It’s that time of year again when well meaning do-gooders (including hunters and landowners) start killing winter stressed deer by feeding them. Concerned that whitetails are not getting enough to eat, they drive pickups full of corn or apples (or just about anything a deer will eat) into the woods and leaving it for the hungry deer to gobble down. And that’s when the deer begin to starve.
In most parts of the North, winter weather conditions put serious stress on whitetails. With the ground covered by a foot or more of snow in some areas, deer are forced to eat woody browse, old dead leaves or even tree bark and lichens. It’s not the best food stuff in the world but whitetails have been doing it for thousands of years and somehow are able to manage fairly well on it (at least in winter). Their digestive system is tuned to winter forage and can make the most of these low-quality foods. They may lose 20-30% of their body weight over the winter but it is how they have learned to survive.
A deer’s rumen (stomach) contains millions of living microorganisms, which allows their digestive system to handle just about anything. The trouble is these microorganisms are specialists. Accustomed to digesting woody browse, they are unable to tolerate corn or apples. Whitetails do not do well on radical changes to their diets and a corn pile is a radical change from the diet of twigs and dead leaves they’ve been on for the past month or more.
Artificially fed deer wander off with a belly full of corn and slowly start starving to death as its digestive system struggles to digest the corn. Should the deer live through his sudden overload, it is then unable to handle woody browse. When the corn pile goes away the deer goes back on woody browse again and the slow starvation continues.
Sure winter stresses whitetails and some of the weaker ones will perish in a severe winter. But filling them up with indigestible foods is not the way to go. So grab a chainsaw and drop an acre or two of pole timber on the ground where the deer can reach the tops. The tender tips and buds have plenty of nutrition and as any logger will tell you, the deer will find them and gobble them up in no time. And since the deer have been working similar stuff all winter, branch tips and buds can be readily digested. Best of all, dropping a few acre of timber will let the sun reach the ground and all kinds of great deer food will start popping up where there was once only shade and leaves covering the ground.