Food Habits

An important part of successful herd management and whitetail hunting is understanding the food habits of whitetail deer. First, there is much confusion about the plants that whitetail eat and use for food. Many hunters think deer eat grass, when in actuality grass typically makes up less than 10% of a deer’s annual diet. Grasses can be more seasonally important, but grass still makes up a relatively small amount of the white-tailed deer diet.

Whitetail deer are browsers. This means that deer prefer to eat browse. Browse can be classified as the leaves, stems, and twigs of woody plants. This can include elm, oak, and hackberry leaves, in addition to greenbriar, dewberry, and grape. In essence, deer like the leaves of select brush and tree species. Whitetail will not consume all parts of all woody plants, but rather prefer specific plants within their habitat. Areas with a moderate number of deer will show you exactly which plant species deer prefer as food.

Browse plants make up the majority of a whitetail’s diet. This varies by season, but typically ranges from 35 to 75%. Because rainfall can vary from year to year, browse plants are very stable sources of food. This is especially important during stress periods such as summer and winter.

Whitetail deer also use forbs. The word forb is essentially a fancy word for weed. Forbs are the most sought after food by whitetail deer, but forbs are seasonal in nature. Forbs are most available during the spring and fall, when all of these weeds respond to precipitation. Forbs are highly valued by deer because they have the highest nutritional content. Forbs often can have protein levels ranging from 20 to 35%!

Whitetail deer also use mast. Mast is fruit from any number of plant species, but includes acorns, grapes, persimmons, and even prickly pear cactus. Of course, these foods are seasonal in nature, too. As you can see, a deer eats a variety of plants and can switch it’s diet to those plant species that are available during different times of the year. Knowing what deer want at certain times, especially during hunting season, can improve your whitetail hunting. If you want to learn more about deer diet and food habits, check out the following articles:

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