Importance of Summer Nutrition

Getting fawns into the best condition possible insures that they too will have the best chance of reaching their genetic potential later in life. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Bucks need protein for general body maintenance as soon as possible in spring both to build their winter-stressed bodies and to begin the process of growing antlers. Hardened antlers are 40 to 50% protein; the remainder is primarily phosphorus and calcium. At first, these minerals come from stores in the buck’s skeletal system but he must replace them at some point through his diet. For all this to come together in the best way possible for maximum antler growth, he needs a diet rich in protein, phosphorus and calcium.

Does also need the correct diet to produce healthy fawns. Again, they need protein as soon as they can get it in spring for general body maintenance and the benefit the health of the fawns they are carrying. Getting fawns into the best condition possible insures that they too will have the best chance of reaching their genetic potential later in life. The future potential of the fawn starts with the health of the doe while the fawn is still in the womb.

The need for high quality nutrition doesn’t stop when the fawns are born, in fact it only intensifies. The solid matter making up a doe’s milk is composed of an amazing 32% protein. Biologists believe that a diet that is low in protein does not simply produce lower quality milk; it actually produces less milk. I grew up on a small dairy farm. Dairy farmers know the recipe for maximum milk production and it always includes a high protein diet. Obviously, less milk means reduced fawn health. You may think, “How does fawn health relate to growing big antlers?” It is all tied together.

A buck’s antlers are a two-generation project. Recently, Dr. Grant Woods gave a seminar on deer management in a nearby town for a group of local hunters who hired him to consult on their hunting property. They invited me to attend. One of the subjects that came up was the importance of nutrition not just after the buck fawns are born but also before they are even conceived. Grant noted that the health of the doe relates directly to the later health and antler growing potential of her buck fawns.

If you need more proof of the value of getting a fawn off on the right foot, I have actually seen buck fawns that are as large as their mothers by November; some even carried small spikes rather than just buttons. I’m guessing most of these were born a month earlier than normal, but the fact that they have a head start is indisputable. Those bucks have a big jump on their cousins when it comes to over-winter health and also in growing antlers the following year. An old saying that has roots in the 14th century states, “The head grows according to the pasture.” When it comes to deer, nothing could be truer.

So having a high protein diet is even more critical for lactating does than for antler growing bucks, but both benefit greatly from a terrific food supply. If they were human, you would have them drinking protein shakes from spring through summer.

Summer Stress Period

It is easy to understand the stress period that corresponds with winter. It is cold; in human terms, that automatically signals danger. However, to a deer temperature is not nearly as important as we may think. In most cases, they are equipped to handle it. When the temperature bottoms out and stays there, deer will react (after an initial feeding spree that may last a few days) with a reduction in their metabolism that more or less permits them to shut down for several days.

The real stress of winter occurs in areas with prolonged deep snow and/or limited food sources where access to feed is impossible. Then, the combination of cold and poor nutrition will create stress that will limit future antler development, fawn survival and the health of fawns that are yet to be born.

Having an ample supply of fall body fat to draw on is critical to health and maintenance in the depths of winter. And great winter food sources, especially those high in energy (carbohydrates) is important when the weather breaks and the deer get back on regular feeding patterns.

Intuitively we all understand winter stress; it makes sense to us in human terms. However, this article is about the summer needs of deer. Many deer managers fail to appreciate the significance of a second stress period.

Mid-summer is nearly as stressful as mid-winter. The reason again relates to food quality, or the lack thereof. In the summer, the deer have additional needs, which serve to increase the stress. Bucks are growing antlers and does are lactating to feed their fawns. Both activities take a huge toll on their physical resources. At this time of the year, their food (especially their native browse) is mature, comprised mostly of stems, often dried up like overcooked bacon.

Relieving Summer Stress

Deer are browsers and eat hundreds of different weeds and plants.

As a serious deer manager, you need to focus on the year-round health of the animals you manage. When you have a stress period or a nutrition gap, the upside potential for your bucks’ antlers decreases. Commercial deer growers are now producing 200-inch 2 1/2 year old bucks. They are doing it through both genetic manipulation and through removing all forms of stress.

Antlers are a second priority to the survival of the animal. His system automatically funnels available resources toward body health and maintenance first, antler development second. Antlers are the result of surplus and the maximum surplus exists where you have the minimum stress. I know of deer growers who actually go so far as to disinfect the deer’s watering trough on a regular basis to assure that there is absolutely no chance for infection which creates stress. Obviously, we can’t go to these lengths with a free ranging deer herd, but anything we can do remove stress from their daily lives will be rewarded with bigger antlers. Supplying great nutrition is the first, and most important, step in that direction.

Let’s take another look at the kinds of food that deer eat in the summer. Obviously, they are browsers and eat hundreds of different weeds and plants. In fact, when I’m out during the summer looking at my food plots or scouting, I am always researching what the deer are nibbling on along the fringes of open fields. I am amazed at what they eat. For example, some years they eat common weeds like Queen Anne’s lace as if it were candy even though it is growing right in the middle of an alfalfa field. I have even seen evidence that they will browse common ragweed, again right in the middle of a sea of alfalfa.

Deer love diversity and will seek it even in the midst of prime foods. It is obvious that at certain times in their growth, these common weeds are very palatable. It seems the list of plants deer won’t eat is shorter than the list of those they will.

However, as the summer drags on and these browse plants begin to mature and dry out, the deer abandon them in favor of agricultural crops and food plots where they can find them. I see this transition the heaviest, where I live in the Midwest, during early July. The deer literally come out of the woodwork. This transition will likely occur slightly sooner in areas where the growing season is longer and in areas with less available browse.

Now if you have limited agriculture and no food plots, you are right at the beginning of the summer stress period. Without highly palatable and highly digestible food sources, those deer have few options during this prime antler growing time. Unless you provide high quality, protein-rich food sources your bucks will not grow their biggest antlers and fawn health will suffer. It is that simple.

Why Spring is Also Important

The same forbs (a fancy name for weeds) that the deer eat in early summer are also available in the spring, but forbs are an inconsistent food source. You can’t easily control the location, amount or quality of the browse. Also, some areas with moderate to high deer densities have very little nutritious browse remaining. The deer have literally eaten it to death after years of heavy use. It is important not to leave anything to chance when getting your deer off to the best start possible so you must engage in an aggressive food plot program that targets the springtime green up.

What to Plant

Biologists commonly state that a well-maintained acre of clover will feed up to six deer. That is a safe yardstick when determining the number of acres to plant in summer foods. If you think your hunting property supports roughly 70 deer you need at least 12 acres of summer food plots.

I have already mentioned that deer need diets high in protein and minerals during the spring and summer with a greater shift toward carbohydrates in fall and winter.

OK, so we need something that produces a lot of protein and takes up key minerals from the soil very efficiently. When you lime and fertilize your plot, you want calcium, phosphorus and protein to get into the deer as efficiently as possible. Since we are focusing on food plots for spring, summer and (by default) fall, it is very hard to beat clover and alfalfa. Brassicas, as I mentioned in the last issue of this hunting magazine, are great for late fall and winter, but are not utilized well enough in the spring and summer to replace clover and alfalfa.

The best clovers are those that will grow where you hunt. Consult with the sales department at Biologic for regional recommendations. Assuming all varieties will grow well; those with the highest crude protein levels are the best. Typically, this means white clover, which has protein levels that approach that of alfalfa but is a lot easier to establish and maintain than alfalfa. However, you will need to reestablish the clover more often.

Chicory plays a close second to clover as a user-friendly easy to maintain high protein, high mineral food source. Again, it is important to have plantings that extract minerals from the soil efficiently. That is one of the strengths of chicory. A mix of both alfalfa and chicory, exactly what you will find in Biologic Clover Plus, is a great choice for most spring and summer food plots.

If you are in a setting where you actually harvest crops from your hunting area, alfalfa is a great choice for some of these larger fields. It provides maximum spring and summer nutrition and deer will still utilize it well in the fall. Though it takes more maintenance to grow and harvest correctly, alfalfa is a super summer food source for deer and will also benefit your wallet.

I have been surprised to find that even in the Midwest, where everyone thinks the deer eat only corn and soybeans; they are still hammering clover and alfalfa fields with gusto well into December. These spring and summer foods can supplement more common grain-type fall food plots, as well, reducing the need for large amounts of these expensive plantings.

Where and How Much

Biologists commonly state that a well-maintained acre of clover will feed up to six deer. That is a safe yardstick when determining the number of acres to plant in summer foods. If you think your hunting property supports roughly 70 deer you need at least 12 acres of summer food plots. If you are the only one in the neighborhood providing lush summer food, you will likely attract a number of your neighbor’s deer, as well. In that case, you need to increase the number of acres you must plant to assure that there is enough to go around.

Keep the food plots small and spread them around the property so that they are within a short walk of every deer on the place. If you decide you need to plant a total of six acres, it is far better to plant six good one-acre plots than three good two-acre plots. By spreading out the summer food you make it more accessible and you also spread out your hunting pressure when you hunt over these plots come fall.

Maintaining the Plot

It is far better to plant the minimum number of well-fertilized, properly limed clover plots than to plant twice as much without the same care. In other words, you will be rewarded for following the directions. Finally, is important to mow your clover plots at least once per summer, twice is better. Ideally, you will mow when the plants start to become mature so that the deer can then benefit from the tender, more palatable new growth.

Having great summer food sources will do more than help you produce high quality deer, it will also provide you with a fun place to spend evenings during the summer watching the bucks putting on the feedbag as they grow their big antlers and watching the does as they refuel to feed their fast-growing fawns.

In the end, we do this as much because we love to see as we do for the enjoyment of hunting them. Nothing will improve your chances of doing both more than providing a sufficient amount of high quality summer food.

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Russell, MB
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