By Rick Taylor, Wildlife Biologist/Associate Broker
Most Texas hunters and landowners want to produce and/or harvest the best bucks they can. For landowners, the better the bucks, the better the economic return. For hunters, the ultimate goal of harvesting a record-book white-tailed deer is the climax of years of hard work, money, and dedication. Most agree that the basic formula for producing quality deer requires proper nutrition, age, and genetics – generally in that order. They must have adequate nutrition throughout their lives beginning with their mamma’s milk, then be allowed to mature to 5-6 years of age and have the genetic potential to reach trophy status. Contrary to popular belief, good genetics are not lacking in most Texas rangelands, but they simply need to be managed and refined. Throughout most of the deer range, selective harvest of quality bucks has caused a general decline in the herd genetics and ultimately buck quality. Do ranchers consistently sell their best bulls, leaving their lower quality animals to breed as most deer hunters do by harvesting the best bucks? Good genetics are in the herd and need to be brought out. Spending inordinate amounts of money to bring in super buck genes through trapping and transplanting is treating the symptom and not the problem. It is like throwing a bucket of fresh water in the ocean and hoping it reduces the salinity! This approach will not produce any significant changes especially if proper management is not in place.
Improving the nutritional levels of the habitat should be the first step toward accomplishing your deer management goals. Only then can genetic improvement have an opportunity to bring out the potential quality of the deer herd. The most effective way to accomplish these goals is proper range and habitat management. Livestock numbers, proper stocking rates, grazing systems, and deer numbers must be in sync to allow the natural forage to be available. While most hunters realize nutrition is the key to producing quality deer, unfortunately, they can’t see the forest for the trees. In this day and age of instant gratification, many feed and seed products are marked and sold as miracle formulas guaranteed to produce large antlers, almost overnight. Granted, a supplemental feed program can be a useful tool in deer management, especially to maintain optimum nutritional levels during stressful times.
REMEMBER, a supplemental feed should be used to supplement the natural habitat and hunters should not be hornswoggled into believing it will replace natural foods. IT WON’T!!
Supplemental feeding can come in a variety of ways including summer and winter food plots, corn feeders, pelleted rations, and minerals. Before beginning a supplemental food program, the manager should consider several factors including:
- What are my goals and objectives?
- Am I doing everything I can to improve range conditions and the habitat already?
- Is it economically beneficial?
- What kind of results can I reasonably expect?
- What kind of supplemental feeding program will fit my needs?
Natural Vegetation and Food Plots
While improving the natural forage is best, summer and winter food plots can be beneficial. Winter food plots should have a mixture of oats, wheat, rye, triticale, and a winter clover. In south Texas, these winter food plots can be especially helpful. Summer food plots are dependent on annual rainfall, unless you have the ability to irrigate. If water is not a limiting factor, legumes such as peas, beans, and clover would be planted within a mixture. Again, diversity is important and a variety is optimum. Most likely in this area, if we have adequate rainfall, natural forage such as browse and forbs will be available. If you are planning summer food plots, consider native perennials such as bundleflowers or sunflowers. Once established they should be back next summer with little maintenance. To improve the odds of success, contact you local seed dealer, feedstore, county agent, or NRCS specialist to determine what is locally grown best. Don’t be fooled by seeds that have been developed in an area of high precipitation and expect them to grow in the desert.
While corn is relatively low in protein, it is high in carbohydrates and can be beneficial to deer during stressful periods such as late winter or for lactating does. Most hunters use corn as bait instead of a food source and start feeding corn after summer and stop before spring, often when the deer need it the most. I would recommend maintaining your corn feeding program on an annual basis, albeit on a reduced basis. If the deer don’t want it, let them decide.
A pelleted supplemental feed program may be beneficial during stressful times when natural food is in short supply or their nutritional levels are low such as during late winter or drought conditions. It is important that these feeds be fed free choice and available to the deer throughout the year, unless harvest strategies dictate temporary changes. Do not expect it to benefit your deer herd if you wait for hard times. By then it will be too late, and besides, they need to become accustomed to the feed. It may take time and a mixture of corn before the deer accept the feed. Even then, if range conditions are good, they may not readily eat it. To prevent non-target animals, such as feral hogs or javelinas from enjoying the feed, build a pen at least 80’ X 80’ and 30” high around the feed troughs.
Which feed should you use to guarantee the Boone and Crockett class white-tailed buck? Trophy Buck Corn, Horn Booster Plus, Mega Monster Buck Supreme – take your pick. Pelleted feeds come in many types and name brands, however a 16-20% ration, with a 2:1calcium and phosphorus ratio is generally sufficient. Studies indicate that generally, white-tailed deer require approximately 8-12% protein for maintenance, 13-16% for optimum antler development, and fawns may require up to 20%. Any extra protein in a ration is wasted and expelled. A pelleted feed program can be very expensive and long term results hard to measure.
Supplemental feeding can be an important part of a deer management program but is only one component in your quest to produce trophy class deer. The solution lies in improving the habitat, harvesting the appropriate numbers and types of bucks and does, letting the bucks grow to maturity, and having patience. Only then will you begin to see noticeable improvements. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will Ol’ Mossback.