What Are You Hunting? Manage for Deer Not Cattle

By Matt Harper
A cow's milk, while rich in nutrients,
is far less nutrient dense than a
doe's milk.
 For many years, most hunters, farmers and land managers considered deer and cattle relatively equal in terms of their habitat needs, including the food they consumed and the nutrients they required. While the knowledge base has grown to the point where many people recognize there are differences, the two species are still often times lumped together. This is an understandable theory since we often find deer and cattle co-existing in the same areas.

have always considered hearing as one of  my strongest sensory assets when hunting  deer. That my hearing is still good after  years of tractor driving, target shooting, loud  music and so on is nothing short of a miracle.  Nonetheless, I normally can hear deer coming  long before I see them. On one particular fall  evening a couple years ago, I was hunting along  a creek bank that overlooked an 8-acre Imperial  Whitetail Clover and Imperial Winter-Greens  field when I heard the tell-tale sound of hooves  moving through the fallen dried oak leaves. The  wind was virtually non-existent that day so I  detected the sound far up the creek. In all honesty,  I would have been able to hear them coming  even if gale force winds were blowing as it  sounded like a lost herd of pachyderms were  barreling down the trail. My heart rate immediately  approached stroke stage as I thought the  deer that were going to emerge from the brushy  bank had to be giants based on the noise they  were making. 

Well, indeed they were big, probably 1,400  pounds or more. No, they weren’t deer but  rather a marauding band of rogue cattle that  had busted through multiple fences and had  been living in the dense strip of briars, cedars  and samplings that rings the southern edge of  our farm. This was not the first time I had seen  them; I had a few trail camera pictures of them  before they broke and stole the camera. I know  what you must be thinking, but I swear I saw one  of those cows pick up a cardboard box I left  near a field gate and take off running with it, so  I am sure they stole the camera in like manner. I  have heard of hogs going feral quickly but over  the course of one summer and fall, these cattle  became truly wild even to the point that when  they caught my scent, they would bolt back into  the snarl of vegetation along the creek. 

So you may ask, how did the hunt end? Did I  shoot them? No…wanted to really bad as they  caused incredible damage, but I didn’t shoot  them. Like a band of raiding Mongols, they  eventually moved on to some other farm to continue  their reign of terror. I did have some slight  bit of retribution, however. You see, they were  eating my food plots. The food plots, like  Imperial Whitetail Clover, were designed for  deer not cattle. The nutrient levels and  digestibility of my plots were much higher than  what is appropriate for cattle. Thus, they  scoured, probably bloated some and for sure  experienced some digestive discomfort during  their occupation of the Harper Farm.  


For many years, most hunters, farmers and  land managers considered deer and cattle relatively  equal in terms of their habitat needs  including the food they consumed and the  nutrients they required. While the knowledge  base has grown to the point where many people  recognize there are differences, the two species  are still often times lumped together. This is an  understandable theory since we often find deer  and cattle co-existing in the same areas.  Furthermore they are both ruminants and herbivores  and do eat some of the same types of forages.  Even many of the food plot products you  find on the market today are basically forages  designed for cattle that have been repackaged  in a bag emblazoned with a deer head. Likewise,  most mineral products are old cattle formulas  that have been given a new name to make them  more marketable to deer hunters. The truth,  however, is that while there are similarities  between cattle and deer, there are vast differences  between the two species when it comes  to desired forage types, nutrient requirements  and habitat management. 
Cattle can do well on forages consisting largely of grass
but deer can only efficiently digest grass that is young
and vegetative.


Herbivores can be classified based on their  eating habits. Cattle fall in the class of grazers  which are animals that consume vegetation  somewhat non-selectively. Watch cattle out in a  pasture and you will see them slowly moving  along nipping off practically anything that happens  to be under their nose. Like other grazers,  cattle have large, wide muzzles that are adapted  to this type of forage consumption. Deer are  classified as browsers or concentrate selectors  which mean they pick and choose specific forages  or specific parts of a plant such as the leaf  of a plant but not the stem. Deer rarely feed in  one place too long but rather continually move  from place to place, picking off plants or plant  parts of their choice. A deer’s muzzle is long and  narrow and is equipped with a long tongue that  is perfectly suited for perusing through a briar  patch nipping off selected leaves. 


Both deer and cattle require energy (carbohydrates,  fats etc.), protein, minerals and vitamins.  All of these must be present in diets of  cattle and deer for proper growth, health,  maintenance and production. However, the  percentage of each in relationship to the overall  diet varies between the two species. Take  for example the protein requirements of deer  versus cattle.  The protein requirements for growing cattle  vary between 10 percent and 14 percent (+/-)  depending on the stage of growth, where growing  deer have a protein requirement that ranges  from 18 percent to 26 percent again depending  on the stage of growth. 

The protein requirement  for bulls ranges from 8 percent to 14 percent,  where a buck’s protein requirement during  antler growth ranges from 16 percent to 18 percent.  Protein requirements for young calves are  around 20 percent to 22 percent where a young  fawn needs as much as 35 percent protein for  optimal growth. The only protein requirement  for cattle that rivals the protein needs for deer is  peak lactating dairy cattle which require about  18 percent protein. However, does in lactation  require a minimum of 18 percent protein and  some estimate the need to be closer to 20 percent  or more.  

Mineral requirements for deer are likewise  greater as compared to those of cattle.  

Calcium requirements for growing cattle  rarely exceed 44 percent. Even a lactating dairy  cow will normally not have more than .60 percent  to 75 percent calcium in their diet.  Lactating does, bucks growing antlers and  young growing deer are estimated to require  one percent to 1.5 percent or more calcium in  their diet. Phosphorus requirement variances  follow the same pattern when comparing cattle  and deer. A typical phosphorus level in a cattle  diet will range from 22 percent on the low side  to up to 4 percent or higher for peak lactating  dairy cattle. Deer phosphorus requirements are  typically 6 percent to nearly one percent  depending on the stage of growth and whether  or not antler growth or lactation is occurring.  Trace mineral requirements differ as well, with  most cattle rations containing 10 ppm or less of  copper where many deer diets range from 15 to  20 ppm or more.  

When you consider the high demand for  nutrients caused by antler growth and lactation,  there is little wonder why the nutrient needs for  deer (as a percentage of diet) exceed that of  cattle. Growing antlers is basically the same as  re-growing a large portion of the skeletal structure  each year, which requires large quantities of  protein, energy, minerals and vitamins. Doe milk  is extremely nutrient dense, much more so than  cow’s milk, thus increasing the need for a higher  percentage of protein and mineral in a doe’s  diet. The only situation where a cow’s nutrient  requirements are even close to that of antler  growth or doe lactation is a peak-producing  dairy cow which even then is typically less than  deer on a percentage-of-diet basis. 


Deer and cattle are both ruminant animals  meaning that they have a stomach that has four  distinct areas with distinct functions. These four  stomach regions consist of the reticulum,  rumen, omasum and abomasum. Of these  regions, the largest is the rumen which is the  “heart” of a ruminant’s digestive system. The  rumen is a large sack-like structure which is the  home of millions of microbial colonies. These  microbial colonies give ruminants the ability to  digest fibrous material by breaking down  fibrous compounds, the process of which produces  nutrients that can be absorbed and utilized  by the host animal. The rumen has an ecology  all to its own and requires specific environmental  conditions such as pH level in order for a  healthy microbial population to exist and in turn  allow the host ruminant animal to properly  digest the food it consumes. Changes in the diet  can affect this environment such as the introduction  of highly digestible starch which can  lower the pH level of the rumen and alter the  microbial population. The surface of the rumen  is covered by long, finger-like projections called  papillae which have many functions in the  rumen such as affecting material flow and are  where many of the microbes reside.  
The muzzle of a cow is broad and wide making it well
adapted to non-selective grazing.

Cattle are considered large ruminants with a  mature cow having a rumen roughly the size of  a beach ball. Deer, on the other hand, are considered  small ruminants with a rumen the size of  a volley ball or basketball. This difference in  rumen size is one of the main reasons for the  different eating habits and forage digestibility  needs of cattle and deer. The larger the rumen,  the greater the ability of the animal to digest a  wide range of forage types and forage quality. A  large rumen will have a greater surface area,  larger microbial populations and typically have  a slower rate of digesta passage, all of which  result in a greater capacity to digest fibrous  material even of a poorer quality. Because small  ruminants lack the extent to which they can  digest poorer quality fibrous material, they must  consume the most highly digestible forages  and/or parts of forages.  
A deer muzzle is long and narrow, an adaptation for selective

For example, cattle have the ability to digest  anything from thick-stemmed grasses to corn  stover (stalks) where deer would literally starve  to death on items such as these. As a plant  matures, the stem produces dense fibrous compounds  in order to give the stem the structure it  needs to grow taller. A cow with its large rumen  can digest much of this fibrous material. Deer,  however, being a small ruminant do not have the  ability to digest this fibrous material to the same  degree. If you fed alfalfa bales to deer, they will  eat the leaves but ignore the stems. Feed the  same hay to cattle and they will eat it all  because they can effectively digest all of it. This  difference can be seen in alfalfa hay fields. Deer  will feed much heavier on the alfalfa field when  it is short, tender and heavily leaved. As is grows  and matures and the stems get thicker, deer will  utilize the field progressively less frequently.  Mow the field, and in a few days the deer will be  back on the field in droves, browsing on the  more highly digestible new growth. 


I began this article recalling one of my  encounters with the rogue cattle. You may  remember my enjoyment over the small victory  I had seeing the cattle having stomach discomfort  brought on by the annihilation of my food  plots. The forages growing in the plots were  Imperial Whitetail Clover and Winter-Greens.  Both of these food plot forages were designed  specifically for deer and are rich in nutrients and  highly digestible. They were so rich and  digestible that the large ruminant cattle digested  the forages too highly, producing scours and  bloating from the rapid fermentation. Imperial  Clover for example provides up to 35 percent  protein and was bred to be heavily leaved which  matches deer perfectly. Clover designed for cattle,  however, is normally only in the mid-20 percent  range for protein and grows thicker stems  in order to grow taller.  

You can now see why it is so important when  choosing your food plot products to use those  that have been designed for deer instead of cattle.  Imperial Alfa-Rack Plus for instance is a far  better choice than a standard alfalfa designed  for cattle. The alfalfa variety found in Alfa-Rack  Plus is a specific breed that is designed to stay  vegetative longer and be heavier leaved than  regular alfalfa. In general, your perennial plots  must be highly digestible and extremely high in  nutrient content to match the needs of deer. If  you use a variety whose origin was designed for  cattle, you will not get the best results you  could. I have planted Imperial Clover in the middle  of a hay-variety clover field that we mowed  for our cattle operation and watched deer walk  through the hay-variety clover to get to the  Imperial Clover. It wasn’t magic or some slick  marketing trick, it was because Imperial Clover  was designed to match a deer’s needs and the  other was designed to match a cow’s needs.  Choosing the right mineral supplement also  involves selecting one designed for deer. As we  previously discussed, the mineral needs are  greater for deer than cattle, thus a deer mineral  needs to be more nutrient dense especially considering  the lower intake of deer as opposed to  cattle. 

So make sure you keep in mind what you are  managing. If you are managing deer, make sure  you keep in mind the differences between cattle  and deer and choose products and practices  that are designed for deer and leave the cattle  managing to the cattle farmers and ranchers.