Though deer season in the South may last only a few months, proper management of white-tailed deer for a healthy herd and increased hunting opportunities requires adequate nutrition year-round.
Land management practices directly influence the quality of habitat for deer, especially their diets. Timber harvests, prescribed burning and agricultural and wildlife plantings can provide a combination of food and cover necessary to maintain a healthy herd.
This month’s column will focus on the use of plantings to help “fill in the gaps” when quality native foods are sparse. While most managers are aware that winter food plots can be utilized to attract deer for increased hunting opportunities, they may not realize that these sources of food can be used effectively throughout the year to help maintain a healthy deer herd.
Understanding the life history of white-tailed deer will give managers a better idea of how to adequately provide for these animals’ nutritional needs.
What happens in the spring and summer? Bucks shed their antlers from the preceding season and begin to grow new ones. The rapidly growing tissue requires additional protein. Also during this time period, does are in the midst of a 210-day gestation period, requiring extra protein. After does drop their fawns (which could be as late as September in some places), lactation begins, and this period places heavy energy demands on the does. Bucks, does and fawns are building muscle mass during the summer. Bucks begin to shed their velvet, and does cease lactation as fawns are weaned.
What deer need in the spring and summer. Ideal protein sources for both sexes include forbs, grasses and native legumes. Soybeans, alfalfa, cow peas and clover are easily planted and offer high-protein content.
What happens in the fall and winter? Fall and winter bring lower temperatures and a decrease in available food sources. These factors tap into energy reserves and cause deer to search for extra carbohydrates. Depending on your location, deer may undergo rut in the fall or winter. This period of chasing does in estrous and establishing dominance is a major energy draw for bucks, requiring additional carbohydrates. Bucks also need to begin preparing for antler growth in the spring, and does need to maintain a suitable body condition to help improve reproductive success.
What deer need in the fall and winter. Native plants that provide excellent sources of carbohydrates and energy include red oak and white oak acorns. Annuals such as corn and sorghum can also be beneficial to deer during the fall. For managers wishing to attract these deer for hunting purposes and provide adequate nutrition during winter, cool season crops such as wheat, oats or rye are excellent choices.
What about water? Access to adequate water is another priority for land managers to consider when factoring in the nutritional needs of white-tailed deer. Though protein and carbohydrates are vital, having a consistent source of water is crucial to the health of the deer herd. Deer may use water produced during metabolism, water trapped in food sources or free sources of water such as streams, ponds or dew on plants. Keep in mind that during times of drought, you may have to provide water in tanks or ponds if no other sources exist.
Not just nutrition. While nutrition is one of the key components, land managers must consider when trying to produce a higher quality deer herd, it is only one segment of a holistic management approach.
Food plots for deer should never be viewed as a substitute for properly managed native habitat.
Managers must also enforce proper harvest of does to attain balanced herd structures, eliminate the harvest of young bucks and reduce the hunting pressure on their property in order to create the conditions necessary to encourage a healthy deer herd.