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Winter Nutrition

Tommy KirklandText & Photos by Tommy Kirkland

-- The post-rut is over. Impregnated females are searching for the best nutrition amid winter's dormancy, while bucks, having lost body weight and energy, are also replenishing themselves. This is a critical time for whitetails to obtain food and continue their yearly cycle to survive facing the elements.

Photo: Deer can survive off cool-season grasses like fescue. This grass, used primarily for cattle is about 16 percent crude protein; however, it is rough for the whitetails' digestive process.

As the clouds darken and settle in, the deer herd shoves the snow away. Their keen sense of smell and inherent drive for nutrition stimulates them to dig through the snow with their noses while front hooves paw at the ground. Their objective is red oak acorns buried beneath the wintry landscape.
The matriarch doe locates an old cluster of acorns, and soon her offspring are quick to investigate. Yet the whitetail gathering becomes unfriendly as the older female swats at the younger deer intruding on her find. Obviously, the scattered red oak crop and the deer's disposition for survival brings competitiveness to the herd.
Winter is a lean time for whitetails - especially north of the Mason-Dixon Line where snow and cold temperatures can create a barren land at times. These conditions put an end to warm-season flowering plants called forbs. Therefore, woody browse consisting of tree twigs, maple sprouts, and hemlock, along with an available hard mast like acorns, are vital for the whitetails this time of year.
Due to the whitetail's digestive process, deer prefer to feed upon tender herbaceous foods, which are easier for them to digest. Once winter sets in, most of these foods go dormant, yet whitetails display an amazing ability to adapt to such extreme conditions.
Research from leading biologists has shown that although whitetails tend to avoid woody browse like tree twigs, they are certainly capable of surviving off this course forage which is more difficult to digest. Northern white cedar has been known to sustain deer along with other small trees and undergrowth. 

Tommy KirklandPhoto: After a snowfall, deer seek out food. When an ice pack takes place, deer will eat vegetation on the surface like grasses. They can also rake snow away with their front hooves or shovel it with their noses to locate food.

Whitetails have even adapted to the consumption of coarse fescue grasses, a cool-season grass which doesn't effect their reproductive system the way fescue toxicity does horses. In the Appalachian mountain regions, deer do occasionally digest the toxic leaves of rhododendron and laurel.

Any amount of hard mast left over from the autumn season is highly sought after by whitetails during the winter. Native mast such as red and white oak acorns, along with hickories and the like, can usually provide deer with nutrition during the winter. If the oak crops are abundant, they will even consume the acorns on into spring. So in many areas of the country, a hard mast is a major component in whitetail survival. 

Tommy KirklandPhoto: Acorns are vital for deer during the late fall and winter months. The better the crop, the longer deer will be able to consume these nutrients.

Research biologists have also learned that whitetails can shift their metabolism to prepare for the winter - breaking down fat to store up energy. Also, deer can consume only about 70 percent of their normal diet during the summer and autumn months. So, when the winter sets in, they're basically adjusted and prepared for food being scarce.

Despite the whitetails natural ability to adapt, it is still vital to provide supplemental food sources for deer in the winter. Of course, piles of corn aren't highly recommended due to deer concentrating too much over one area - increasing the risk of spreading disease.

This is where a few acres of various working food plots come into play. If feasible, providing deer with cool season legumes, such as clover types, is one of the best things you can do for whitetails during the winter. So when native food becomes scarce, it's imperative that the sportsman/conservationist works to provide for the whitetail's diet - giving the deer proper nutrition.
Lastly, when whitetails face winter's dormancy, the scarce conditions can bring about occasional outbreaks amongst the herd. The aggressive act of flailing erupts at times as the deer compete for food and dominance - the topic for the next installment at

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