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White-Tailed Deer Nutrition: Off Season Managment

White-tailed deer in most southern habitats have access to adequate amounts of forage most of the year. However, white-tailed deer need a minimum of 17% crude protein in their forage year-round for maximum body and antler-growth and other natural deer forages do not contain this minimal amount of protein. Thus food quality, not quantity, may be the limiting factor in producing high quality white-tails on a sustainable basis.

While many people plant high quality winter foods to supplement the diet of their deer, many of these same people forget about the nutritional needs of deer during late winter, spring and summer months. Generally, late winter and late summer are periods of stress and reduced nutritional plane for southern deer and this "off-season" period is a time of special needs. This is the time of antler growth, gestation, fawning and lactation. This crucial time in the annual rhythm of the white-tail should not be forgotten or ignored if quality deer management is the objective.

White-tailed deer in most southern habitats have access to adequate amounts of forage most of the year. However, white-tailed deer need a minimum of 17% crude protein in their forage year-round for maximum body and antler-growth and other natural deer forages do not contain this minimal amount of protein. Thus food quality, not quantity, may be the limiting factor in producing high quality white-tails on a sustainable basis.

While many people plant high quality winter foods to supplement the diet of their deer, many of these same people forget about the nutritional needs of deer during late winter, spring and summer months. Generally, late winter and late summer are periods of stress and reduced nutritional plane for southern deer and this "off-season" period is a time of special needs. This is the time of antler growth, gestation, fawning and lactation. This crucial time in the annual rhythm of the white-tail should not be forgotten or ignored if quality deer management is the objective.

Warm-season Agricultural Crops

Supplemental Plantings

Soybeans

There probably is no better off-season forage that one can plant for deer than soybeans. Soybean foliage is high in protein, the soybean seed is extremely high in protein and other nutrients. Soybean plants are utilized heavily from sprouting through seed production. Herein lies the problem with this premium warm-season deer forage. In many areas deer densities are such that soybean plants often are killed by overgrazing. Unless deer density in the particular area is low to moderate, large (5-10 acre) plots maybe necessarily or if smaller plots are used they may need to be protected with temporary electric fencing to allow soybean plants to become established.

There are many varieties of soybeans to choose from but it is best to select a late maturing variety or a variety bred for forage production. Consult with your local county extension agent or Soil Conservation Service for information on proper varieties for your area.

Planting dates vary from late April to mid-June depending on soybean variety and planting location. Soil tests should be conducted to determine lime and fertilization rates. Generally speaking, soybeans should be fertilized with 2-300 pounds per acre of 0-20-20 fertilizer. Note that nitrogen is omitted. Since soybeans fix their own nitrogen, supplying nitrogen to competing grasses and weeds can be avoided by using a nitrogen-free fertilizer. Plant soybeans on a firm seedbed. Seeding rates vary between 35-70 pounds per acre and may be broadcast or planted in rows. Planting depth of one inch is recommended.

Cowpeas

Cowpeas are annual legumes like soybeans and produce high protein forage during the off-season. It has been our experience that cowpeas often are not browsing by deer until they reach a certain stage of maturation. However, when this stage is reached, deer may direct their attention to these plantings and eliminate them in a matter of a week or so. This may defeat the intended purpose of supplying deer high-quality forage throughout the summer season. As with soybeans there are many varieties of cowpeas. We have used Iron-clay mostly but Catjang, Wilcox and Tory also are good varieties.

Recommended planting dates vary from about May 1 to July 1. Soil tests should be conducted for proper liming and fertilization rates. Generally speaking, 100 pounds per acre of 0-20-20 fertilizer is adequate, again note this is a nitrogen-free fertilizer since cowpeas are nitrogen fixers and we do not want to supply competing grasses and weeds with nitrogen. Cowpeas should be broadcast at a rate of 50-70 pounds per acre on a firm seedbed and covered to a depth of about one inch. Inoculation is recommended.

American jointvetch (Aeschynomene)

American jointvetch is a warm-season tropical legume that apparently is highly palatable to white-tailed deer. American jointvetch plantings can produce large quantities of high-quality forage during summer months. However, this particular forage crop, like many others, has its drawbacks. Seed cost is high and successful establishment of jointvetch plots often requires intensive culture and herbicide use. The stand may fail or, if successful, be quite expensive. Jointvetch is tolerant of wet soils but us not suited to sandy soils.

Liming and fertilization rates should be determined by soil testing. Generally speaking, 300 pounds per acre of 0-10-20 fertilizer is recommended. Planting dates vary from the first of March to the first of June. Care should be taken to avoid frost, but jointvetch should be planted as early as possible to insure seed maturation before the first of frost of the fall season. Jointvetch should be broadcast at 15 pounds per acre on a well-disced, firm seedbed and lightly covered with a drag or harrow.

Alyceclover

Alyceclover is a good clover for off-season deer forage. This plant grows well under a variety of soil types and can withstand moderate drought. Like the other legumes previously discussed, alyceclover is high in protein but also may withstand heavier grazing pressure than soybeans or cowpeas. Alyceclover must be replanted annually.

Alyceclover plots should be limed and fertilized according to soil tests but generally speaking 2-300 pounds of 0-17-17 fertilizer per acre is adequate. Alyceclover should be planted between May 1 and July 1 at a broadcast rate of 20-25 pounds per acre. It should be planted on a well-prepared seedbed and lightly covered using a drag or harrow. Seed should be inoculated.

Corn

Corn is planted widely for white-tailed deer and whole kernel corn is an excellent energy source for deer from early fall through winter. In areas where most producing hardwoods are in short supply or are absent, corn can be very important to deer for building winter fat stores. Corn is a high energy food but a food low in protein. Corn doesn't come close to satisfying the minimum year-round protein needs of deer for maximum body and antler growth.

There are many varieties of field corn suitable for planting for deer. Use a variety suited for your particular soil and weather conditions. Corn plots should be soil tested for precise liming and fertilization rates. Generally speaking, 3-400 pounds per acre of 17-17-17 is adequate at planting. Planting date ideally is mid-March to mid-April for most varieties. Corn may be broadcast at 12-15 pounds per acre and covered about one inch. However, best results usually are obtained by planting in 36-inch rows and cultivating for weed and grass control. This also facilitates side-dressing with ammonium nitrate when corn plants are about knee-high. This is done by placing a line of ammonia nitrate about the diameter of a pencil along the entire corn row.

Fertilizing Natural Deer Forages

Our experience suggests white-tailed prefer natural foods, when available, over many agricultural varieties. In recent food preference tests at Auburn University, captive white-tailed deer allowed access to high-quality agronomic food plots spent more time tasting and nibbling on native food plants growing between and around the test plots. Deer forage quality definitely can be enhanced by fertilization of native plants.

Native forage enhancement may be done in fallow fields, along roads and roadsides, log landings, firebreaks, fence rows and various other available openings, i.e., anywhere sufficient sunlight strikes the earth surface to facilitate photosynthesis.

Japanese honeysuckle, blackberry, dewberry and greenbriar thickets may be greatly enhanced by proper treatment. Forbs (herbaceous flowering plants or "weeds" are extremely important in the year-round diet of white-tailed deer. These plants, too numerous to list, furnish some of the highest quality foods for deer in spring, summer, fall and even winter (in the form of winter rosettes). Quality and quantity of these natural foods can be enhanced significantly by effective fertilization.

Generally speaking, areas selected for natural forage enhancement on most Alabama soils would benefit from an application of the equivalent of 1-3 tons of lime per acre before fertilization. These areas, whether fallow fields, roadsides, honeysuckle patches, etc. should then receive a broadcast treatment of 13-13-13 at a rate of 4-500 pounds per acre (an acre is about the size of a football field). Fertilization should coincide with spring green-up or about mid-March. Around the first to the middle of May apply ammonium nitrate at a rate of 100 pounds per acre. Natural forage production can be doubled and crude protein content of many plants can be pushed well beyond the basic requirements of white-tailed deer. The above fertilization application should be sufficient until the following spring. While herbaceous plants may benefit from further ammonium nitrate applications later in the growing season, personal experience has indicated that fertilizing some woody forages (honeysuckle) in early fall results in concentrated deer browsing that can cause total defoliation and possible damage to the regeneration capabilities of the forage patch.

Fertilization of Mast and Fruit Producing Trees

Hard and soft mast quality and quantity may be enhanced through fertilization. Locate trees that are proven producers. Do not fertilize trees at random because some trees seldom produce fruit while others are consistent producers. Some of the species to look for are white oaks, swamp chestnut oaks, water oaks, etc., persimmon, crabapple, and wild grapes.

Application of lime and fertilizer should be concentrated under the drip-line of the tree canopy, i.e., that area shaded by the limbs and leaves of the tree. Fertilize this area with 13-13-13 fertilizer at the rate of 400 pounds per acre. This application should be made about the time of flowering. This usually is just before or at the time new spring leaves begin to unfurl. In oaks, this can be from February to May depending on the geographic region and oak species. Persimmon trees flower after the leaves unfurl anywhere from March to mid-June. Flowers are most common in April and May. Crabapple flowers appear with or just before the leaves, usually flower from March to June depending upon latitude. Wild grapes usually in May or June.

The initial application of 13-13-13 should be followed 6-8 weeks later with a treatment of ammonium nitrate at a rate of 100-150 pounds per acre.

The overall benefit of forage enhancement is related to the total acreage involved. Fertilized areas should exceed one percent of the total acreage involved before any real benefits can be realized. Generally speaking, the more you are willing or able to do, the better.

Content: Dr. M. Keith Causey