Nutrition—The Key to Deer Management Success

by John E. Phillips and QDMA

  Lead Photo Credit:  Dan MoultrieMany hunters and landowners regularly plant food plots or provide supplemental feeds to their deer in the fall. Most undertake these practices primarily to observe deer and to increase their harvest opportunities. However, if you want to build a healthier deer herd with larger bodies and antlers, you should provide high quality feeds when deer need them most—late winter, early spring, and summer. Maximizing protein levels during these periods will help insure optimum body growth and antler development.

In a free–roaming deer herd, it is nearly impossible to manipulate the genetic makeup of the herd. On small acreages, it can even be difficult to influence the age structure of the herd. But, through proper harvest management, habitat management, and supplemental feeding, you can control the amount and quality of feed available to your herd. Photo by:  Dan Moultrie.

Major Stress Periods For Whitetails

Throughout much of the whitetail’s range, one of the most important times of the year to supplementally feed deer is immediately after the rut until spring green–up. This allows deer to overwinter in good condition and not have to play “catch–up” before the onset of antler growth in spring. “But, many hunters quit feeding their deer at the end of deer season, when in fact, this is the time that the deer often need the feed the most,” Dan Moultrie, president of Moultrie Feeders, explained. “Stress levels in deer are extremely high as they come into the spring, which means they can benefit greatly from supplemental feeding. You also can increase the survival rate of the fawns and bucks for the next year by continuing to supplementally feed after deer season ends.” Photo by Dan Moultrie

Supplementing your deer herd’s diet during the summer months when forage quantity is high but forage quality is low also provides additional benefits. This is particularly true in areas where summer food plots are unreliable due to frequent droughts or poor soils or not possible due to a lack of available planting areas or landowner restrictions.

During summer the quantity and quality of nutrition consumed by does directly influences the health and quality of the fawns they will produce. Research has shown that buck fawns provided with a high quality diet develop quicker and have a greater likelihood of growing larger antlers as yearlings. “I believe that nutrition plays a greater role in antler development than any other factor,” said Dr. Keith Causey, a deer researcher at Auburn University. “Body and antler development depend on the amount and quality of foods ingested. These two factors are the easiest for the sportsman to control.”

New Research

Recently researchers discovered a “new” high protein supplemental feed for whitetails—whole soybeans. “Although feeding corn is one of the best ways to attract deer, corn typically contains only 5 to 7 percent protein,” Moultrie said. “So while you may be attracting deer with corn, you are doing little to improve their overall nutritional level. A few years ago, research from Auburn University showed that soybeans could be used in a spin feeder and that deer would eat them.” Until this discovery, no one had found a way to use a spin feeder to distribute a high protein feed to deer. This was because when high protein pellets were used in spin feeders they would break down when exposed to moisture and not come out of the feeder. As a result, deer managers had to use some type of covered trough to feed commercial pellets to their deer. However, trough feeding requires more time, labor, and allows deer to feed primarily at night instead of during daylight hours when hunters can observe and potentially harvest them.

The Learning Curve

In many ways, deer are like children. If you want to teach a child who doesn’t like broccoli to eat it, then add a little ice cream. As the child begins to look forward to eating this dish, you can reduce the amount of ice cream. In a short time, the child will start eating broccoli without the ice cream.

Deer love corn as much as children enjoy ice cream. In some cases deer will reluctantly eat soybeans before they’re trained to eat them by mixing the soybeans with corn. To increase the level of protein in your deer’s diet, mix corn with the soybeans, which contain up to 45 percent crude protein. Then eventually feed only soybeans as the deer become accustomed to eating it.

“We suggest that the first time you fill your feeder you should use a mixture of 75 percent corn to 25 percent soybeans in the late winter and early spring,” Moultrie explained. “The second time you fill your feeder, increase the soybean level to a 50:50 mixture if you see the soybeans are beginning to disappear like the corn. The third time you fill up your feeder, you often can use 100 percent soybeans.”

The Economic Advantage of Soybeans

Providing high quality nutrition to your deer herd and protecting young bucks will greatly increase your chances of producing mature bucks with large antlers. Photo Credit: John E. Phillips.Every wildlife manager interested in providing supplemental feeds to deer must consider the cost factor. “On average, a 50–pound bag of corn will cost from $4.50 to $5 a bag,” Moultrie reported. “A 50–pound bag of soybeans will cost $6 to $10, and a 50–pound bag of high–protein pellets may cost as much as $15 a bag. So, when you compare costs, the soybeans are only slightly more expensive than the corn and much less expensive than the commercially prepared high–protein pellets.”

“However, when you compare the nutritional value of the soybeans with corn and high–protein pellets, you see that you’re dollars ahead by feeding soybeans. The corn will have a 5 to 7 percent protein level. The soybeans have a 35 to 45 percent protein level, depending on how much fertilizer was used to grow them and the quality of the soil. Most high–protein deer pellets have 16 to 21 percent protein. To deliver the most protein to your deer for the least amount of money, you can’t beat raw soybeans.” Photo by: John E. Phillips.

Feeding deer soybeans during the off–season can have two benefits, increasing the herd’s nutritional levels, and attracting the animals so that you can determine the general health of your herd.

“Using a timed feeder to feed soybeans during the off–season allows managers to observe the growth and development of their bucks,” Moultrie said. “Then they will know ahead of time what type and size of antlers the bucks will have when the hunting season arrives.”

You can’t harvest quality bucks if you don’t have quality bucks on the land you hunt. Supplemental feeding can help you determine the relative number, size, and quality of bucks in a given area; the buck–to–doe ratio; fawn recruitment levels; and an overall assessment of your management program.


Although feeding deer soybeans allows wildlife managers to increase the protein level available to their deer throughout the year, you must observe several precautions before you begin a feeding program.

Check your state game regulations to make sure when you can and can’t feed deer and other wildlife.

Do not institute this program during turkey season if you live in a state where you cannot feed turkeys. The turkeys will eat the soybeans just like the deer.

Do not expect the deer to start eating the soybeans as soon as you start feeding them. Mix corn in with your soybeans. As soon as you notice the deer eating the soybeans, begin to gradually decrease the amount of corn and increase the amount of soybeans.

Set the timer on your feeder to feed the deer during the daylight hours so you can observe them. Using spin feeders as a management tool to inventory your deer herd prior to the season allows you to better determine your herd potential for that year.

Remember that supplemental feeding does not replace natural vegetation and food plots. Instead, consider supplemental feeding an added extra that can enable you to raise the nutritional level of your herd.

To learn more about how to use spin feeders and soybeans to improve your deer herd, write or call Moultrie Feeders at 150 Industrial Road, Alabaster, AL 35007, 800–653–3334, or visit the company’s website at

Editor’s note: The QDMA does not support providing supplemental feeds to white–tailed deer for the purpose of artificially increasing deer numbers to levels above what can be naturally supported by the available habitat. Furthermore, the QDMA strongly opposes providing supplemental feeds in areas where increased deer concentrations increase the risk of disease and/or parasite transmission to humans, livestock, deer, or other wildlife.

Author Credit

John Phillips is an avid hunter and professional outdoor writer from Birmingham, Alabama. He has published numerous articles on deer hunting and management in nearly every outdoor magazine in the United States. This was John’s first contribution to Quality Whitetails.

Two commonly used supplemental feeds for whitetails include commercial pellets (left) and corn (center). Commercial pellets are highly nutritious, but are relatively expensive and cannot be used in a timed, spin–type feeder. Corn is highly attractive to deer but contains only 5–7 percent protein. Whole soybeans (right) are highly nutritious (over 35 percent protein) and less expensive than commercial pellets. Photo Credits: Left, John E. Phillips; Center and Right, Brian Murphy

Caution Required When Feeding Deer in the Northern United States

Research in the northern United States has shown that rapid changes in the winter diet of nutritionally stressed white–tailed deer can actually kill them. This is particularly a problem with high–protein feeds which the bacteria in the deer’s rumen (stomach) cannot process following prolonged periods of nutritional stress. Therefore, deer can die with a full stomach of high quality feed. This situation can generally be avoided by beginning the feeding program during late fall or early winter before the deer become severely stressed and lose the ability to utilize high protein feeds. Regardless, rapid changes in the winter diet of deer should be avoided. 


Home | Search |  Tell-a-Friend | Contact Us |


ie4get_animated.gif (7090 bytes)Copyright 1998-2003
Contact us  with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: September 27, 2000 is independently owned and not affiliated with the National Rifle Association or it's magazine AMERICAN HUNTER. or any part of it's pages is NOT responsible for wrong information!