Deer Food Menu: What, When and Why

A four-season guide to what deer eat, when they eat it, and why

Deer Food Menu: What, When and Why
Food plots and other manmade food sources often only make up about 15 percent of a deer's diet during the fall. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Flinn)

We all walk through the deer woods at different times of the year. Some of us might, but many do not really stop to think about the food available for deer to eat.

For instance in the spring and summer, we often look around and see green vegetation everywhere for deer to eat. Likewise, during the fall, it seems we barely make it to the treestand without rolling an ankle on acorns.

But the true dynamics of a deer’s year-round diet is much more than a bunch of leaves and acorns. Everything they eat, when they eat, and for what reason they are eating is subliminally calculated to meet the nutritional demands.

Fall

The fall is likely one of the most misunderstood times of the year for deer food. It’s inevitable in years of good acorn crops when hunters state how big the deer will be this season.


In order to understand the complete results of what deer are eating, we first need to understand why they are eating. No, not to survive, but what are the processes going on that dictate the food source they consume in the fall.


For the Northern part of the US, and anywhere cold weather can hit in winter, deer are prepping to push through the harsh months ahead. Some hunters associate snow with being harsh, which it can make things difficult, but the constant sub-freezing temperatures is the real nightmare for deer, with or without snow. The fall is the time when deer are looking to bulk up fat reserves in the body. The best way to do this is eat foods high in carbohydrates.


In the fall months, acorns, when available, are a main food source for deer. (Jeff Phillips photo)

This is why natural foods like acorns are often called the “ice cream” for deer. They are high in carbohydrates and only available for a limited time. Deer also will feed on these sources because of the reliability. Sure there is variation from year to year, but unlike a manmade food source, acorns are likely to be there when they need them.

Though many may think crops and food plots are very high on the food menu, they may only make up about 15 percent of their diet during the fall in areas where acorns are available. Yes, the same is true with corn. In the end, acorns are the king of food in the fall.


Winter

Whether you live in the North or South, winter can wreak havoc on a deer herd. It looks like a biological desert in the woods, and for many hunters and non-hunters alike; they believe feeding them is the only way to survive.

A deer’s focus in the winter is to conserve energy, particularly when feeding. They have to make sure that the amount of energy spent getting up and moving to feed will yield a positive return.

Though it may not look like much, deer get most of their food through woody browse during the winter time, including blackberry, greenbrier and young trees, such as oak and maple. These aren’t the carb-loaded food of the fall, or the protein-packed spring and summer foods, but it gets them through.



During the harsh winter months, woody browse, such a greenbrier, are widely available and help deer survive until spring. (Jeff Phillips photo)

Spring

Spring brings new life to the woods. Not just in terms of animals, like fawns, but also new growth of highly nutritious deer food. Most notably are forbs, or what many of us might consider weeds.

Young forbs provide a lot of tonnage in the spring and – more importantly – are packed full of the nutrients deer need to recover from the winter drag. The sooner a buck repairs his body from the rut and depleting winter months, the soon he can direct resources to antler growth.

Spring is likely the most critical time for good nutrition for bucks. A lengthy repair period for a buck means a shorter amount of time to grow antlers, which could mean smaller racks.

Summer

The summer is the when manmade food sources really come into play. The lush crop fields and food plots provide deer with ample nutrition in many areas. Other food sources during this time are forbs, soft mast, such has berries, and woody browse.

Even in the best cropland, deer will still eat from the time they get out of their bed, until they lay down.

As you walk through the deer woods this year, take a close look around. Look for signs of deer feeding, and take in the extreme diversity of the plant communities around you. It’s not just all about corn, food plots and field crops for deer; natural habitat supports most of a deer’s diet.

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