Cold weather food options for the late season
Wildlife managers who are serious about growing bigger and healthier deer understand the importance of having high protein food available during the spring/summer months.
The benefits are obvious when you see your deer during the late summer with their full bellies and beautiful, nutrient-filled velvet antlers. Even in areas with heavy agricultural production of beneficial crops like soybeans and alfalfa, the late winter/early spring time period can be stressful for your entire deer herd, not just the rut-weary bucks.
Having a dependable and steady food source during this critical time is a must to make sure worn-out bucks as well as does that are now pregnant can enter the spring in great health and body condition.
Bucks can easily lose 20% to 25% of their body weight from the rut and winter stress. Common sense tells us that a buck that entered the spring in poor physical condition is not likely to express his full potential. The same is true and just as important for your doe. Fawns born to mothers that struggled for food from January through March are going to spend time playing catchup.
Providing late season food is not all about antlers, either, but rather the overall health of the entire herd.
As the winter sets in January and February, most whitetails are on their feet and in need of a high energy, high carbohydrate food source. Planting a late season annual such as brassicas can help carry your herd through the tough months.
One of the most effective ways to keep deer on a property is to have a destination feeding field that is seldom if ever hunted. Brassica blends utilizing cold tolerant rape and turnips with staggered maturity and palatability dates are ideal for this. After the cereal grains and clover have been browsed down, brassicas are very attractive and highly preferred by deer.
While cereal grains such as wheat and oats are highly attractive to deer, if they are the only plot available on your property there could be a gap in available food late in the season.
If your plots are eaten down to almost bare dirt by the end of the season, less deer or more plot acreage is in order—maybe both. Similar to getting the most potential out of your summer plots for antler growth, overwhelming your deer with late season food pays off big time.
The lack of a solid late winter food source could lead some of your deer to stray off your land to the closest neighbor with groceries. Brassicas can be planted on a timetable so that they are becoming palatable when your rut rolls around.Tthis could be a great tool in killing that big one you’ve been after for a couple seasons.
For guys who have limited tillable ground or are using crops that a farmer grows for their food plot, there is also the option of having greens and grains available in the same plot.
“Supplemental feeding is a great way to complement and fill any gaps in your food plot program and ensure the availability of quality nutrition during the late winter and early spring.”
In the early fall when corn is beginning to dry and mature and most soybeans are a couple weeks away from leaf drop, cool season annuals can be broadcast into the standing crop. This technique can really make your plots highly effective at providing food for the entire fall and winter.
Food plots are a great way to help with late winter/early spring nutrition, but there may be situations where your plots didn’t perform or grow a lot of tonnage due to drought, lack of acreage in food plots, or a late planting.
Supplemental feeding is a great way to complement and fill any gaps in your food plot program and ensure the availability of quality nutrition during the late winter and early spring.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify a few things. To truly supplement a deer herd with feed, the deer must be offered the feed in a free choice fashion, be it through a trough or an extended tube-type feeder.
Feeding protein through spin-type feeders, therefore not making the protein available at any time is beneficial. However, maximum results come from feeding a quality protein feed free choice. When combined with high protein and carbohydrate levels found in late winter/early spring plots, this two-sided approach will ensure bucks regain body condition post-rut in preparation for the next antler growing season.
As is the case with many other wildlife management questions, the amount of feed you need to supply depends on a few different variables.
Deer density, available native forage and its quality, as well as acreage in food plots will all play a part in determining how much you will need to feed. A good starting point is to establish a feeding station for every 25 deer on your property.
If you are unsure of deer densities in your area, contact a local state biologist and he or she will provide you with local survey data that can be used to calculate deer densities on your property. Camera surveys can also be run on a property to help determine deer density and buck-to-doe ratio.
A good rule of thumb is to have a feeding station for every 80 to 100 acres of land being managed.
If you are just starting a feeding program on your property, deer will sometimes be reluctant to consume straight protein feed at first. As with some food plots with new plants in them, supplemental feed is a new smell, taste, and texture than anything they have had before. So, it may take some time to condition your herd to eating from a feeder.
A wide variety of feeders are available on the market today. The majority are spin feeders on timers. These can work for properties in the drier climates such as Texas, Oklahoma, etc.
The downside to these feeders is their small capacity (which means frequent trips to fill up) and some waste mostly to unwanted critters. In areas with more frequent rainfall and high humidity, I have found free choice trough feeders or bulk gravity flow to be utilized best by deer as well as being the most trouble-free.
The trough feeders can be built in many different ways to suit whatever needs you have specific to your property. I like to build them on 4x6s on the bottom with one end cut on an angle so a chain or strap can be attached and moved with an ATV.
The bottom of the trough where the feed will actually sit can be constructed from marine grade plywood to resist mildew and mold and be very weather-resistant. Trough feeders should also be built with treated lumber so they will stand up to the weather for many years.
Secondhand metal can be used for the roof to ensure the feed can stay dry and fresh. When building, make sure to build so the roof is high enough that a buck in velvet won’t bump his rack on it.
Many absentee landowners find it advantageous to use the large tube-style free choice bulk feeders. They can hold a lot of feed and keep it fresh for extended periods of time. These are generally constructed of heavy-duty metal and can hold a couple hundred pounds up to a couple of tons of feed. The gravity flow tubes are harder for unwanted pests like raccoons to get to as well.
Wildlife managers who have taken a few extra steps in preparation for the hard times of the post-rut and tough, cold winters have seen the benefits that improving body condition can have on antler growth the following year.
Keep in mind that supplementation, whether through planting plots, supplemental feeding, or a combination of both, are by no means a fix for poor habitat management or out-of-control high deer densities. We cannot feed or plant our way out of problems associated with improper herd and habitat management.