Feeding Whitetails During a Drought

The recent drought has made the business of feeding whitetail deer pretty complicated as producers look for feed alternatives and ways to control costs.

Cattle are easier to feed since they have been bred and adapted over hundreds of generations to farm production. However, deer have a digestive system that remains more closely linked to their environment. Feeding them on a farm requires a careful balance of rations.

The prairie droughts of the past few years have resulted in poor pastures and hay, as well as high-priced traditional deer feeds such as oats. According to Saskatchewan Agriculture, in the past three years alfalfa, a staple in deer production, has risen in price by 70 percent. Oats, the basis of many deer farmers’ rations, is up by 127 percent.

Poor quality hay can be a problem. The deer may browse low-end alfalfa, but it will have a problem obtaining adequate nutritional value.

Oats are ideal for deer because they contain a balance of high levels of crude fibre, high fat and protein. As well, the starch in oats is segmented into pockets that delay its breakdown in the rumen, preventing sudden microbial and chemical imbalances.

Higher feed costs are also driving some pelleted feed makers to use alternative feeds. Deer producers have to check to see whether they are receiving the same feed that has worked for them all along. Changing feed for deer must be done gradually, otherwise health problems could arise.

Other choices are expensive as well. Barley and wheat prices have gone up, but these are not ideal for deer.

The unknown factor is corn. Its price is high, but lower than other feeds. The Americans have been feeding corn to deer for years and have had good results. Corn can be fed as part of a ration, but more crude fibre from another source must be used as well. Corn is low in the fibre necessary for the rumen to take advantage of the extra calories that corn contains.

Another excellent choice is peas. They have 5.5 percent crude fibre and 24 percent protein, and are excellent for deer.

When using alternative feed, producers must ensure their deer are getting enough minerals. Just because free choice minerals are available does not mean the deer are going to eat them.

Minerals are generally included in pre-mixed, pelleted feeds and supplements. When feeding whole grain alternatives, the minerals may have to be added to the grain ration using molasses or other carriers.

Supplements will stabilize feed costs at a higher price level than grain rations, but are the safest and most reliable. Until the price of feeds goes down, producers are not likely to find any cheaper alternatives.

An agrologist can usually figure out a safe ration for a herd from whatever feed producers are using.

The good news is that deer eat less than other species. You only need 3.5 pounds of feed per day for a white-tail, as compared to elk who need 14 lb., and bison who need 24 lbs. Cattle producers need 38 pounds per day of the most expensive feed in years.