The good and the bad of feeding deer

by Matthew Robbins | January 17, 2024

Feeding wildlife is often a complex and contentious topic. Unlike in many states and provinces, feeding whitetail deer is perfectly legal in Ontario, and done routinely by hunters and non-hunters.

Let’s look at the potential issues associated with feeding whitetails, and consider if they are outweighed by the benefits.

The good

  • Baiting can attract deer to your stand and create a level of predictability that’s hard to replicate without food
  • Certain foods can increase herd health by supplementing their natural diet with minerals and nutrients that may be lacking
  • Proper feeding can be used to carry a population through a harsh winter, avoiding mass starvation and lowering at-birth fawn mortality

The bad

  • Feeding draws large numbers of animals into close quarters, increasing the spread of diseases like bovine tuberculosis (TB) and chronic wasting disease (CWD)
  • More deer, whether through attraction or increased reproductive success, translates to more strain on their natural food sources, ultimately creating dependency on humans
  • If not properly introduced, some foods can cause severe illness and death in deer
  • Feeding can cause increased aggression and fighting among deer
  • Feed can draw deer closer to urban areas and roadways, increasing human-deer conflict
  • Although these points apply to all seasons, they are especially important during the coldest months of the year

A wintertime conundrum

When the snow reaches about 20 centimetres, deer begin migrating to their winter haunts, known as “deer yards.” Year after year and generation after generation, these animals return to the same location and tough out the cold together, subsisting primarily on woody browse.

When the snow reaches depths of about 50 cm, ungulate mobility begins to suffer. Deer become confined to pre-established trails and access to food becomes seriously limited. Wind, snow crust, temperature, and timing all influence a deer’s wintertime experience, of course, but mortality begins to soar when there has been 50 cm or more of snow for more than 50 days.

It’s times like these that many people take to the bush with a bucket of corn and good intentions, but there’s a catch. If feeding isn’t done properly, the results can be disastrous.

Gut talk

A deer’s gut is designed to extract nutrients from the food that would be naturally available to it during a given time of year, like dogwood twigs and acorns. Unfortunately, a by-product of this specialization is that many agricultural foods don’t mix with the bacteria that call a whitetail’s belly home.

The sudden introduction of foods like barley, wheat, or corn, for example, can cause starch overload in a deer’s gut, leading to growth of harmful bacteria like clostridium. One of the most common issues that feeding can cause, however, is something called acidosis, an illness characterized by excess buildup of acid in the rumen (stomach) due to a sudden influx of carbohydrates. When deer consume a large amount of corn, their stomach experiences a boom in the bacteria Streptococcus sp. This little organism produces lactic acid. Which, in turn, lowers the pH of the whole gut biome and begins killing all the good stomach-dwelling critters. Ultimately, the whole digestive process comes to a halt.

Now you might be thinking, “Deer are out in the fields eating corn all the time. They don’t seem any worse for wear.” The answer is…kind of. These digestive issues are largely a question of dietary change. Although large amounts of corn aren’t great for deer, especially during winter, a whitetail that’s been consistently feeding on corn throughout the year isn’t likely to have serious issues. As long as it can supplement its diet with natural foods.

Introducing a deer to a corn-heavy diet suddenly, however, is simply too much too fast. The animal’s stomach microbiome just can’t adapt quick enough, resulting in diarrhea, bloating, dehydration, and even death.

So, what’s a conservationist to do?

“The practice of baiting and feeding deer is common, but as conservationists it’s important for hunters to be aware of the consequences, both positive and negative,” OFAH Manager of Policy Mark Ryckman said.

Experts offer these recommendations

  • If deer are experiencing a harsh winter, help by making their natural food more accessible. Do this by clearing trails that lead to young deciduous stands or by cutting down browse trees 
  • If you plan to use artificial feed, whether for hunting or otherwise, introduce it gradually alongside another, natural food like cedar browse, or mast
  • Use deer pellets, made specifically to accommodate a whitetail’s gut and provide them with the right mix of nutrients
  • If you must use high-carb foods like corn, cut them with more easily digestible food at a minimum ratio of 1:1. Cereals like rolled or coarsely milled oats are often recommended here

“At the end of the day, we all want healthy deer herds in our woods and heavy deer in our freezers,” Ryckman added. “There are things that hunters can do that, if done properly, help make this happen. We just need to follow the science and be mindful of the potential consequences.

Originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 2023 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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