As soon as the first acorns start pelting the leaf-covered forest floor, whitetail activity explodes. Deer pour out of bedding thickets to feast on the nutritious bounty, offering opportunistic hunters a chance at an early season prize. This feeding frenzy is just one example of how understanding deer food sources can help hunters pattern whitetail movement and behavior.
Whether it’s acorns in the fall, clover in spring, or left-over corn in winter, deer eat a diverse seasonal menu across North America. Learning about the major food groups available where you hunt and how deer use them can improve your effectiveness. This article explores the natural buffet that sustains and attracts whitetails throughout the year.
- Whitetail food preferences change seasonally based on nutritional needs.
- Major natural deer food groups include agricultural crops, browse, forbs, grasses/grains, mast, and conifers.
- Regional variations exist in the specific plants deer prefer. Identify key foods in your area.
- Use your food source knowledge to pattern deer movement and improve hunting success.
Why Understanding Deer Food Sources Matters for Deer Hunting
The diet of whitetail deer changes seasonally and regionally based on food availability and nutritional needs. As hunters, if we can identify deer foods, we can better predict deer behavior, movement, and habitat use. This allows us to set up near prime food sources during the times of year deer frequent them most.
Seasonal Shifts in Whitetail Diets and Food Preferences
Deer have different nutritional demands and preferred foods depending on the season:
- Spring/Summer – Whitetails consume high-protein foods like forbs (weeds), clover, alfalfa to support antler growth and lactation. They also favor new plant growth.
- Early Fall – Deer shift focus to energy-rich carbohydrate foods like acorns, corn, apples to build fat for winter. They eat freely with minimal hunting pressure.
- Late Fall/Winter – With hunting pressure, deer become cautious. Foods that offer cover like standing corn become important. Deer rely on stored fat and eat woody browse.
- Winter – Whitetails conserve energy, focusing on food within cover. Browse, conifers, and leftover mast become critical when snow buries grass.
Natural Food Sources for Whitetails
Deer thrive on variety. Their menu changes with the seasons as different food sources become available or preferred. Let’s look at the major food groups ol’ mossy horns relies on throughout the year.
If you hunt areas with farmland, you can bet whitetails will target crops for easy calories. Soybeans, corn, alfalfa, and wheat provide deer with high-energy foods when they need it most in late summer preparing for the rut and in fall to pack on fat for winter. Hay and pasture grasses are also attractive.
Hunting the edges of crop fields or travel corridors from bedding to fields can be deadly, especially mornings and evenings when deer movement peaks. If you locate a hot food plot or silage pile, getting permission to hunt it or the trails to it can make your season.
Ag crops are not a requirement for deer, but they readily accept the easy meals when available. I’ve seen deer walk right under my stand and ignore acorns to gorge themselves on soybeans. When it comes to deer buffets, beans, corn and alfalfa are all-you-can-eat for whitetails.
Deer aren’t just grazing in open meadows. In fact, the tender shoots, leaves, and twigs of woody trees and shrubs – known as browse – make up a major part of their year-round diet.
Oaks, maples, aspens, dogwoods, hickories, blackberry, greenbrier, and hundreds of other woody plants provide nourishment and cover. Browse contains nutrients deer need and allows them to feed while staying hidden.
In winter when grass and forbs are buried, browse becomes critical. Deer will shred the bark off saplings and snack on twig tips to get by. This is why timber cuts that encourage young forest growth also provide deer food.
Next time you glass a hardwood ridge, notice how many deer are just chilling in the thickets browsing on shrubs versus how many are in the open. For both food and security, whitetails love their browse.
No, this isn’t a typo. Forbs are broadleaf flowering herbaceous plants. In other words, flowering weeds and non-woody plants other than grasses and sedges. Ragweed, goldenrod, clover, and wild lettuce are all forbs that deer love to snack on.
We mentioned clover earlier, which is a favorite deer food for antler growth and lactation. Forbs are another. These plants provide quality nourishment during a time of peak demand. Forbs grow practically everywhere, offering food and cover.
So don’t curse the weeds. Their invisible blooms help grow giant racks and strong, healthy fawns. A deer trail winding through a patch of forbs is a good place to hang a stand.
Whitetails will graze on grasses in meadows, pastures, and openings. Fescue, orchard grass, timothy, and bluegrass are all quality forage. When given the chance, deer will also chow down on agricultural grains and pasture grasses to pack on carbs and proteins.
Don’t overlook grass when scouting for deer sign. That perfect stand site to intercept deer may be tucked in a runway through a grassy field edge. On my farm, some of our most consistent daytime deer activity is where white cedar trees meet our pasture.
While not as preferred by deer as ag crops, grass gives deer quick meals close to bedding cover. Keep an eye out for chewed off clumps, tracks, and scat to identify grassy deer hotspots.
If you hunt eastern forests, you know all about this famous whitetail delicacy. “Mast” refers to the nuts and fruits that fall from trees like oaks, hickories, apples, dogwoods, beech, and others. Acorns are the quintessential deer food, but there are many more.
These carb and protein-packed foods rain down in the fall when deer need to fatten up for winter. A mature oak can produce 500 pounds of acorns in a good year, an incredible bounty for wildlife.
Hunting areas with good mast production is a go-to strategy for many deer hunters. Find the mature oak flats other hunters don’t know about and you can hang your tag early.
When December rolls around and all the fallen leaves and mast are buried under snow, what do deer eat? Conifers!
Evergreens like white pine, hemlock, arborvitae, red cedar, and others continue photosynthesis year-round. Deer will stand on their hind legs and pluck the green needles off branches.
Conifers also provide thermal cover and sanctuaries for deer in winter. Bedding areas with white pines or hemlock groves nearby make great late season hang-on spots. The deer won’t go far to feed.
So while not as attractive as acorns, conifers provide nutrition and shelter during the toughest time of year for whitetails. Their value can’t be overstated.
Supplemental Food Sources
In addition to natural foods, hunters sometimes provide extra nourishment for deer. This includes food plots, salt/mineral licks to supplement nutrition, sweet feeders that attract deer for pictures, or even emergency feeding in severe winters.
While supplemental foods can definitely draw deer in for hunting, they do not replace or outweigh the importance of quality natural habitat and food sources. If given the choice, deer strongly prefer their native menu.
The best approach is to protect and encourage the native trees, shrubs, and plants that have sustained deer for eons. Supplemental feeding can give hunters an advantage in the right context, but should be just one part of an overall habitat management plan, not the cornerstone.
Regional Differences in Whitetail Food Preferences
The foods whitetails prefer vary across their range based on plant communities. For instance, persimmons and palmetto are important deer foods in the Southeast but non-existent in the North. Knowing what food deer will eat where you hunt helps focus scouting and stand placement. Talk to local biologists to learn your area’s deer favorites.
There is no one magic food that whitetails prefer above all else. Mature bucks don’t just live on acorns and corn. Rather, deer require a wide variety of foods to meet their nutritional needs throughout the year. Understanding this variety allows hunters to take advantage of deer habits season-by-season. Identify the annual food sources in your hunting spots, observe deer usage, and plan your hunting strategy accordingly to put venison in the freezer.
Frequently Asked Questions
What food sources do deer love the most?
While deer enjoy a diverse diet, if they had to pick favorites, acorns and agricultural crops like corn and soybeans would top the list. These foods offer high-energy carbohydrates that deer crave. Deer also love clover and other forbs for their protein content. Identify natural food sources deer prefer in your area. This piece of knowledge can dramatically improve your hunting season.
Should hunters know about deer ecology and foods?
Absolutely. Understanding deer ecology, including seasonal foods and habitat use, is crucial for consistent hunting success. You can’t pattern deer as effectively without knowing their food sources and how that influences movement and behavior. Learning deer ecology makes you a better hunter.
Do deer eat the same foods fall and winter?
No. Deer shift their preferred foods between seasons as food availability and nutritional needs change. In fall, deer gorge on acorns and agricultural crops to fatten up for winter. But by winter, most acorns are gone. Deer rely more on woody browse, conifers, and left-over mast. Their diet completely shifts.
What type of acorns do deer prefer?
Given the choice, deer prefer white oak tree acorns over the bitter, tannin-rich acorns of red oaks. White oak acorns are a preferred whitetail food and a deer magnet during fall. A stand near productive white oaks is a smart play.
How can hunters identify deer foods in the woods?
Scout for deer sign like tracks, droppings, buck rubs, and trails near food sources. Watch what deer eat in your trail camera photos. Hunt near oak trees with fresh acorn debris below. Look for chewed off forbs, shredded saplings, and nibbled twigs on bushes. With some observation, you should be able to identify deer favorites.
Why plant food plots for deer?
Food plots provide supplemental nutrition and an attractant for deer, especially does and fawns. They give hunters a predictable place to start hunting. But food plots should enhance the habitat, not replace good natural foods and cover. They are just one piece of an overall deer management approach.
What food sources do deer need to stay healthy?
Deer thrive on diverse foods that meet nutritional demands. This includes high-quality forage like legumes, mast crops, browse, and annual weeds. A mixture of plants that offer carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats keeps deer robust. Habitat with great native foods minimizes the need for supplemental planting.
How much food does a deer eat daily?
A 150-pound deer generally consumes about 5-10 pounds of food a day on average. But consumption can double during fall and late winter when deer need more calories. Nursing does eat significantly more. The exact amount depends on the deer’s size, age, and time of year.
Why don’t deer live on just one or two foods?
Deer learned long ago not to put all their eggs in one basket. Relying on a single food source is risky. Heavy browse pressure also reduces palatability. Deer thrive on variety. Their bodies crave different nutrients seasonally. A diverse menu of native plants provides what deer need throughout the year.