Understanding a Whitetail’s Diet

Featured Growth

Whitetails are finicky deer that prefer certain foods at specific times of the year. They might drop a desired food like a bad habit one week, and substitute it for something else the next. Understanding a whitetail’s palate and how it changes with the seasons can help you fill your freezer with venison.

Spring

Deer will gravitate to clover as the first green piece of food in the spring. Photo Credit: Outdoor Life

As buds pop and the woods green up in spring, food sources flood landscapes that sat barren in winter. Deer nip off these tender, fast-growing shoots and clip clover as it pops up in sunlit areas. While crop fields remain barren, sprouting plants and budding leaves form the backbone of the whitetail’s diet.

Summer

Deer love corn in both the summer and the winter. Photo Credit: JUJOCreative

When the summer solstice arrives, deer are enjoying easy eating. Crops are popping up in endless rows, and these many young plants provide deer convenient meals. Although clovers remain available all summer, alfalfa and row crops provide nutritious options and feeding destinations. In fact, once soybeans produce midsummer pods, there’s arguably no better place to find feeding deer in late afternoon and twilight.

Deer also flock to food sources that combine nutrition and security cover, such as corn and kudzu. Ears of corn are a summer treat, and kudzu vines, a common Southern plant, are packed with protein deer love. These foods grow thickly enough to provide ample bedding cover amid easy meals.

Finally, hunters plant most food plots toward late summer. Rye, grains, wheatand brassicas grow best when sewn in early Augustjust before rain. Once seeds germinate, succulent growth pops from the soil and deer seek it out. The rye, grains and wheat create a green carpet of tender shoots, while brassicas produce large bulbs and broad leaves that deer crave.

Fall

Acorns are one of the meals of choice for deer during the fall. Photo Credit: Wide Open Spaces

When the calendar flips to September, soybeans yellow and drop their leaves, almost entirely losing their attraction to deer. Meanwhile, acorns begin dropping from oak limbs. Summer fields that once filled with deer now sit empty as deer switch to falling nuts. Deer eat red- and white-oak acorns, but prefer those from white-oak species. To quickly determine the difference between red oaks and whites, examine their leaves. White oaks have leaves with rounded tips or lobes. Red oaks have leaves with pointy tips.

Most farmers start harvesting crops in October, which reshuffles the whitetail’s food sources. After the farmers’ monstrous combines harvest crops, deer return to the fields to eat grains left behind. Meanwhile, hard frosts cause brassica bulbs in food plots to sweeten, creating deer hotspots. As crops get picked and acorns dwindle, food plots spur significant deer activity.

Winter

Deer don’t have many options during the winter, so they stick to corn or woody browse. Photo Credit: Field and Stream

Deerface freezing temperatures and limited food sources during winter, making it their most challenging season. With most food plots buried by snow, deer turn to standing crops when available, preferably corn or soybeans. These grains provide protein and carbohydrates deer need to survive. If your area lacks standing grains, you’ll likely see deer pawing the snow to uncover waste grains left behind by combines.

In forested areas without crops, deer often focus on regrowing aspen, as well as active cuts where they eat the buds and twigs of branches from felled trees. Clear-cuts made in previous years generate lush sapling stands as sunlight spurs regrowth deer need to survive winter.

Regardless of the season, food is always vital to a whitetail’s health and growth. By understanding these seasonal food sources and when deer seek them, you’ll see more deer and enjoy more bowhunting success.


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