What Deer Eat: A Seasonal Guide to Nutrition

Are You Up On Deer Grub?

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Late Winter and Early SpringLate Winter and Early SpringLate Winter and Early SpringLate Winter and Early SpringLate Winter and Early Spring

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1 | Late Winter and Early Spring

Needs

Protein, energy. This period is critical for deer because they’re recovering from winter stress. Bucks are starting to regrow antlers, and does are entering the critical third trimester of pregnancy, during which much fetal growth occurs. 

Sources

New, succulent green growth from natural sources or food plots. If spring green-up is late, perennial food plot plantings such as white clover provide a much-needed protein boost. 

“You can’t force something to green up, but you can plant something that will green up very quickly and is really cold-tolerant.” — Matt Harper, deer nutrition expert

“Acorns and many commercial grains, such as corn or wheat, have relatively low levels of protein but high levels of energy (fat).” — Matt Ross, certifications programs manager, Quality Deer Management Association.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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2 | Late Spring and Summer

Needs

Protein, minerals. Bucks are growing their racks, and does must produce milk for fawns.

Sources

Native fruits, food plot plantings, young herbaceous plants, the leaves of hardwood trees and shrubs.

“Deer nutritionists generally agree that a diet containing 16 to 20 percent crude protein is more than adequate to support deer protein requirements. … Investing in forage that provides much greater than 20 percent protein will not vastly improve the herd’s health and should probably be considered a waste of money.” — Ross

“Calcium, phosphate and magnesium needs go up dramatically during that time frame. You have to have mineral to replenish the bone structure.” — Harper

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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FallFallFallFallFall

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3 | Fall


Needs

Energy (fats, carbohydrates). Adult deer revert to somewhat of a maintenance diet. Bucks have finished growing antlers, and does have weaned their fawns. Deer are preparing for the rigors of the rut and the coming winter.

Sources

Leaves, hard mast, soft mast, agricultural crops

“Once velvet is shed in early autumn, (a buck’s) food consumption increases again until the rigors of the rut are in full swing. During the rut, bucks eat less and lose weight as they concentrate most of their energy on breeding. Food consumption may increase dramatically for a brief period immediately following the rut as bucks attempt to regain fat depleted during breeding.” — Ross

“Soybeans have a lot of oil and are pretty high in fat. Corn, of course, is high in energy. Any nut or seed tends to be high in energy, and those all become pretty important.” — Harper

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Tom Reichner photo

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4 | Winter

Needs

Energy (fats, carbohydrates). Adult deer reduce their food consumption considerably. Fawns, however, only cut back their intake slightly, as they aren’t able to save much body fat and must rely on food to meet their energy needs during winter.

Sources

Mast, agricultural crops, woody browse

“Deer in areas without crops are more susceptible to winter kill because they just can’t build up a lot of fat reserves for the winter. They have to rely a lot more on other type of energy sources.” — Harper

“During the winter, bucks reduce their activity and rely primarily on body fat to sustain them through March. As a result, the amount of food eaten by bucks during winter may be 50 percent less than that eaten in spring and summer.” — Ross

Photo credit: Realtree

Editor's Note: This was originally published on July 22, 2015

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As hunters across the country monitor the progress of the local crops, their spring-planted food plots and prep for fall plantings, we thought we'd shed some light on just what it is that deer need all year long.

Food, cover, water. The three basic building blocks of a healthy whitetail population. Let's focus on the food here. 

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