Supplemental Feeding | Mossy Oak Gamekeeper
Gamekeepers Magazine

Supplemental Feeding

By: David Hawkins

Supplemental Feeding

The world is filled with Monday morning quarterbacks and others who criticize the actions or decisions of others after the fact.
This reminds me a lot of the “archery-shop deer biologists” who recommend feeding corn as a means of seeing deer, stating the corn has benefits and they have the pictures to prove it. Simply stated, feeding corn or rice bran is to supplemental feeding, what Gummy Bears are to your child’s balanced diet.

The addition of a “supplement” to a deer’s diet should be just that, an “addition,” a “portion” of a “holistic approach” to land management and herd management. One feeder with the best supplement available is not worth much if it isn’t part of a total approach to the improvement of habitat and available browse.

A true gamekeeper’s dedication to property management results in deer getting the best available forage every day. Everyone knows deer are browsers, nibbling a bite here and another bite there. During winter, those bites will be much more limited. In harsh winters deer will take down the dried brown stalks of ragweed. According to Dr. Bronson Strickland, at Mississippi State University, a leader in whitetail research, an adult deer requires about 4 pounds of dry forage per day, per 100 pounds of body weight, just to maintain life at a normal level. Where the soil is rich and nutrients are present in abundance, the deer are big, healthy, and have admirable headgear. Where the soil is something less, so are the deer.

If you live, farm, and hunt where a 125-inch rack on a mature whitetail is the deer of a lifetime, this article is for you. Keep in mind supplemental feeding is not an overnight silver bullet. It’s winter, a buck’s rack is done for the year, one bag of feed is not going to amount to much. But, a holistic approach to proper herd management can start with one bag of supplement, one more food plot, more palatable native browse, and an intelligent approach to land management. Being a gamekeeper isn’t a “one and then you’re done” activity, it’s an ongoing endeavor.

Nutritional Needs

Whitetails, and other deer species, need 17 to 20-percent crude protein every day of their lives to reach their best genetic potential according to Dr. Keith Causey, of Auburn University in Alabama.

gamekeeper brand wear

According to numerous studies, there is no time in a deer’s life cycle when some amount of supplemental protein or minerals are not beneficial. A deer’s habits result in it browsing on the move. Over the period of several hours, an animal may travel a mile or more, eating as they move along. For those who have the time to observe feeding activity, much can be learned.

One group of five antlerless deer frequently feed in the curtilage of our yard. They never stop for more than a few minutes at any one point. They will eat the low-hanging fruit of the pear, peach, plum, and fig trees when in season. They always check the persimmons and depending on the part of the yard smackdown on American Beautyberry, ragweed, pokeweed, and a dozen other weeds around the garden and compost pile and last, but not least, will eat the St. Augustine lawn. Greenbrier, ornamental shrubs, and house plants are fair game as well.

Deer, around my house especially, love the purple hull peas in my garden. They relish them the night before the day I intend to harvest them. Perhaps I should leave them a plate of cornbread out of the goodness of my heart – but I digress.

The point here is, deer eat while on the move, and if your supplemental feed is not available when they feed through, they will just move on to the next food source. However, once found, they will eventually exploit the source until exhausted until they’ve had their fill until the source is no longer palatable, or until another, better primary source is found.

Getting back on track, bucks need a healthy diet to develop body size and antler mass. As you probably know, the size of a buck’s antlers reaches their size based on several factors, including the animal’s age and overall health. Antler growth begins as soon as the old antlers are shed, which is often at mid-winter when available food and natural browse are in limited supply. The reserves a buck has in his body will feed the antlers until the spring green-up brings back better, more plentiful food.

Once the velvet that had been feeding antler growth has been shed, bucks have a new demand on their bodies as the signal comes to start producing testosterone. It is now that bucks have entered the magic period called the rut.

The timing of actual breeding depends upon the does, not the bucks. After this testosterone surge, bucks are ready to breed at the drop of a hat. Buck groups will start sparing among themselves and breaking up. As soon as does begin exhibiting their hormonal change, then the rut will be in full swing. Bucks may be more interested in procreation than eating, and the stress on their bodies will reduce fat reserves. Rebuilding those reserves is vital to winter survival.

Having supplemental feed available to bucks, especially post-rut is very important.

Does are bred during the fall rut and have to support themselves and a pair of developing fawn fetuses during the winter months. The better their food supply the better the chances of good fawn recruitment and overall herd health. Hard mast such as acorns becomes a go-to natural food for winter. But the acorns, once plentiful have become scarce as other critters compete for protein-rich food. In the far north, acorns may not even be an option if covered by snow and ice. This is a time when supplemental feeding can have the greatest positive impact.

Read the Label

According to Dr. Causey, most deer with access to supplemental feed will still eat mostly natural forage. The ideal supplement will be one high in protein and energy. If it is desired to bring a diet averaging 8 to 10 percent protein up to a 17 to 20 percent concentrated supplement is required.

Dr. Causey is a fan of soybeans or a soybean-based supplement of 30-40 percent crude protein. He points out that 3/4 pound of this supplement, added to the 17 percent supplemental diet should be all a deer requires (per 100 pounds of body weight).

Distribution Systems

Getting packaged supplements to the deer on your property can be as cheap or as expensive as you wish to make it. The cheapest way to go is to just pour the feed out on the ground where crows, feral hogs, skunks, raccoons, and other “non-target” critters will scoff it up in short order. If the food gets wet it becomes far less palatable and the earthworms reap the benefit. Do you really want to dump a $15 bag of high protein feed on the ground? I didn’t think so.

Feeders can be lumped into three categories, spin, gravity, and trough. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Each will get the supplemental feed to the deer in some form or another. Most states have some regulations on feeding deer and other wild animals. It is best to know and understand those restrictions before investing in a distribution system.

Spin feeders are those which house the feed in a hopper or dry enclosure and release the feed via a battery-operated motor at predetermined intervals for a programmed amount of time. Once the feed is on the ground it is at the mercy of the first critter to find it. Some animals can develop a “Pavlovian reaction” to the sound of the feeder motor and food being dispensed. Once that food is gone, there is nothing there until the next predetermined interval. Where hogs are a problem, a 4-foot fence can be erected around the feeder to help keep the feral swine from “hogging” the goodies. Deer can jump the low fence with relative ease.

Gravity feeders are those that allow a constant supply of supplemental feed to be available for the deer as they move through the area. Many would refer to the gravity and trough feeders as “free-choice” feeders because the animal has access to the sources whenever they would like. A pelleted protein ration is generally the feed of choice in this case. Some, feed year-round, and some feed just before hunting season. Sorry…that is baiting, not supplemental feeding.

“A true supplemental feeding program is “active” 365 days a year. It doesn’t mean you have to necessarily feed all year long, it means that the nutritional needs of the animal are considered for the entire year. You may not have to feed during the spring or early fall when natural sources are the most available, but during the summer because of the stress put on plants or winter because the natural food is simply gone, your herd may rely more heavily on the supplemental source.

Some years we get more rain than others. Some year’s acorns and other mast crops produce well and not in others,” Tom Boyer of Boss Buck Feeders said, “These are the primary reasons to supplemental feed year-round. We go through droughts and flooding, which very much affect the available browse and food supply for deer, turkey, and other species from year to year. The effects of which are not always obvious to the casual observer, and may take time before the total impact of the event is evidenced.”

According to Boyer, feeding protein rations as soon as the bucks in your area shed their antlers is the preferred time to be at full tilt with 100% protein rations of 16% or higher. “I have found through my education and learning process with Dr. James C. Kroll, that more than 16% is unnecessary because deer cannot process it, allowing it to revert to waste in their stool. About a month before bucks shed in your area. Start diluting your corn with protein,” Boyer said.

Deer are browsers, not grazers like cows. They will only consume as much of the supplemental feed as is needed to fortify their dietary needs and then move on to other resources available to them. You will notice higher consumption levels when native browse is dry and insufficient for maximum protein levels and subsequently lower consumption rates when native vegetation is readily available with their desired protein levels.

Every year you will see a decrease in consumption levels during the spring and accelerated rates during summer when native browse is fully matured in its growth process and becomes dry and less desirable. Having a protein supplement available during this period provides optimum diets to your deer to lower the animal’s stress that occurs during antler development for your bucks and lactating, nursing does.

Providing needed energy at the right time lowers the need for deer to travel to find new sources of energy. It also slows the process of exhausting the natural resources on your land. Keeping the deer on your property allows you to closer manage; not only their health but their mortality rate and age structure.

Neighbors, in many cases, may not share your desire to manage the deer herd. Gravity feeders provide as much as a deer needs to allow them to sanctuary on your land and avoid hunting pressure from neighboring properties if these food sources are available to them year-round.

“Supplemental feeding with gravity feeders is an effective management tool to optimize your deer herd and “fill in the blanks” created by conditions we can’t control,” Boyer said. “Maintaining feed in your feeders is imperative to your supplemental feed program goals.

Regardless of your personal reasons for WHY you choose to run your free choice gravity feeder program. It is by far the most beneficial form of feeding deer from a feeder. Automatic feeders are for baiting, not growing, and developing deer. I do not recommend harvesting deer over free choice gravity feeders as it will deter deer from feeding at them. To hunt them you need to set up between the feeder and the bedding areas and intercept them in their travel corridors to prevent setting your program back.”

Boss Buck Feeders are constructed to prevent water from getting to the feed, in particular, to protect protein pellets. Pellets will absorb moisture and wick back up inside the hopper, clogging and ruining expensive feed. The drain hole in the head also allows rainwater to drain out of the ports to prevent wicking. The angle of pitch also naturally makes deer tilt their heads backward when feeding, thus preventing velvet antlers from being damaged while feeding from them.

Secondly, the hoppers and gravity heads are one piece of roto-molded polyethylene plastic that won’t leak and allow moisture to abrogate feed. All hardware is molded into the hoppers so there are only two openings in the feeders; The top where you put the feed in, and the feed port where the feed is delivered. Lids are oversized to allow heat and moisture to escape the hopper. Preventing condensation and mold inside the hopper. The funneled design of the hopper delivers feed to the head and purges all the feed from the hopper. The angled head has a funnel cone inside and an adjustable sleeve that allows them to be tuned and adjusted for the switch between corn and pelleted feeds, thus making them the ideal tool for supplemental feeding deer and other wildlife.
In summary, the bigger the hopper the less often the feeder needs to be attended to, thus the fewer instances of intrusion re-loading the feeder that might spook the animals. Gravity feeders are best for having feed available at all times of day and night. The T-Post Feeder offered by GameKeepers/Mossy Oak is easy to install and inexpensive.

Spin feeders are effective as deer attractors but require batteries and set-up. Still, the inexpensive initial cost makes them an attractive option.

Finally, consider the effort to fill the feeder you choose. Most of us are too short for the NBA, so hoisting a #50 bag of feed over our heads is just not an option. Choosing to stand on the back of an ATV may not be the safest option either. If you can’t back up to the feeder with your pickup, a short, folding ladder may be the safest option if a board is placed across the bottom to keep the legs from sinking into the ground.

Don’t be an “armchair biologist,” get the facts, gather intelligence on your property, and implement a plan. Supplemental feeding is definitely a good thing, but it must be carried out with some forethought.


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