Poor Nutrition Will Make Deer Survival Difficult

Deer in winter landscape

Have you noticed the number of deer on the highway lately?  Deer grazing on the highway right of way is a sure sign of poor nutrition in the pasture.  Deer don’t like interaction with people, or their vehicles.  So when you see them out on the highway, even during the daylight hours, you can be assured they are not doing well.

Now many of you may say, so what?  Well, if ranchers have less than normal livestock numbers due to the drought years, and that translates into less income from livestock, money from deer hunting has become more important financially to the ranch operation.

As wildlife income becomes more important to the ranch, you have to begin to look at the well being of the deer to maintain numbers, just as you do your livestock.  That means supplementing them when you have conditions that threaten maintaining both the numbers and the quality that your hunters expect.

Every landowner that is leasing deer hunting is now in a position of selling a product.  Some of you get more money for your deer hunting because your hunters believe you have a more valuable product.  Some of that product may be the facilities you offer, the guides, skinners, or processors you have available, or the extras like quail, havelina, fishing, or other recreational activities.

Regardless of how much you get for your deer hunting, you are in a position of having to maintain a certain level of quality of experience for the hunters to be satisfied.  In conditions like we have had the last few years, maintaining that level is going to mean supplementing them.

Deer, just like livestock, have certain nutritional needs to be able to grow, develop, breed, and survive.  In this era of “big bucks”, antler growth is also an important nutritional concern, however, for now let’s just concern ourselves with the basic nutritional problems that deer have.

First, deer are the most selective grazers (browsers?) in the pasture, with the exception of maybe rabbits (but we don’t sell rabbits, yet).  Deer select a diet that is low in fiber, and prefer the broadleaf plants to grasses.  Actually deer will pretty much only eat very young, tender, and highly digestible grasses.  Once a grass gets very mature, i.e. the fiber level increases, they will not eat them because they can’t digest them well enough to survive.

The broadleafs that deer prefer are forbs (weeds), which are very high in nutrient value when they are young and tender, and browse (woody plants), that are slightly less digestible but are available over a longer period of time.  But in a dry year, the annual forbs that have to germinate from seed aren’t able to grow and provide a food source for the deer.

So the deer are forced to subsist primarily on browse plants.  However, there is a problem with deer having to depend so much on browse.  Most browse have what are called “secondary compounds” in them that seem to tie up proteins and make them unavailable in the rumen.  This makes most of the protein in the browse leaves undegradable protein.

There are two factions of protein for ruminants.  Degradable protein is the faction that is available to the microorganisms in the rumen.  This type of protein is essential to allow for a large population of microorganisms in the rumen to break down the fibrous part of feeds into digestible compounds.

Undegradable protein is the other faction that is not available to the rumen microorganisms.  It goes through the rumen without being broken down and utilized by the microorganisms, and is digested in the abomasum (the fourth part of a ruminant’s stomach complex that functions like a human’s stomach).

The implications of the browse protein being primarily undegradable is that the numbers of microorganisms in the rumen are diminished when they don’t receive necessary amounts of degradable protein.  A diminished level of rumen bugs will reduce their ability to break down fiber in the leaves the deer eat.  It also restricts what deer can eat, in that deer won’t eat plants that they cannot digest well.

So, with the degradable protein deficiency, total nutrient intake is restricted, and the deer begin to lose weight.  It is harder for them to find enough of the forages they can digest, so they are out foraging in daylight hours, closer to houses, and in the highway right of ways – all activities that are not normal to deer.

So what do most people do for deer?  They put out whole corn.  A feed that is low in protein (8.5%) and high in energy (0.96 Mcal/lb. of NEm).  The energy from the corn does help the total energy intake, but it does very little to correct the problem of too few microorganism in the rumen to digest fiber.

What the deer need is a product that is high in degradable protein.  If they were sheep or cattle, we could use urea as a degradable protein source.  However, neither goats nor deer seem to be able to utilize urea like sheep and cattle can.

So, you’re restrained to using a natural protein source for the deer.  Of these, cottonseed meal is probably the best-recognized smell and taste of the natural protein sources.  This is because deer have always come into cattle and sheep feed grounds where cubes and pellets have been fed, and picked up the bits and pieces that have been left behind.

The significance in recognizing the smell of a supplement is that you can get the deer to eat it more rapidly than a feed that is unknown.  Otherwise, it may take several weeks to get deer to eating a supplement.  And, if you’re going to start feeding deer because you are trying to help them increase their nutrient intake and survive the winter better, getting them on feed quickly is important.

You can feed deer on the ground just like you do cattle, sheep, and goats.  The big difference is that you need to feed them in areas where other livestock can’t get to it.  Deer aren’t too good at coming in to a feed truck, so you have to leave it out for them to find later.

From research done on cattle, sheep, and goats, we know that protein supplements can be fed in a range of one day per week to seven days per week with no difference in animal performance.  The reason for this is that natural protein will re-cycle in the body for a period of time.

So the longer interval for feeding protein is much more effective than feeding grains which contain carbohydrates.  For carbohydrates, feeding on a more regular basis is much more important since carbohydrates don’t re-cycle.

Of course, like your livestock, you don’t need to feed all the time.  If you have acceptable forage and browse conditions, the deer don’t need supplement for improving growth, reproduction, and survival.

If you feel that the forage conditions may be marginal, have a forage sample taken.  With the forage data, you can have a much better idea of whether or not the deer’s diet is deficient, and what products may be best in providing the needed nutrients.

Feeding to enhance antler development is another situation altogether, and requires much more feed and costs.  It involves increasing the protein, energy, and mineral content of the diet significantly.

So, if you’re not ready to increase you feed cost substantially and be able to recoup those costs through higher hunting fees, I suggest you work on just supplementing for improved survival.  The main objective is to maintain the quality of hunting your customers expect and help the deer survive difficult times.

You may find out you reap more rewards than you anticipated.

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