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Ask The Biologist: Corn, Whitetails & Harsh Winters

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"QUESTION: At the beginning of winter, the local media was full of articles about lack of food and how the deer would not survive the winter. Corn sales soared at feed stores. Now they are telling us that we are killing the deer and turkeys by feeding them corn. They say the animals can’t digest it and that it has no nutritional value. What are the true facts? — Tim C.

Ask The Biologist

ANSWER: As is so often the case, the answer is somewhat complex. Corn, when fed at the right time of year, is digestible and quite beneficial to deer. The question is, what is the right time of year? The short answer is fall.

In the fall, whitetails seek food that is high in fat and carbohydrates so they can lay on stores to survive the winter.

When the cold weather comes, their diet changes to predominantly coarse fiber, which is very difficult to digest. It is actually stomach bacteria that digest the coarse fiber, converting it into compounds the deer can then absorb. It takes the deer’s stomach some time to adjust to this poorer diet as it builds up the required type and amount of stomach bacteria. The deer’s metabolism also slows down to conserve energy.

Once deer become accustomed to their new diet, high-energy foods like corn can be harmful. It’s somewhat analogous to running your chain saw on pure gasoline. First, it will speed up the metabolism and digestive process, destroying the cellulose-eating bacteria in the process.

Even when provided corn in winter, deer are browsers and will continue to eat a variety of foods. Corn is out of sync with all the other naturally available winter foods. Because of that, they can’t digest it and can literally starve to death with full bellies.

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