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Cold Weather Food Options for Hungry Whitetails

Last Bite

Austin Delano

deer herd in winter
Do you have enough food planted to get your herd through the winter healthy? If you get snow, will the food you have planted be accessible for them? Veteran gamekeepers know that getting your bucks through the winter with ample quality food means bigger antlers the following year and an overall healthier herd. 

Gamekeepers 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 full bellies and beautiful, nutrient-filled velvet antlers. Even in areas with heavy agricultural production like soybeans and alfalfa, the late winter/early spring 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 necessary to make sure worn out bucks, as well as does that are now pregnant, will enter the spring in great health and body condition. 

Bucks can easily lose 20-25 percent of their body weight from the rut and winter stress. Common sense tells us that a buck entering the spring in poor physical condition is not likely to express his full potential. The same is true and just as important for the doe. Fawns born to mothers who struggled for food from January through March are going to spend time playing catch up. Providing late season food is not all about antlers either, but rather the overall health of the entire herd.

As the winter sets in during late January and February, most everyone’s hunting seasons are over or winding down and whitetails are on their feet 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 such as Final Forage or Winter Bulbs & Sugar Beets, with staggered maturity and palatability dates are ideal for this. After the cereal grains and clovers are browsed down or covered in snow, brassicas are very attractive and highly preferred by deer. Seeing deer dig through heavy snow to reach a plot filled with thick leaved greens and carbohydrate loaded bulbs is a great feeling for gamekeepers.

winter brassicas
Although ugly because it’s been so heavily browsed, this Deer Radish field planted during late August was still providing great food during late January.

Brassicas are a genus of plants containing many cultivars that whitetails love. These include rape, canola, and kale to name a few – and are very similar to sugar beets (Beta) and radishes (Raphanus). They have the potential to provide a lot of forage in a short growing season and can yield 10 to 20 tons of forage (or more) per acre. Brassicas offer great browse tolerance since deer do not usually prefer them until cooler weather changes the chemistry of the plant to become more palatable. Many hunters say that after the first or second hard freeze, their brassica plots become the preferred food source, even over corn and beans.

Planting brassicas at the right time of year is critical to get the most out of the plant from a tonnage standpoint, but not planting so early that the plants get too rank and mature making them less attractive and palatable.

While cereal grains such as wheat and oats are highly attractive to deer, if they are the only food available on your property, there could be a gap in available food late in the season. If your plots are eaten down to bare dirt by the end of the season, less deer or more plot acreage is in order…probably both. 

standing beans
For areas that annually get a lot of snowfall, standing soybeans can be a huge assist for herd health during the late winter.

Similar to getting the best potential out of your summer plots for antler growth, overwhelming your deer with late season food also pays off big. A lack of a solid late winter food source could lead some of your deer to stray off your land to the closest neighbor who does have quality “groceries.” We receive pictures every year of big, mature bucks that have been killed in a Maximum or Final Forage plot, proving that highly attractive late season food will get bucks on their feet and in the open during daylight hours.  

Brassicas can be planted on a timetable so that they are becoming palatable when your rut rolls around, this could be a great tool in killing that big one you’ve been after for a couple seasons.

The further north you go in the whitetail’s range, the more crucial a reliable a winter food source becomes. With the brutal temperatures and snowfall, it is amazing they find a way to survive every year. In the Upper-Midwest and North, crops that are tall and can stand above snowfall may be your best bet for supplying late winter food. Standing beans and corn are hard to beat for this situation. 

If you have limited food plot acreage, you may need to protect bean and corn plots until this time of year. This is especially true for soybeans in small plots, the forage is so attractive to deer during the spring/summer months, plants are often browsed so hard they can’t produce or yield any, or a very small amount of actual beans, for the winter.

For gamekeepers 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. In the late summer 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 compliment and fill any gaps in your food plot program to ensure the availability of quality nutrition during the late winter and early spring. 

Austin Delano with winter buck
A field planted in Maximum was the last bite for this old warrior. Aged at eight, this buck was a “slave to his stomach” in the cold January weather.

Before we go any further, let us 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 spinner type feeders, therefore not making the protein available at any time, is beneficial; however, maximum results come from feeding a quality protein feed available to your herd free choice, whenever they choose to feed. 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 variables. Deer density, available native forage and its quality, as well as total food plot acreage 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 the deer density in your area, contact a local state biologist and they should be able to provide you with local survey data so you can calculate deer densities on your property. You can also do a camera survey to 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 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 has a new smell, taste, and texture than anything they have had before, and it may take some time to condition your herd to eating from a feeder. A great supplemental feed to try is Biologic’s BCP (beans, corn, protein pellets).  

There is a wide variety of feeders available on the market today. The majority are timer-activated, spin-feeders. These can work for properties in the drier climates such as Texas, Oklahoma, etc., but the downside to these feeders is their small capacity (which mean frequent trips to fill up) and waste that goes mostly to unwanted critters. 

In areas with more frequent rainfall and high humidity, free-choice trough feeders or bulk gravity-flow will be the best utilized 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 it can be used like a skid so a chain or strap can be attached and moved with an ATV. The bottom of the trough where the feed will actually sit is best constructed from marine-grade plywood to resist mildew and mold and be weather resistant. Trough feeders should also be built with treated lumber so they will stand up to the weather for many years. 

deer at feeder
Free choice trough feeders are a great way to get deer to utilize supplemental feed for the stressful winter weather.

Second hand metal or tin will work for the roof to ensure the feed can stay dry and fresh. When building, make sure to build it so the roof is high enough so a buck in velvet won’t bump his rack. 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. 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 also harder for unwanted pests like raccoons to get.

Gamekeepers 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.

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