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Supplemental Whitetail Feeding – Do’s and Dont’s

Across the Midwest, the fast and furious, action-filled days of the rut are long gone. Whitetails are now transitioning back into winter feeding patterns and are a bit wiser than they were a mere month ago. The stresses of the rut and hunting pressure have taken their toll, and now the long winter solstice has set in. While a deer’s motivation changes throughout the seasons, late-season deer have but very few prerogatives; food and survival. The winter life of a whitetail deer is rather monotonous and while the stresses of winter do have an impact on whitetail survival, whitetails have evolved to withstand frigid weather and food shortages. From a human perspective, we feel the need to intervene and offer assistance, typically by supplementally offering corn in backyard feeders. This can be a major no-no and depending on individual circumstances should be avoided, particularly in areas where deer do not have ready access to agriculture crops.

As winter sets in, whitetail movement decreases substantially to better conserve fat storage that has been built throughout the summer and fall months; as a result, food consumption decreases. While the two go hand in hand, we as humans often misconstrue a whitetails urge to feed. While a deer’s focus has shifted back to available food sources, northern climate whitetails have evolved to require substantially less food than they do during summer and fall.

Deer have a unique stomach chamber that allows for maximum nutrient consumption and a longer digestion process. Whitetails are equipped with a 4-stage stomach chamber that is designed to better conserve and digest crops and woody browse. By Introducing foreign food sources, we may inadvertently cause disruption to the microorganisms of the digestive tract and inflict harm on the very deer that we are determined to help. When ruminants (whitetail deer) gain access to carbohydrate-rich food sources that have low fiber content, the microorganisms in their stomach are unable to digest the foreign food. In turn, the stomach has to make a rapid change to its digestion process causing a surge of lactic acid. The abrupt change in digestion leads to dehydration, sickness and occasionally death. These changes will typically occur within 24 hours.

The most prevalent feeding of deer occurs in the suburbs. High concentrations of unpressured whitetails roam the back lawns of residential neighborhoods nibbling on woody browse such as shrubs and garden remnants. The lack of food leads people who do not know otherwise to assume that the deer are starving and that by offering a supplemental food source to the deer herd, that they will be helping, that simply is not the case. By introducing a foreign food source that deer do not have year-round access to, they are increasing the likelihood of disease.
*It should be noted that in areas where there is substantial access to corn, acidosis is much less likely to occur due to year-round availability.

Carbs kill: Acidosis in whitetails occurs when a new food source is introduced to a deer herd. Corn is a carbohydrate-rich grain, not what a whitetail needs to survive and rebuild strength. The focus should be on protein-rich food sources like woody browse or soybeans.

Aside from Acidosis, Chronic Wasting Disease has taken its toll on large numbers of whitetails across the Midwest. Without diving into detail, the spread of the disease is made possible through saliva. The most common transmission of CWD is when food is densely concentrated in one area, such as corn piles. Many more diseases have been associated with supplemental feeding such as brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis, which can lead to a nasty and untimely death.

Auto Accidents: Supplemental feeding will concentrate deer into relatively small areas. Often, this means that deer will travel directly from bedding to feed each evening. IF there happens to be a highway between point A and B, car/deer collisions will likely increase. I see this each winter in the suburbs of St. Paul. Deer migrate to residential feeding stations, and where there was once a healthy concentration of deer, populations explode. Trails in the snow become winter highways and in turn carcasses litter the edge of the road.

The Answer: If you feel it necessary to feed whitetails in the winter, it may be best to offer the food source year-round, not only during the winter months. Also, if you live in an area where corn is readily available to the herd, their stomachs have already developed the necessary organisms to digest the carbohydrates, so you will not be doing any harm. If you must feed winter whitetails, a gradual introduction of corn is the answer. While this is not a recommended approach, offering small amounts of carbohydrate-rich corn will allow the deer to adjust to the food source introduction and their stomach will build an immunity to acidosis.

We as humans feel the need to help the critters that are out in the awful cold all winter long. Oftentimes we fail to realize that mother nature is better left alone to manage her winter residents. Thousands of years of evolution have better-equipped wildlife to withstand harsh climates and food shortages. Do your best to resist the urge to supplementally feed whitetails as the addition of corn may spell disaster for deer.

We all want what is best for the herd, and it is fun to see deer during the winter months; feeding them offers the best opportunity to draw them from the timber to our backyards. However, the offering of an easy meal can spell disaster and the demise of deer in your area.