Feeding Wisconsin’s deer
The topic of whitetail deer in our culture is one which brings out strong opinions that are deeply rooted in our culture and background. From a farming standpoint, it can be extremely challenging trying to operate a profitable operation when faced with feeding a large number of deer.
Whitetail deer are known to eat over 600 species of plants in North America. What they eat is based on what is available to them on their home range and the nutrients they require. They consume, on average, about 5 to 8 pounds of food per day for every 100 pounds of body weight.
Whitetail deer are destructive to crops, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental plants. Clover, alfalfa, corn, winter wheat, oats, soybeans, peas, green beans, potatoes, pumpkins, watermelon, apples, and buckwheat are only a few of the crops consumed by deer.
The digestive system in deer is very similar to that of cattle, which allows them to digest forages and grains. Deer have stomachs with four sections. The first section can hold over two gallons, and this lets the deer bolt down a large amount of food if necessary so that it can quickly leave an area to return to safety.
Whitetail deer are extremely adaptive and have learned to incorporate a wide variety of crops into their diet. Typically, deer damage specific crops during specific times of the year. Damage in the springtime is relegated mainly to forage crops such as alfalfa and clover.
Deer are very opportunistic and will not pass up the chance to feed on any farm or garden crops that are better than the surrounding woody forest vegetation. An excellent example is the deer’s preference of feeding on young winter wheat stands in the springtime. This early-greening crop can be damaged by both consumption of the plant and trampling of the tender young roots.
Deer continue to damage forage crops throughout the summer and into October. Starting around late July, the deer begin to detassel developing field and sweet corn crops. The deer pull the tassel from the developing corn plant and then eat the sweet, succulent shoot exposed at the bottom of the tassel. The deer also bite off the ends of developing cobs, creating a “nubbin” cob, about 2 -3 inches long.
Deer will feed on the developing corn through all stages of maturity to harvest. After the corn matures, deer will feed on the cob ends, breaking the stalks in the process, which leaves the corn cob on the ground and unharvestable. Leaves on growing soybeans are preferred over clover and alfalfa.
Damage to the soybean crop is compounded since every leaf that is lost reduces the photosynthetic capability for that plant and along with it the yield potential for that field. Some soybean fields have the entire top of the plant grazed off so all that is left are stems sticking out of the tops of the plants.
Maximum crop yield can never be achieved because the plant is constantly forced to regrow the vegetative portion of the plant. Some irrigated fields of soybeans only produce 15 bushels per acre due to deer damage. An irrigated field of soybeans should produce closer to 60 or 70 bushels per acre. Complete consumption of any crop deer feed on is rare, but one bite taken is sufficient to induce spoilage.
Damage to agricultural crops does not end with the growing season. Because deer have become so accustomed to human presence, they will take advantage of any available food source during the course of the winter. Favorite targets include silage and haylage bags, exposed round bales, and corn cribs.
Wisconsin farmers support Wisconsin deer hunting by providing grain fed animals for hunters throughout the state.