What Whitetails Love to Eat Long-running private study reveals answer

By Charles J. Alsheimer

Five years ago, I wrote an article for Whitetail News titled "The Cat’s out of the Bag." The article dealt with the forage preference study I’ve conducted at my whitetail deer behavioral research facility on our farm in western New York. At the time, the research centered on whitetails’ preferences for three forages: clover, chicory and brassica. Since then, we’ve expanded the study to include several other forages. What we’ve discovered is very interesting.


In addition to writing and photographing whitetails, I’ve spent the past 30 years researching their behavior — everything from rutting to food preferences. In 1995, I expanded this research by constructing a 35-acre high-fenced research enclosure on my 200-acre farm.

The enclosure is divided into 25- and 10-acre sections connected with gates. This division lets me conduct isolated studies. The facility has a variety of habitats including open mast-producing hardwoods, brush lots, a running stream, a pond, an apple orchard and 10 food plots containing various forages. The enclosure’s deer population is kept to 15 whitetails. No hunting is allowed in the facility, and the herd’s population is kept low through non-hunting methods.

Several behavioral studies have continued since the facility was built. One of the more interesting studies, started in 1998, deals with what natural and planted forages whitetails prefer to eat.

The whitetail’s natural-food-preference study is in its 10th year. The planted food-preference study started in 2001 and is modeled after the natural-habitat analysis.

To conduct any study on food preferences in whitetails, you must have habituated or semi-habituated deer. Wild whitetails will not work because you must be able to observe deer from close quarters in nearly natural settings. Some might argue that such studies can be done with the aid of utilization cages. However, after attempting this method for several years, I concluded that utilization cages might tell you how hard a forage is being hit, but they cannot tell you where that food ranks on a deer’s preference list.


To determine a whitetail’s true preference for specific forages, deer must have a variety of planted and natural foods available. If a variety of food isn't available, any semblance of preference does not exist because deer will eat whatever is available. So, when it comes to the study of preference, having variety is a vital key.


Each deer consumes about 1.5 to 2 tons of food per year. The percentage of this food that comes from planted and natural sources is dependent on the habitat of a deer’s home range. In my area, the percentage of farmland to natural habitat is about even. So, about half of a whitetail’s diet should come from natural habitat and the other half from cropland or food plots.

To have healthy whitetails, it's critical they have a balanced diet, and without ample preferred browse, that's difficult. With this in mind, I’ve provided natural browse to my deer on a near daily basis to balance what they eat from food plots and the supplemental feed they are provided.

In the beginning, I noticed that deer sought certain browse brought to them. That got my attention so much so that in 1998, I had a local welder construct several racks to hold the various browse species I offered my deer. By placing various natural species in the rack’s individual holders, I identified the browse species they preferred most. When the various browse species are placed in the racks, the setup resembles a salad bar. Presenting the browse species that way lets deer indicate which browse species they prefer. Through the years, I've witnessed my whitetail’s reaction to more than 50 natural browse species. When I discover a browse that deer particularly prefer, I have it analyzed by an independent lab for crude protein and fiber.

Though much of what I've observed has meshed with published biological reports, there have been some surprises. As reported in my original piece, the biggest surprise deals with the notion that whitetails have the innate ability to select the most nutritious foods. Through the study, I've disproved that theory through lab analyses. I've discovered that many of the browse species deer prefer are not as nutritious as some of the non-preferred browse species, at least from a crude protein and fiber standpoint.

For example, the No. 1 preferred browse species for whitetails in western New York during winter is apple, which has a crude protein/fiber level of 4.2 percent and 19.7 percent, respectively. American Beech (considered a starvation food by many biologists) is 4.3 percent/23.6 percent in winter. Though their nutritional values are about the same during that time, most deer will not eat American Beech unless forced to.

The bottom line is that like people, deer do not always eat what is best for them. Rather, they eat what they like best. Fortunately, most of what deer prefer is very good for them.


During the early part of this decade, the interest generated from the natural-food study made me take a close look at some of the forages marketed for whitetail consumption. At the time, clover, chicory, alfalfa, soybeans, rye, wheat, brassica and corn were favorites among the deer hunter/land managers I knew.

Believing my deer would show me which forage they most preferred, I set out to see what I could learn. To allow for better comparison, I planted the forages to be studied very close to each other so deer would have equal access to the offerings. As the project progressed, I experimented by planting several small plots with a mixture of clover and chicory to see how the
deer responded. The past eight years have been fascinating and have let me observe which forage my deer prefer.

Clover: As I reported in 2004, none of the forages I tested came close to rivaling Imperial Whitetail Clover from May through September. Then, as today, it remains the No. 1 forage choice in the study. However, as good as Imperial is, it stops growing around Oct. 15
on my place. It’s still available but goes dormant. Because of that, it's important to have other forages kick in when clover goes dormant and cold weather arrives. Before describing late-season preferences, I’ll touch on the other warm-season favorites.

Chicory: In the initial study, I offered our deer chicory and brassica. Chicory is a viable offering from June through December — but substantially less than clover Chicory is a great complement to clover. It is a perennial, so it will continue to grow from year to year and is
drought resistant. This is one of the reasons why Chicory Plus (Imperial Clover and chicory) has become so popular with our whitetails, not to mention the hundreds of food-plot practitioners from across America who have had great success with it.

Extreme: When Steve Scott told me the Whitetail Institute was coming out with a new product that was drought resistant and could grow in marginal soils, I was skeptical. It sounded too good to be true. Soon after the Institute’s initial offering, I planted a quarter acre
plot of Extreme inside my research facility to see what the enclosure’s deer thought of it. After the plants were big enough to get the attention of deer, they began devouring it — so much so that I expanded the plot’s size. Analysis showed that the Extreme offering was getting nearly as much attention as the Imperial Clover plots.

The spring after my initial planting, I increased the size of the food plot and experimented by frost seeding Imperial Clover into the Extreme plot. My reasoning was based solely on my deer’s attraction to the separate Imperial Clover and Extreme plots. This proved to be a bit of an eye-opener, because the plot quickly became the most preferred plot in the enclosure. It didn’t matter what time of day I went to the enclosure to work; there was always at least one deer feeding in it. Needless to say, when visitors came to see my facility, the plot’s deer activity always generated
interest because folks wanted to know what I had planted in it.

After I saw the way our research deer were responding to the Extreme/Imperial Clover blend, I began offering the wild free-ranging deer on our farm the same blend. They responded to it the same way the enclosure deer did. The blend’s mixture of clover, chicory and Burnett plants turned the plot into a one destination food plot for deer, because everything they preferred was in one location.


Winter-Greens: I offer brassica food plots to deer for winter feed. Though I know some plant brassica for year-round use, our deer will not touch it until it has been
subjected to several frosts. This causes the plant’s starches to covert to sugars, which helps make it attractive to deer. During the years I have tested and used Winter-Greens, my deer have not used it until it has been subjected to a few frosts. In most cases, this has been mid-November. Not only do the plants pack a lot of nutrition, but they also grow tall enough to stay above the snow line until they are gone. Deer will flock to the Winter-Greens plots when winter sets in.


Rye/Wheat/Oats: When I was a child growing up on a potato farm, my grandfather and father used rye or wheat as a cover crop after our potatoes were harvested.
Not only were the rye and wheat great cover crops, but deer loved them, too. I’ve experimented with both, as well as oats, in our research facility, and have found that deer will use each heavily during the transition period between the time clover goes dormant and brassicas or corn kick in.
Buckwheat: As a seminar speaker, I get asked a lot about a whitetail’s preference for buckwheat. The short answer is that they love it during August, when it's in bloom. During that time, you can’t keep them out of a buckwheat plot. Unfortunately, this annual is a 30-day wonder, and then it is gone. For that reason, I do not rank it very high for food-plot possibilities.

Corn: Corn ranks with the best when it comes to a northern whitetail’s winter food preference. After December rolls around, any standing cornfield will be a magnet in
my country. I’ve experimented a lot with corn in my research facility, and it's as good as it gets when it comes to winter food preference. In short, my whitetails go to corn like a child runs to candy after the snow begins falling.

Unfortunately, corn has a downside when it comes to whitetails. For starters, it's expensive to plant (equipment, seed, fertilizer and spray), and the soil needs to be 6.2 pH or better. Also, because corn is highly preferred by birds, squirrels, raccoons, black bears and many other critters, there often isn’t a lot left for deer to use after it matures. So, as good as corn can be, it's not always practical.

The Others: This includes alfalfa, soybeans, sunflowers and peas. As of this writing, I’ve not studied how deer respond to these and other popular offerings. Based on what I know about them, my initial response is that my research deer would probably prefer all. However, I can only speculate about the order of preference. In future years, I intend to find out. This being said, I know that when it comes to ranking everything I’ve tested, nothing comes close to the love my whitetails have for clover. And of the hundreds of clover blends on the market, I’ve not found one to rival Imperial Whitetail.