Deer are known to be particular eaters, but generally, they will eat hay or straw. Straw is generally not recommended and usually doesn’t provide much nutritional value to deer.
Many people and even wildlife officials will feed deer hay supplementation to their diet.
This is for both wild deer and captive deer. However, there are many things to consider before feeding wild deer hay or straw.
Feeding deer hay or straw
There are two reasons you might find yourself wanting to put out feed for deer. The first is to attract them to a specific area to hunt them, and the second is concern about the population’s overall health during drought or harsh winter conditions.
However, both are not as straightforward as they might seem to be at first and careful consideration needs to take place before you jump into action.
The difference between hay and straw
First, we must look at the difference between hay and straw. Hay is cut and dried grass or legumes that are suitable for animal feed and has significant nutritional value.
A common example of this is alfalfa, which is usually baled into square or round hay bales and either wrapped in plastic or stored under cover to keep it from spoiling.
Straw is the dried stalks of grain crops that are left behind after the grain has been harvested. While straw does provide roughage in an animal’s diet, it is more commonly used for bedding, as it adds little to no nutrients when eaten.
A starving deer will continue to deteriorate when fed straw in place of hay.
Hay is definitely the superior choice as animal feed, as it is cut when the plant is in its prime state as opposed to straw, which uses up most of its nutrients during the formation of its seed grains.
Even after selecting hay as your fodder of choice, a good understanding of the deer’s digestive system still needs to be considered before putting feed out, otherwise, you may unintentionally be causing more harm than good.
How to put out hay for deer
If your reason for feeding deer is to improve their overall health, body weight, or antler size, it is recommended to rather supplement their feed all year round, instead of putting out a glut in winter.
This is because deer are naturally geared to put on most of their weight and grow their antlers in summer rather than winter. Their metabolism is adapted to bulk up in summer and go into a maintenance, survival state in winter.
It might also be a fatal shock to their system to receive hay bales when they are already in a poor physical state, as the deer’s rumen bacteria declines and can not digest it.
Hence a popular saying is that a deer can starve with its stomach stuffed full of hay. However, if one considers a few important factors, winter feeding, done the right way, can be beneficial in preventing winter starvation through the hard years.
In North America, most authorities frown upon or outright ban the feeding of deer in winter. This is because their bodies have become adapted to no grazing in the winter when the grass is covered by a few feet of snow and they rely primarily on browsing to survive.
When faced with a sudden gorging on hay, their stomach bacteria are not suited to digesting it and it will cause the animal to die much faster than starvation ever will.
As spring approaches and the snow slowly thaws, grass becomes available slowly to the deer, giving their bodies time to adjust and prepare for a diet of grazing again.
What this shows us is that if the diet is consistent then the deer would be fine.
So if one was to slowly start to supplement feed in the autumn and then consistently continue through the winter months, then it would be a beneficial supplementary feeding program with few ill side effects.
It also goes to reason that southern states, such as Texas, will have different conditions to northernmost states such as Alaska, as they experience vastly different winter conditions, and as such, they will have different recommendations when it comes to feeding wild deer.
On hunting ranches in South Africa, it is a common practice to feed deer hay through the winter months, specifically under drought conditions.
The vegetation type is montane grassy shrublands, succulents, and riparian thickets. They also don’t encounter the typical snowy winters found in the Northern hemisphere.
This means that antelope in Southern Africa don’t share the great variation in gut bacteria as they have a more consistent diet throughout the year.
While their intake does still naturally reduce during colder months, feeding them supplementary hay does the animals no harm, and the benefits far outweigh the risks of animals starving due to overgrazing or drought pressure.
Which is the best hay or straw to feed deer
Multiple studies done on both wild and captive deer populations have found that both alfalfa and clover hay can generally maintain the deer’s condition through harsh conditions when fed ad-lib.
Alfalfa is both high in proteins and easily digestible.
In contrast, deer whose diets contained a high percentage of barley hay experienced diarrhea and ultimately suffered a loss of condition.
They were also not successful in maintaining their body weights when fed exclusively Timothy hay.
With regards to what form the feed should be in, studies done on other selective ruminants have shown a marked increase in palatability when hay is fed in its pelleted form and it is preferential to domesticated animals and captive deer over hay that was left intact, ground or chopped.
However, deer are notably fussy eaters, and different dietary preferences have been observed between different species and even between sexes of the same species.
For instance, black-tailed buck preferred bitter feed while does rejected any feed with traces of bitterness.
Another factor to take into account is deer’s overall tendencies toward being fussy eaters. There have been cases documented in the past of black-tailed deer that died while refusing the supplementary feed options which were made available to them.
Basically, when antelope approach artificial feed that they are not familiar with they must first be attracted to its smell, if they like that they will taste it, and if they like the taste then they will return for more until they begin to recognize the feed by sight.
Up to that point, they remain inherently resistant to feeding on foreign feed put out for them.
This slow acclimatization might ultimately stand them in good stead while their rumen bacteria adjust to the sudden change in diet, but it does make supplementary feeding to bring back animals from the brink of starvation an unlikely prospect.
Reasons for feeding deer hay
From a hunting perspective what can be gained by feeding the deer? If it is on private land the motivating factor is most likely overall population health.
If the animals are in good condition it stands to reason they will have better breeding success as well as make better trophies for meat or antler size.
The other reason, which is a little more controversial and we will touch on it later, would be baiting a site with hay to attract animals into a hunting area.
Reasons not to feed deer hay or straw
The argument against feeding wild deer is that by drawing them into a centralized feeding site you may well be creating a denser population than would occur naturally.
They also have a higher chance of disease breaking out and parasites being transferred amongst the deer.
This also creates genuine advantages for predators by concentrating prey in one place, whilst also creating human-wildlife conflicts by drawing dangerous game closer to human settlements.
Laws and regulations for attracting deer with feed
28 out of the 50 States in America do not allow deer baiting. While the other 22 States do allow baiting deer sites, it still may not be accepted state-wide and some laws are condition-dependent.
For example, certain states have a predetermined distance from the bait within which hunting is illegal, while others restrict baiting at specific times of the year.
Some states require permits to bait deer and can take physical handicaps into consideration.
Laws can even differ even between counties, so you can see that you must do considerable research into local laws very specific to hunting in your area to stay on the right side of the law.
The difference might also come down to whether it is private or public land.
Can you hunt over deer feeding sites?
Often even if there is no official law against shooting animals at a feeding site, hunters may adhere to their own set of ethical guidelines.
Typically there is an unwritten rule to adhere to fair chase standards and avoid hunting over, or in the immediate vicinity, of a permanent feeding spot.
Make sure you understand the different physiological and legal factors that will probably differ from one area to the next before tossing out hay bales.
If in the end, you decide it is vital and within the law to feed your local deer population, make sure it is nutritional hay (not straw) that you can supply consistently, and try to space the feeding sites out instead of concentrating it in one spot.
Like many things in life, whether or not to feed and/or hunt deer at a feeding station, will often ultimately come down to a person’s own internal moral compass.