Fawn Nutrition Influences Buck Potential

Large buck in tall grass

With the approach of hunting season, many hunters, and deer managers, will change their feeding program from free-choice feeding of protein pellets to timed release of deer corn in order to begin to pattern the deer to make hunting easier.  For most of the population, this is a practice that is necessary to make the older, wiser deer more available.  However, for one class of deer in the pasture, it is a practice that is detrimental to their survival and development.

Those fawns that have been recently weaned by the does have very high nutrient requirements to continue to grow, develop, and survive the winter to become part of the deer herd next spring.  If the pasture forage conditions are less than ideal, you may be hurting your future buck quality by neglecting this group of deer.

In all species of animals, the younger and smaller ones need a diet that is more “nutrient dense” than is required by the older, more mature animals.  Nutrient density refers to the concentration of nutrients in the diet.  In other words, fawn diets need higher protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins concentrations than mature animals do.

There are two major issues to consider when looking at the nutrient needs of fawns.  One is body and organ development.  The other is survival.

Every day, fawns are not only gaining weight, but they are also building the tissues and organs that will govern just how efficient and productive they may be as an adult.  Bones, teeth, the digestive system, muscle and other tissues all continue to develop after birth.

If a young buck is to live long enough to express his genetic potential for antler growth, five years of age or better, he will have to be able to have a digestive system that can efficiently digest and absorb the nutrients necessary.  If he is to breed does, he must have sufficient muscle and bone development to succeed in the fight for dominance in the pasture and produce fertile sperm, and he must have an immune system that can overcome the normal diseases and infections that he will incur in his life.

Of course, survival of the fawns is the only way they can be recruited into the deer herd and become healthy, productive adults.  In most years, there is enough forage available to provide nutrients for the average fawn to survive.  However, there are years of low forage availability or extreme cold temperatures that deprive the fawn of nutrients or provide added stress their bodies can’t overcome.  In these types of years, many fawns succumb to these stresses.

All of these conditions are influenced heavily by nutrition.  And if you want to continue to improve the quality and productivity of your deer herd, you have to continue to improve their nutritional intake.

So, how do you try to improve fawn development and survival?  The first limiting factor to consider is the protein content of their diet.

Protein is so important to a ruminant animal because the microorganisms in the rumen that break down protein and fiber in the diet are largely made up of protein.  Without protein that is available in the rumen, the amount of microorganisms in the rumen will be limited, which can decrease forage intake and how well the forage is broken down and digested.  Both of which reduce the nutrients available to the animals.  Therefore, the first step in meeting the nutritional needs of fawns is to insure that they have ample amounts of ruminally available protein.

After protein needs are met, then energy needs be considered.  Generally, as long as the deer population is in proportion to the amount of forage in the pastures, energy is not as large of a nutritional problem as protein.  Also, when you feed a protein type of supplement, you are also adding energy to the diet.

However, in extremely cold winters, extremely wet ones, or years when forage is limited, energy needs may be greater than the native forage can provide.  When that happens, animals will lose weight.  Mature animals generally have some body tissues they can metabolize as a source of energy.  The exception to this is the bucks that have lost a good deal of weight during the breeding season and are at risk of post-rut death loss.

Fawns, especially, are vulnerable to weight loss.  Depending on when they were born, their dams’ ability to produce milk, and whether or not they were a twin, underweight fawns do not have very much extra tissues to metabolize in times of environmental stress.  During these times, if the fawns cannot get some increased energy, either from forage or supplements, they may suffer severe cold stress and die.

Improving both protein and energy intakes can come from supplemental feeds or food plots.  In the winter in west Texas, it is very difficult to have successful food plots.  The exception seems to be the group of plants called “small grains” for planted for forage.

Wheat, oats, rye, barley, and the hybrid of wheat and rye called tritacale are all adapted to dry areas and can provide lots of high quality grazing for deer, if they are kept in a vegetative stage of less then three inches in length.  If the leaves are longer than three inches, the fiber level in the forage is such that deer don’t digest it as efficiently as when shorter.

Other plants such as vetches, winter peas, and turnips, to name a few, also can provide very good food plot forage, as long as they are adapted to your area and have the moisture to grow.  Any food plot that has young, vegetative plants that the deer can, and will, eat will increase their protein and energy intake.

However, many managers don’t have the time, right type of soil, sufficient moisture, or the equipment to plant food plots.  In those cases, you have to look at supplemental feeds to provide the nutrients for the fawns.

Many people feed corn through spin-type feeders as a bait, and energy source, during the hunting season.  While this does provide energy and a low level of protein, the amount of corn available per head per day is generally not enough to have much of a nutritional impact on the deer, let alone fawns.  If you could provide a protein supplement, or protein-corn mix, during this time, even if in timed feeders, or fed on the roads during the day, it would be very helpful for the fawns, as well as the does and bucks who may need the extra protein and minerals.

Another problem is that most hunters quit feeding corn, or other supplements, after hunting season, when forage is at its lowest availability and nutrient quality, creating a situation guaranteed to stress the young fawns who need nutritional help.

In lieu of food plots, the best way to supplement nutrients to help fawns grow, develop, and survive is to provide a high protein type of pellet, or at the least a corn and protein pellet mixture in sufficient amounts for the fawns to receive from 0.25 to 0.50 lbs./day or greater.  This level of supplement won’t make them gain ½ pound a day, but it should give them enough supplemental protein and energy to have a positive gain and to develop as they should.

Just providing the feed is not enough to help the fawns.  You also have to make sure it is available to the fawns.

I have seen many deer managers fence fawns out of feeding pens in situations where there are livestock and/or feral hogs they are trying to keep out of their feed pens.  A weaned fawn really can’t jump a four foot fence.  If you have to fence your feed pens, leave some parts only three foot high.  Fawns can clear that pretty well as long as they are healthy.

Also, in gravity-flow type feeders, remember that a fawn cannot reach as high as the bucks and does.  While everyone is trying to keep raccoons and turkeys from eating too much feed, if you keep it out of reach of the fawns, it is not helping them.  The amount of feed that falls on the ground from feeders is not sufficient to provide the nutrient levels the fawns need.  There are fawn spouts that you can add to gravity-flow feeders to make the feed available to the fawns.

There is no doubt that fawns can, and do, grow and develop into mature deer without help from supplemental feeding.  However, there is also lots of observations from deer managers that fawns that receive a higher level of nutrition grow into larger deer with higher productivity, whether you measure productivity as antler growth, fawn production, or body size.

If you want your deer herd to continue to improve in however you measure productivity, you must help the fawn crop make it through that first winter.   Helping them now will pay off with improved hunting opportunities in later years.

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