What Are Your Deer Eating?

A deer's diet varies from the hunting season to the heat of the summer. The one constant is that native browse is a critical component to their diet all year. (Graph Courtesy of University of Missouri Extension and Missouri Department of Conservation)

With winter setting in hard across the country, from well-below-zero temperatures in the Upper Midwest to snow and ice in the South, deer are in the most food-stressed period of the year.


With abundant crops long gone, and acorns buried or rotten, it begs the question, “What are your deer eating right now?” More importantly, what is getting them not just through the winter, but on their way to producing fawns and growing antlers.

Take a quick walk through your hunting area this time of year, and the food sources available to deer are scarce for many, to say the least. What once seemed like food everywhere, is now non-existent or buried under snow and ice. But still, every year deer find the will and a way to survive.

Although it may not be the easiest winter, they will do it once again. The reason? No, not your feeder, or food plots, or pile of corn … their native habitat.


The native habitat provides a deer’s number one food source annually. What’s that, you might ask? Well, to you it might be brush, saplings, brambles or “jaggers.” This is the food that supports a deer throughout the good and bad times. That’s right, not only is this type of food the majority of a deer’s diet in the winter, it also makes up at least 30 percent of the deer’s diet during the spring and summer when crops are readily available.

Why? Or better yet, how?

James             Kroll (Courtesy Drdeer.com)
From "brambles" to "jaggers," what we call these plants may not matter; but what does matter is that they are provided in enough quantity and of good quality to support your deer herd through some of the toughest months of the year. (Jeremy Flinn photo)

Obviously it seems as if deer spend the majority of their time in the fields feeding. That’s true, but that’s just simply based on when deer are observed. What we don’t see are their behaviors from and back to the bedding areas.

Deer are classified as “browsers” for a reason; they are constantly nipping and feeding the entire time they are on their feet, or technically hooves. They have to make sure that as they are spending energy, it is being replenished through feeding.

So what are they exactly eating? A great example is the bramble or “jagger.” From blackberry to raspberry to greenbrier, these types of plants can provide a large amount of food to sustain deer through the winter months and then continue to provide a great source of nutrition through the spring and summer.

In some areas, new growth greenbrier can have the same amount of protein as lush green soybeans. Not a joke. Big deer of the Midwest aren’t necessarily getting that big because of crop plantings, it’s because of the soil fertility.

The great soil quality provides the foundation for excellent crop production, no doubt about that. But it also provides extremely good growing conditions for all the native browse. The better the soil, the better the quality of plant can grow in that soil. Being that it makes up a large chunk of the deer’s diet each year, the relationship between native browse and body-antler size should be more apparent to you now.

In next week’s Everything Deer column, I’ll discuss what you can do to create more and better quality native browse for your deer herd. From simply using a chainsaw, to prescribed fire burns and herbicides.

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