Year-round Protein Program Vs a Seasonal Program

By Dr. Shawn Campbell
Ph.D -  Animal Nutrition - Texas Tech University
Victoria, TX 77901
361 550 0282        


There are three factors that mainly affect antler growth potential in deer and they are nutrition, age of the buck, and his genetic potential.  This month we will discuss the importance of a nutritional program.

Nutritional supplementation of whitetail deer is not only important from March/April through August/September when you actively are seeing doe with fawns and bucks with their horns in velvet and growing, but is important year-round. During the winter months when the nutritional quality of the browse and forbs maybe less than adequate to maintain proper body condition for optimal conception  (twins versus single fawns), young deer still growing, and to have bucks in optimal body condition going into the horn growth season. 

Today I will be discussing the reasons for supplementing year-round and disadvantages of using a one-method protein supplementation program for deer and the advantages of a combination of two or more programs.  Supplementing protein for body condition and horn growth in bucks is essential for bucks to maximize their genetic potential.

During pre-rut through rut bucks may not eat much and rely more heavily on a high body condition to make it through the breeding season.  Lets face it during this time, the buck has a couple things on their mind and that is chasing doe and territorial issues with other bucks in the area (not eating).  So you may be thinking, well I already know all of that, yet still some of you still only have a seasonal protein supplementation program.  The key word is "Body Condition".  I will try to humanize this a little by giving a scenario to link how important a year-round protein program is for deer. 
"If you go play any sport for at least 8 hours a day as hard as you can and just take in a few snacks and water every day for 28 days (the breeding time for deer for one estrous cycle).  What would your body condition be after those 28 days?  Well whatever shape you started in, you would have lost weight. By the end of the rut these bucks are similarly worn down to a nub (referring to their body condition)."
That's why keeping a high quality year-round supplementation program is so imperative to have the best horn growth possible for the next year.  After rut, we are in the winter months (non growing season), so forbs and browse are harder to find and not very high quality.  Bucks after rut are what we call in a negative energy balance in their diet.  They have used up their body stores to get them through breeding season and now are facing a low quality food supply to try to get them back to a normal body condition before horn growth season.  The horn growth season and fawning season coincide with spring rains that bring new fast-growing browse and forbs that are high in protein.  So if a nutritional management plan for deer doesn't have the buck population back to a positive energy balance (optimal body condition) before horn growth season, then those bucks still have to play catch-up.  Horn growth is similar to milk production, gain in a feedlot, etc., for optimal production the body condition of the animal must be at a maintenance level, so the buck can optimize the protein, energy, vitamins and minerals he obtains from its diet during the antler-growing season.  It is important to point out that you should have available to the deer a good vitamin and mineral package (which should be included in your pellet, or in a block).  A portion of the protein and energy above the maintenance level required will go to production (i.e. horn growth).  Bucks require 12-14% crude protein for body maintenance and 15-18% for antler production.  The bucks' antler growth potential is only as good as its genetic potential will allow.  Age is another important factor in harvesting good horns.  It is a shame, but the average buck harvested is less than 4 years old.  Bucks don't produce their genetic potential until 5-7 years of age.  So let your good bucks mature.
Doe and fawn nutrition are just as important as buck nutrition.  The year-round protein supplementation of deer allows the doe to be in optimal nutritional condition at breeding thus increasing the chance of twins versus single fawns.  Doe need 14-18% protein intake for gestation and lactation and young growing deer need the most at 16-20% protein for optimal development.  All protein requirements are expressed as a percentage of daily intake (dry matter basis).  In addition, corn and is only 7-8% crude protein.  So all you hunters feeding only corn are not any where close to growing the horns that you could see with a good protein supplementation program.

Deer are selective eaters and with a supplementation-feeding program, I want to compliment the native nutrition.  In my experience I have noticed that during wet periods deer tend to leave the protein feeders and consume natural browse and forbs that may contain a higher nutritional value than what I am feeding.  The combination of food plots, protein feeders, corn feeders and supplement blocks is your best program in my opinion. 

Now that we have discussed the importance of supplementing year-round, lets talk about the disadvantages of a single program method (just feeding pellets, blocks, or a food plot) and the advantages of a combination system that maximizes antler growth. 

Lets start with the disadvantages of a one-system program.
§        Protein Pellets
o        Expensive per pound of protein.
o        Can establish dominant bucks that are the only bucks benefiting.
o        Deer become reliant and don't move out of the area, thus over foraging the immediate area, which may lead to the killing out of important native browse and forbs to the ecosystem.
o        In large bulk feeders, feed can become stale or wet.
o        If the ranch has cattle, will need large feeder pens.
o        Varmints and other animals consume the protein. (i.e. feeding coons and turkey and or hogs).
§        Supplemental Blocks
o        Consumption rate to small to get enough protein by itself.
o        Other animals consuming the block
o        Very expensive form of protein
o        Need to put out several blocks per feeder
o        Can loose lots of the product from rain melt
§        Food Plots
o        Need to have at least 5 acres to make it worth the effort (10-20) is better.
o        High deer density will not allow many crops to ever get started if the plot is too small.
o        Have to own, rent or have the land cultivated and planted.
o        Need adequate rainfall for the type of food plot you are planting.
Advantages of a combination supplemental program:
§        Food plots -
o  Cost less per pound of protein.
o        With 5 acres or more you almost eliminate competition.
o        Great compliment to reduce protein pellet cost.
o        All natural and always fresh.
o        High protein values.
o        Sometimes ranchers will cost share if they can graze livestock (large fields) after January.
§        Blocks
o        Good for mineral/vitamins and protein between filling feeders.
§        Protein Pellets
o        If dry and food plots don't grow, they are a great back-up plan
o        Great compliment to food plots, best to set up so deer travel from food plot to protein feeder and also away from the water (Makes deer travel more and not forage too much in a certain area).
The nutritional supplementation program you decide to implement is completely up to you, but by using combination system as I have stated above you will see dramatic improvement in your antler development and fawning crop.  This combination system if started now on a place that had not been supplementing previously will add about 10-15 inches of mass on the average buck population in three to four years and if you are on a good management program that cull the proper deer and lets the good bucks walk until at least 5 years old you will see a greater jump in the score of your harvested bucks.

In the next edition, we will discuss a cost analysis of a combination feed program, which will include labor, fuel, feed/seed, equipment costs, as well as look at several different brands of protein feed, types of food plots to plant. In addition we will discuss the proper age bucks need to be to harvest and a few simple rules to follow to ensure you are improving your deer heard and not going backwards.
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