Introducing New Feeds to Deer

two deer in front of fence

Feeding deer is becoming a very popular function for many landowners whether for the pleasure of seeing the deer come to a feeder, or to improve their productivity in fawn production or antler growth.  Knowing that deer need supplemental protein in the late summer and winter, many of these people are beginning to feed a protein pellet instead of corn.  However, many of them are having trouble introducing new feeds to the deer on their land.

First and foremost, you must understand that of all the ruminants that we deal with, a deer is the most selective eater in the pasture.  Their diet can include a lot of plant species at times, but it is always the most digestible plants in the pasture, and generally they eat plants they are familiar with.

This selectivity and dependence on familiar food sources is the basis for a deer’s reluctance to start eating new feeds.  Taste and diet preference in all animals is an acquired knowledge, and this is especially so in a ruminant animal.

Many times I have been in the pasture with a customer and we have smelled, or tasted, a plant that a goat or deer has bitten on.  The landowner generally says that the taste it much too bitter for the deer to eat that.  However, they don’t realize what all goes into what constitutes a desirable taste, or smell, to a ruminant.

Basically, taste, and the smell associated with taste, is a learned recognition in response to a positive or negative digestive feedback.  When an animal, including humans, eat something new, they have no recognition of the taste, or whether it will have a good, or bad, effect on their digestive system, or some other part of their body.  So they nibble on it to try it.

This nibbling is what helps them to survive in a world full of plants that can be toxic to them.  If they eat a plant with toxins in them, they get a negative response from their digestive system, or body, and the associate that taste and smell with that bad response and learn not to eat it.  Conversely, if they get a good response, they learn that this plant won’t hurt them.

One reason more young animals are killed by toxic plants than adults is it takes less of the toxic agent in the plants to harm a smaller animal.  So when young ruminants nibble on plants  while learning what to eat, they sometimes get a nibble that is toxic enough to kill them.  The lucky ones just get a adverse reaction and connect it with the toxic plant.

If an animal is not deficient in the major nutrients they need each day, it can take a good while for the good response to register with them, and their preference for that food to go from low to high.  If they do have a deficiency, the response is much quicker, and they develop a strong preference for the feed source rapidly.  This difference explains why deer get onto new feeds very rapidly sometimes, and sometimes very slowly.

Does this mean that if deer don’t start eating the protein pellets pretty quickly they don’t need the protein?  Well, yes, and no.

Under normal conditions, the habitat that exists for deer does take care of their nutritional needs, for most months of the year.  After all, they survived for many years before we decided they needed nutritional supplement. However, their productivity, measured as fawn crop, mature body size, and antler growth, can be restricted by the nutritional potential of the habitat.

If you try to introduce a new feed to deer during a period where their nutritional needs are being met, it may take several weeks for them to develop a taste for it.  Deer, like most other livestock, seem to prefer to eat the forages in their habitat over something man-made.

However, there are periods during the year that the nutrition available from the habitat does not meet the deer’s needs.  Lactation in the summer, fawn growth through the winter, and increased antler potential in late spring in summer, are the most likely times that deer are nutritionally deficient.  If you introduce protein pellets during these periods, and the feed is palatable to the deer, you can get them to eat the protein pellets much more readily than if you try to feed them when there is ample nutrition in the pasture.

It also helps if the feed you are using has some familiar aspects to the deer.  Using ingredients like corn and cottonseed meal helps because most deer have been exposed to them at some time.  Nearly every deer in Texas has had some corn fed to it at some time in it’s life, and corn seems to give them a very favorable digestive feedback.  Also cottonseed meal is a familiar taste and smell because whether you know it or not, deer have been coming in behind cattle, sheep, and goat feedings in the pasture picking up bits and pieces of feed the livestock left on the ground.

Feeds like whole cottonseed, whole soybeans, soybean meal, pinto beans and the like are completely new to the deer and may take a while for them to adjust to.  Also, when we add lots of mineral ingredients into a protein pellet to help with antler growth, we add some new tastes that if the cottonseed meal and corn don’t mask, that the deer have to grow accustomed to.

An example of this occurred when I was developing the Magnum Deer Mineral.  My forage data convinced me that the deer needed the degradable protein available from soybean meal.  So I added a good bit of soybean meal to the mineral supplement formula thinking the added protein would stimulate them to eat the supplement.

Much to my surprise, the deer hardly touched the mineral.  When I mixed the protein source of half cottonseed meal and half soybean meal, the deer ate the mineral readily.  That’s when it began to dawn on me that deer will eat a familiar feed quicker than a strange, or novel, feed.  The familiar taste of the cottonseed meal was enough to get them to try the mineral supplement, and when they got a positive response, the deer continued to eat it.

There is one other reason why deer don’t get started on new feeds in a pasture.  That is that they may not find it.  I have seen some people put out gravity flow deer feeders in pastures and hope the deer find them.  The problem here is that the deer have to find the feeder.

Especially when deer have no history of feeding, they have no reason to expect there is feed in the area.  So unless they stumble across a feeder, it may go unnoticed for a good while.

A solution to this dilemma is to put a spin-type feeder next to the gravity feeder and let it go off for a week or two.  If you have been feeding corn in the feeder, continue to put some corn in it.  The sound of the spinner going off and spreading corn can be heard a long way in the pasture, bringing the deer to the sight.  Their natural curiosity will cause them to sniff around the feeder, try the pellets, and eventually get the positive response it takes to develop a taste for the feed.  Transitioning the deer to feed in this way can speed up their consumption by several weeks over depending on the deer to just “find” the feeder.

Getting deer started on a new feed takes patience and understanding of why they are so selective in what they eat.    Use feeds they are more familiar with, transition from one feed to another, and make sure they know where the feed is located in the pasture.  Understanding why they are so selective and how they develop a taste for feeds can help you to get your deer on feed much easier.

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