Whitetail 101: What Do Deer Eat

Section #2 – Whitetail Food & Nutrition

As an overview for nutrition, let’s keep this high level and focus on what nutrients a whitetail deer needs for survival. Much like you and I, their nutrition required will vary depending on activity. This should all sound very familiar if you have an activity tracking watch with maintenance calories and activity calories. Maintenance calories are the base limit for you for survival and the activity calories support any increased calorie need. This could be during the chase or a doe feeding a fawn. The more active the deer is the more calories it needs, simple right? But what do deer eat?

Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!

With the understanding that deer have calorie requirements just like you or I, let’s now look at what a deer eats for nutrition.

What do deer eat

Whitetail Deer Diet:

  • Browse – Sprouts, Leaves of Woody Plants
  • Forbs – Sprouts, Leaves of Non-Woody Plants
  • Grass –
  • Mast – Fruits & Nuts
  • Crops – Corn, Soybeans etc.

The Whitetail Deer’s diet varies during the year depending on what of the 5 above options is available. Just like our supermarket, when a particular fruit is in season it is in abundance in the produce isle. Availability is the key as the deer will focus their feeding efforts on the highest quality food source that is available. This is the key to what a whitetail hunter needs to understand about a whitetail’s diet. Focus on what food sources are of high quality and in abundance during the periods in which you want to hunt. If the property you are hunting has a number of oak trees, you can bet that deer will be in that area in the fall looking for acorns.

What Do Deer Eat – Hunters Perspective

What do deer eat, deer food and nutrition

We don’t need to be whitetail deer biologist, but a basic of understanding of what a deer will eat will allow you to take a deeper look at the property you hunt and narrow down the food sources that deer will prefer.

One other aspect to consider, is how this applies to deer densities. When the whitetail deer population density is too high, the high-quality food sources and the nutrients they possess can be spread too thin across the herd. In cases of high deer density, lower quality food sources will make up a greater percentage of the diet. Thinking of it from a buck’s standpoint, if that is the case and the densities are too high in a given area, it is unlikely that a buck will reach its genetic peak. This is something to consider on the property you hunt or if you are interested in habitat improvement projects.

As a hunter, I like to inventory the food sources on the property I am hunting.

  • If there are oak trees, I want to know if they are white oak that produce acorns every year.
  • If they are red oaks, they are bi-annual meaning a heavy crop on alternating years.
  • Are there fruit or chestnut trees on the property.

All of these are important factors for the whitetail hunter. If these food sources are unique to the property you are hunting versus the surrounding areas even better.

If you are just starting your whitetail habitat improvement journey, this is very important to understand. Marketing in whitetail hunting space will lead you to believe you can run out and throw some seed on the ground. In 6 months, magically the deer will be huge! Understand what and when a food source is available. Identify the gaps in high quality food sources throughout the year and try to close those gaps. It doesn’t hurt to have some plots at maturity during hunting season but focus on overall deer health and to improve your chances of harvesting a mature deer.

What Do Deer Eat – Wrap Up

While what a deer eats will vary from season to season, it is important to understand what a deer likes to eat during your hunting season. The does will not stray far from quality food sources even in the peak of the rut. Both post rut and pre rut the bucks will be gorging on high quality food sources. This may be mainly at dark, but catching your mature buck in a transition zone may be the ticket.

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