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An unsafe/unsuccessful feeding program can have a devastating impact on the health of a region’s inhabiting deer and the surrounding habitat; accordingly, proper management of a feeding program is vital.

Typically, the success of a supplemental feeding program will be heavily affected by the establishment of the deer feeder; however, your feeding program should also be safe and effective.  

Disclaimer: Several states have regulations in place which forbid people from baiting/feeding deer with feeders. We strongly recommend that you read your laws and understand whether your strategies are permitted. Compilation of deer feeding regulations (all 50 states).

Fundamentally, an improper/unsafe introduction of deer to your feeder (and the feed within it) can do more harm than good. 

For this reason, we deemed it necessary to explore this topic in depth. 

Where Your Focus Should Be

While supplemental feeding is not overly complicated, it does require a lot of your attention and a good understanding of the effects that feeding can have on the land and the animals within it. 

Principally, supplemental feeding should not be used as an instrument to maintain more deer than a habitat can support.   

More precisely, population control and habitat management should be more concerning than attracting deer to the site of your feeder.

Ultimately, promoting the health of a deer population is of greater importance (and more advantageous) than placing a feeder out, expecting quality deer to present themselves to you.

Introducing New Food to a Deer’s Diet

Understandably, when people begin supplementing a deer’s natural diet, the feed that gets supplied is typically either food that deer have not learned to process or food their sensitive digestive systems cannot handle in large quantities. 

Accordingly, this stage of a feeding program can often be the most damaging to the health of deer.

Supplementing a Natural Diet

Logically, a supplemental feeding program should merely supplement a deer’s natural feeding diet, not dominate it.

While you may believe you are helping by supplying deer with large quantities of food, it is simply not necessary to provide them with an excessive amount of feed. 

Ultimately, dominating the diets of deer with your feed can be incredibly harmful to their health, regardless of whether they have become accustomed to it or not.

New Diet Adjustments

Deer have diverse feeding habits which change with the seasons. Interestingly, a deer’s digestive tract can make adjustments to allow for the consumption of many types of food. 

In general, it takes two to three weeks for deer to completely adjust to a new diet; therefore, when beginning a feeding program, you should introduce a small quantity of your artificial feed to the local deer and then gradually increase the amount.   

By incrementally supplying new foods to a deer, that deer’s digestive system can learn to process the feed you provide.

Consequently, gradual feeding in the introductory stages of a feeding program is vital to limiting damage to the digestive systems of a deer population.  

Note that the natural supply of (deer) food significantly decreases during winter; accordingly, their reliance on supplemental feed is generally higher during this time.  

For this reason, we recommend that you give the local deer enough time to become accustomed to your feed. Incrementally introducing the food before the beginning (or middle) of winter is preferable.

Dangers of a Sudden Inundation of Feed – Acidosis

Abruptly saturating a deer’s digestive system with a new diet instead of gradually introducing the feed into its system can cause severe damage to that deer’s overall health (especially true when feeding high carbohydrate foods). 

The primary drawback of feeding deer an overabundance of high carbohydrate foods is that they may develop rumen acidosis.        

Following the overconsumption of corn (or other high carbohydrate foods), a deer’s rumen will experience many elaborate changes; such changes may overwhelm its ability to manage the acid levels within the body. 

In severe cases of acidosis, the entire body of a deer may become acidic; blindness, seizures, and death are all highly likely in such cases. Milder effects of acidosis are nausea, lethargy, indigestion, diarrhea, and un-coordination.

What to Feed Deer

Deer consume various types of food to satisfy a healthy diet; however, their natural diet primarily consists of woody vegetation that they forage for in forests.

Thanks to their diverse feeding habits and adaptable digestive systems, supplementing a deer’s natural diet can be safely accomplished (with care). Examples of food you can use in your feeding program are:

Commercial protein pellets for deer
  • Protein Pellets. Pellets are specifically created to satisfy a deer’s energy, protein, and fiber requirements. 
  • Cereal Grains (Oats and Corn). While protein pellets provide a more balanced diet than cereal grains, oats are easily digestible and reduce the chances of complications related to an abrupt change to a diet.
    We recommend that the ratio of oats to corn ranges anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1.
    It is best to avoid feeding pure corn, barley, or wheat as they are very harmful to deer. 
  • Fruit and Vegetables. Although deer will eat them, they have limited value in providing a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
  • Hay and Alfalfa. The use of hay or alfalfa should be similar to corn. Caution should be used when feeding hay or alfalfa as deer can have trouble digesting these foods.
    Therefore, gradually introduce them to deer. 

Seemingly, when starting a supplemental feeding program, many hunters and land managers opt to feed corn to their local deer. 

If you want to use corn in your program, we advise that you use it safely and appropriately (that is, do not dominate their diet with corn).

We also recommend that you constantly supply the same feed throughout winter and ensure it remains dry.

Familiarization of a Deer Feeder

Another pivotal aspect of establishing a supplemental feeding program concerns your obligation of ensuring that the local deer become accustomed to the existence of your feeder(s). 

Understandably, deer typically avoid newly established feeders but gradually become more comfortable around the feeders as they become better acquainted with them.  

For this reason, rational hunters typically ensure their feeders are installed and inviting before the new hunting season/fall. 

Although the importance of familiarizing deer with your feeder can be easy to overlook, it is valuable nonetheless. 

Expected Time of Familiarity

Deer typically become adequately accustomed to a new feeder within three weeks; yet, it can take longer for deer to familiarize themselves with loud and intimidating automatic feeders.

Consequently, it is irrational to assume deer will immediately begin eating your feed following the establishment of your feeder. 

Strengthening their Familiarity

Deer will only eat from a feeder when they feel comfortable around it; accordingly, it is critical that you ensure your feeder and its surrounding area are inviting and inoffensive to deer.

Hence, you should consider where to place your deer feeder and what times to set your feeder (if automatic feeder).

It is also critical that you leave the deer alone and let them become familiar with your feeder. Hence, we advise that you do not perform any maintenance on your feeder before they are comfortable eating your feed.

While it can be discouraging to observe the local deer avoiding your newly established feeder, remaining patient and optimistic during this transitional phase should profoundly benefit your feeding program.

Seasonal Diets – Variation in Willingness to Eat from Feeder

Logically, deer would rather eat high-quality, natural food sources over any supplemental food we can artificially provide.   

In consequence of this innate preference, the willingness of deer to eat from deer feeders varies seasonally. In other words, deer consume supplemental feed in varying amounts throughout the year. 

This variance is particularly noticeable during spring and fall as food sources are plentiful and readily available during these seasons.  

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that feeding will diminish once the habitat’s surrounding vegetation flourishes.

Ultimately, a deer’s propensity to eat from a feeder will largely depend on the availability of vegetation, but deer density can influence their willingness too.

Introducing Protein Pellets

As previously stated, supplementing a deer’s natural diet with protein pellets will help satisfy energy, protein, and fiber requirements. 

However, it is ill-advised to distribute pellets from a spin-cast feeder as deer cannot consume enough of them (from the ground) to supplement their diet adequately.

Furthermore, pellets are highly susceptible to spoiling in high temperatures (due to their dampness). We advise that you use troughs or gravity feeders when supplying protein pellets.  

Good Times to Introduce Protein Pellets

There are various periods in a year when a deer’s nutritional requirements exceed the available nutrition within a habitat.  

The most likely times to expect deer to be nutritional deficient is during:

  • Doe Lactation – Summer
  • Fawn Growth and Development – Through Winter; or
  • Buck Antler Growth – Late Spring and Summer

Introducing appetizing protein pellets during these periods is typically more productive than doing so when sources of nutrition are plentiful.

Importance of Committing to Feeding Program

The importance of staying committed to a supplemental feeding program is often understated, but we believe that emphasizing its importance is necessary.

Abruptly ending a supplemental feeding program can have a disastrous impact on the health of the local deer and the surrounding habitat; consequently, remaining devoted to your program is highly advisable. 

Maintaining an effective feeding program is a demanding and expensive obligation that may not achieve favorable results.

Therefore, before launching a supplemental feeding program, you should discern whether you can dedicate time and money to maintaining an effective program. 

If you have any doubts about whether you can safely sustain a supplemental feeding program through to the end of winter, it is better that you decide against feeding deer, as you can do more harm than good.

Dangers of a Harmful and Unsuccessful Feeding Program

By attracting deer to a single feeding site, an unsafe feeding program can cause deer to congregate in unnaturally high densities.

An overpopulation of deer is incredibly concerning as the deer can cause habitat loss by eating all remaining food sources. Furthermore, Chronic Wasting Disease can rapidly spread in high densities.

We must point out that abruptly quitting a program during winter is especially dangerous and ill-advised as deer may depend on your feed during this period (considering their natural food sources diminish).

Choosing not to feed deer during winter is an effective way of avoiding unnaturally high deer densities.

Another option is to supply more than one feeder in your program. Setting many feeders gives each deer a chance to feed and prevents an entire population from visiting a single feeder. It may also minimize aggression.

A Final Word

Though you can benefit from supplemental feeding, place your energy into ensuring deer receive the most benefit from your program. 

Ultimately, if you intend on beginning a supplemental feeding program, you must do it the right way (safely). If you cannot do it correctly, you shouldn’t even bother establishing one. 


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