled with a well-planned habitat and population management program can actually reduce occurrence of disease by spreading deer out and keeping them in tip-top body condition. So is there a place for feeding whitetails? I strongly believe the results speak for themselves.

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