Supplemental feeding in the form of pelleted feed is a valuable tool in the serious deer manager’s tool belt, as it provides two things: consistency and a higher level of nutrition. As it’s name implies, supplemental feeding is something done to augment or increase the natural feed available to deer. Seasonal cycles, weather patterns and man-made disturbances can cause the nutritional value and availability of native deer foods to be unpredictable with a wide swings in quality. Supplemental feeding is a safety net or an insurance policy against periods of low nutritional value and/or availability. Of course, there are different degrees of supplementation and how it is used and its effectiveness, but a supplemental feeding program’s primary responsibility is to lessen the blows of low nutrition and keep the deer on a more level nutritional plane throughout the year.
Supplemental feeding is just that–a supplement. When the rains are right and the stars line up, we can’t even compete with Mother Nature. As you likely know, when it rains, deer won’t eat the protein. They eat it only when they need it, when the habitat is stressed or defoliated. In the pasture, the deer makes the choice to eat or not to eat protein. And his or her stomach tells them when and how much to eat. Some deer eat two bites and leave while others camp out and eat four to six pounds of feed per day. This is why the amount of protein on the bag means very little. Don’t get caught up worrying about the highest amount of protein. You need to worry about the quality of the feed, as a total package, so that when a deer does eat it, he/she gets what they need and when they need it.
Protein feed is not the magic bullet. It simply is a supplement to level out the peaks and valleys of the nutritional swings the habitat typically goes through as the seasons or weather patterns change. It is not a “cure all” designed for a specific period of time. It is meant to be used year around and to SLOWLY and STEADILY help the deer stay in top physical condition. By waiting until July or August to feed the bucks something extra or special is way too late.
A buck begins growing his antlers approximately one week after shedding the previous set. When he is malnourished or pulled down from the rigors of the rut and lack of rainfall his body go into a self-preservation mode (thus why skinny bucks shed earlier) in order to stay alive. If supplemental feeding was used during post-rut, the buck would not sink to such a low nutritional level and his body would not have to play “catch up” from a nutritional perspective. As the body suffers, so do the antlers. Antlers are a bi-product of nutrition. Providing supplemental feed ensures that the buck will have enough to eat no matter what the native forage is providing so that his body will be healthy enough to support the growth of antlers to his full genetic potential.
The same benefits go for the does. If you provide an additional source of feed, the does will be healthier and able to carry, deliver and nurse a healthier fawn(s). Fawns that receive a good start at life get bigger and stronger and therefore increase their chances of survival, especially as winter approaches.
So, does supplemental feeding work? The answer is yes, as long as it is part of the bigger management plan. Here are some situations that illustrate what does and does not allow a supplemental feeding program to be successful:
Works: Good quality feeders that keep out moisture and are in a feed pen at least 60’ diameter to exclude non-target animals such as livestock, feral hogs and javelina.
Doesn’t Work: Leaky feeders that let in moisture to spoil feed or placed in a feed pen so small that deer are afraid to jump in or only a couple of deer can get in at any one time.
Works: As many feeders as financially affordable spread evenly across the ranch. Even distribution means even use and keeps the animals spread more evenly across the landscape.
Doesn’t Work: One feeder near the ranch house, or several feeders bunched up only compounds the problems.
Works: Keeping protein feeders filled from post-rut through shedding of velvet, year in and year out.
Doesn’t Work: Putting protein out a couple months a year, maybe this year, maybe not.
Works: Placing protein feeders in areas of the ranch away from high traffic and near escape cover.
Doesn’t Work: Placing feeders by the main roads with high traffic or in wide open fields.
Works: Use protein feeding as a part of your overall management program and after you have deer densities reduced to what the habitat can support.
Doesn’t Work: Keep providing feed with no plan for reducing the additional deer you are growing with the feed and allowing population to go uncontrolled to the decimation of the native habitat.
Works: On small, low-fenced acreage, get all neighbors cooperating with harvesting and providing protein.
Doesn’t Work: Be the only one in the neighborhood feeding protein while the neighbors are shooting every two year old buck that crosses the fence.
The immediate benefits of a proper supplemental feeding program include increased body weights. During the second year fawn survival rates will improve sharply and on or about year three, improved antler production will be evident on those young bucks raised on the feeding program. As you can see, supplemental feeding is a long-term project and should not be taken lightly or sporadically in order for it to really work.by
I get asked often about cottonseed as an alternative whitetail deer feed. The answer is not short or quick so here is my typical answer to that question:
Pros: First, cottonseed is readily eaten by whitetails (and mule deer) and is very high in crude protein. It is high in fat and oils, is high in digestibility and protein, and not much else will eat it (such as raccoons, feral hogs or javelina and most birds). Second, cottonseed is generally a cheaper alternative to pelleted feed as a source of fat and protein.
Cons: First, the availability depends on the current year’s cotton crop and distribution. So, in drought years, the availability is here today and gone tomorrow, which is a huge no-no when feeding deer. Constantly switching the feed, feed type, feed blend, protein content, etc will disrupt the gut microorganisms in the stomach that process and digest the food. By feeding cottonseed for a while, then stopping and restarting over and over, you actually keep the efficiency of the deer’s stomach in a stage of disruption, resulting in poor digestibility, processing and other stomach issues that negatively affect the deer’s overall health. Second, cottonseed is not a consistent source of nutrition among batches or loads. One batch of cottonseed is different than the next and the first issue comes right back into play again– minor disruptions of the stomach processes. Third, the physical handling of cottonseed is expensive. The actual cottonseed feed itself is generally cheaper than most bagged protein; however, it has to be handled only in loose bulk and cannot be properly stored or bagged or put in bulk grain bins like protein or corn. The handling involves an eighteen-wheel truck dumping the cottonseed somewhere on your ranch and driving off. Next, you have to move it into the barn or shed or cover it with tarps or just leave it outside to the elements. It will “harden up” and create its own protective cover (remember the oils?) and does a pretty good job of shedding water, but it is still sitting on the ground and out in the open. Next, ranch personnel have to shovel it either into their ranch truck or in the front bucket of the farm tractor and deliver it to the feeder location. Once at the feed station, it again has to be handled either by shovel from the truck into the wire mesh cylinder or dumped by the tractor bucket. Cottonseed cannot be fed from traditional corn or free choice protein feeders (due to the fluff and oils) so a separate wire mesh cylinder has to be used to contain it. It won’t stand up alone, so the cylinder has to be tall and held upright to keep it orderly and better utilized. Fourth, and certainly most important, cottonseed creates a condition called gossypol toxicity. Gossypol is a chemical found in the seed that will actually render all male animals sterile. Yes, sterile, as in no babies made that year. However, the gossypol will leave the animal’s system once it stops eating the cottonseed, and fertility will return. So, ranches that feed cottonseed MUST remove the feed, or stop feeding it, as the bucks remove the velvet from their antlers. This timing gives the gossypol time to pass through the buck’s system and leave before he begins producing live sperm. Remember: the only time a buck produces live sperm is while he is in hard antler. I have seen several ranches that either didn’t believe it or forgot to stop feeding cottonseed before hard antler and they actually had zero fawns produced that entire year. Talk about hard on a deer management program!
So, if you can overcome all the many issues of feeding cottonseed–availability, lack of consistency, storage, handling, and stop feeding it at the right time–it can and will work for you. Many ranches have full time ranch hands to do the feeding, so the owners tolerate the handling and distribution issues, but sometimes the availability and lack of consistency still impacts them from time to time. And the majority also use protein pellets as well. Cottonseed is a great alternative for cheaply restoring body condition after a hard winter and for providing protein to grow antlers. It is not considered a complete feed, but can work well in conjunction with a balanced feeding program.
When beginning a cottonseed feeding program, there are two things you can do to help deer adjust to eating it. First, allow the protein feeder to dry up for several days, thereby almost forcing it on them. Second, throw some corn in and around the basket. Being something new, bright white, fluffy and totally different in texture and taste than your deer have EVER seen, they may still be scared of it. There is nothing in nature that even resembles cottonseed in a basket, so they may not even know they can eat or that it is good for them. Follow these tips, be patient, and the deer will eventually accept the new feed and begin eating it.
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