As a passionate conservationist and wildlife biologist, managing winter whitetails for the past 30+ years is a true labour of love! From deeryard operations in the mountains of Quebec, Canada, to counting whitetail pellet groups in Central Ontario, to maintaining my own backyard deer feeding here in Canada’s National Capital, managing winter whitetails is a ‘pet’ project I take very seriously.
Join me as share insight on winter deer management to assist with your own whitetail feeding program, starting with the number 1 rule of winter deer feeding, consistency. Once your supplemental feed is offered during late fall, it is imperative to continue throughout winter, as a whitetail’s digestive system will adapt to your supplemented diet.
Wildlife management agencies in North America tread lightly when it comes to private backyard feeding, since most would-be deer managers aren’t familiar enough with a whitetail’s dietary requirements. Understanding the basics before you start your own backyard feeding goes a long way to ensuring a more productive and helpful winter program.
There are some feed options when supplementing a white-tailed deer’s winter diet, which in much of North America, is composed of woody tree browse. Backyard feeders take note that your food offerings are only a small ‘supplement’ to the deer’s natural winter browse intake, akin to feeding song birds at a bird feeder. We are not there to replace a whitetail’s natural diet entirely; this is one of the many misconceptions of backyard feeding.
After years of experimenting with feed types, I settled on a balanced blend similar ‘livestock grower pellets’ – composed of 14” Protein, 8 % Fibre, 3 % crude fat and 1% calcium. The use of whole corn, whole wheat or whole barley can cause serious digestive issues since these foods are high in starch. A starch overload in deer can spawn a harmful growth of Clostridium bacteria, associated with over-feeding diseases in livestock. Whitetails provided with copious amounts of such cereal grains may also develop Acidosis, leading to infection and acid lesions in the digestive system. Sticking with simple pelletized livestock feed, similar to what other ruminants, like cattle consume, is the safest and most beneficial choice for winter whitetails.
One potential pitfall of winter-feeding is its impact on deer density. Large-scale feeding operations often result in unrealistically high whitetail numbers for a given area, thereby depleting natural forage supplies. This theory ties-in with the concept of carrying capacity or the natural environment’s ability to offer life support for a set number of animals based on available resources. The goal with any backyard feeding is to provide a small supplement while not replacing deer’s natural feed completely. Keeping your backyard program small scale, as I do catering only to a small localized population, is the safest way to go.
Over-feeding can also lead to higher energy demands in whitetails, so avoid distributing an over abundance of feed for a handful of wintering deer. Higher levels of aggression and fighting may also occur at feeders where dominant animals prevent others from feeding in a crowded environment. In years where I have more than 5-6 wintering whitetails in my back bush, I ensure that feed is separated into small individual piles and not distributed solely in my main feeding trough. This allows all members of the herd to feed without fear of reprisal.
The motivation for backyard feeding (besides enjoyment) is to prevent loss of wintering deer due to starvation. Whitetail herds in their northern range contend with deep snow, limited access to natural forage and increased predation during the winter months. Supplemental feeding can be a asset to the herd as a whole. Younger deer have higher energy demands with increased difficulty wading through deep snow, so winters are especially hazardous. Mature bucks enter the colder months having exhausted fat reserves during rut, and when winter arrives they are often weakened and unable to replenish crucial fat levels.
One the most devastating ‘hidden’ effects of harsh winters is observed with adult does, and result in death of fawns in the spring, during birth. Studies have shown that females with improved winter nutrition have fewer fawns die at birth, and increased fecundity rates, or delivery of multiple fawns. Improved winter diet is beneficial to all members of the whitetail population.
Helping deer populations during difficult months can be fun and fulfilling. Maintaining a small backyard program all these years, has offered me an intimate glimpse into whitetail behaviour, and made for great photo opportunities. I have observed fawns born in my backyard; develop into mature bucks which return to my feeder each winter. Playing a small part in their overall success is a gratifying.
I hope you enjoyed some winter deer feeding fun. I am the Outdoors Guy, I will see you in the great outdoors!
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