The Right Nutrition at the Right Time is Critical for Healthy Herds

By Matt Harper
  As parents, we have the right (or shamelessness) to live vicariously through our children. For some, we are striving to realize accomplishments unobtainable in our youth and for others, we relive the past glory days through the actions, words and feats of our kids. My girls are now getting to the age where they are beginning to be involved in competitive activities and yes, disgracefully enough, I find myself reliving the very few glory days I had in school.

In fact, just the other day I was sitting at my oldest daughter’s dance competition and… OK, I don’t live vicariously through my daughter when it comes to ballet (I was never graceful enough); but both my girls are involved in sports and I can’t help but picture myself in their shoes many years ago. The other day one of my daughters came home from softball practice and told me her coach said that the team could not drink soda for the rest of the softball season. She also said that the coach was recommending a protein-rich, energy-filled diet low in sugar and other sweets.

To a kid, this is akin to summer school sentence. She asked me, “Daddy, why is she being so strict with what we eat and drink?” I told her that if she expected her muscles/body to perform at an optimal level, she had to feed her body with the proper nutrients. If she was sitting on the couch watching TV, she wouldn’t need to be so particular with what she eats because changing channels doesn’t require much performance from your body. But if she is trying to beat out a slow roller down the third base line she needs to get everything she can out of her muscles, which is assisted by the right nutrition.

Whitetail deer experience their own kind of high stakes competition. This competition however, has nothing to do with scoring points or breaking records, but rather involves survival and proliferation of the species — in particular the proliferation of their own genes. There are times in the year when deer are merely trying to survive which requires a certain level of nutrition. However, during the breeding and rearing period, deer need to be at optimal body condition in order to improve the odds that their genetics are passed on as many times as possible (bucks) or that they successfully conceive, gestate and then raise their offspring (does).

In reality, deer undergo a yearly cycle that should be approached as such in a nutritional management program. Because each phase of the cycle affects all other phases, management plans need to be holistic in their development, realizing that what you do in the fall and winter will affect the success of your spring/summer management practices. Of course, the specifics of each phase may be different, but they all should work together to accomplish the greatest result.  


In order to explain management based on a yearly cycle, we are going to break up a year in the life of a whitetail deer into three categories. In the first cycle we will take a look at spring and summer. The months of April through September are months of plenty in many regions of the whitetail world. Extreme southern regions that experience excessive heat and lack of moisture may cause this time frame to be nutritionally stressful. But for the northern two-thirds to three-quarters of the country, the spring and summer months are a period when more food sources are available than any other time of the year.

The timing of this bounty coincides with the birth and rearing of fawns which is unquestionably a great natural design, as lactation is one of the most nutritionally demanding phases in a doe’s life. All of us have seen trail camera photos of does that are nursing young fawns and often times the does look malnourished or even sickly. Does not only have to consume nutrients to maintain their bodies but also to produce milk that is more nutrient dense than cow’s milk during lactation. Furthermore, they are just coming out of winter when food sources were at their lowest, and the gestation of the unborn fawns eats away at what little fat stores the doe had in late winter. So even though food may be in abundance, the doe may have a hard time overcoming the negative nutrient balance caused by the high nutritional demand of lactation.

Poor body condition during lactation can cause a doe to produce less milk and therefore supply less nutrients to her fawn(s). In some cases, malnutrition for the fawn can directly lead to premature death. Indirectly, a malnourished fawn is more likely to be killed by predators. Furthermore a malnourished doe is less capable of protecting her fawns from predators. In worst case scenarios, does in extremely poor condition will completely abandon their offspring in an innate attempt at self-preservation. This was witnessed many times last year in the severely drought-stricken regions of Oklahoma and Texas. Bucks fare much better during this time frame but they still have increased nutrient demands as they begin to regrow antlers. Antler growth requires energy, protein and mineral levels that are much higher than maintenance levels, at least if you want to achieve maximum antler growth. The key word here is “maximum.” Bucks will still grow antlers much like does will still produce some milk, even with lower levels of available nutrition. But the goal for most is to maximize antler growth and the productivity of the fawn crop via the doe’s ability to rear large, healthy fawns.

So if summer is a time of plenty, why would it be necessary to supply supplemental nutrients to your deer herd? The answer is that while the nutritional plane may be at its highest during this time period, it does not necessarily mean that deer are getting the ideal amounts of specific nutrients needed to maximize genetic potential. This is especially true in areas where the natural food sources for deer are limited due to the lack of browse, such as in mature forests or properties filled with planted pines. Even in agricultural country, deer may fall short of receiving optimal levels of certain nutrients.

The nutrients that are needed most during the spring and summer months are energy (carbohydrates, fat, etc.) protein and minerals. Typically, two different management practices should be implemented to supplement the availability of these nutrients. First, a solid food plot program rich in digestible protein and carbohydrates is vital. Many people plant food plots that are designed to attract deer during hunting season for harvest purposes. There is nothing wrong with that other than if you ignore supplementation of nutrients during the antler-growing, doe-lactation time frame of spring and summer, you may be disappointed with what comes into the harvesting food plots in the fall. I rely heavily on nutrient rich perennials for my spring and summer food plot programs. Imperial Whitetail Clover, Alfa-Rack Plus and Extreme form the backbone of my overall food plot program as they provide highly digestible protein and energy throughout this vital time frame.

However, mineral needs are also at their highest in the spring and summer. Keep in mind that bucks are in essence re-growing a large part of their skeletal system and they require massive amounts of minerals to support this growth. Minerals are transported from the buck’s skeletal system to grow antlers; and if there is not enough mineral in the diet to replenish what was taken, a buck’s body will simply pull less mineral from the skeleton, thus producing less dense, smaller antlers. Likewise, a doe’s mineral requirements during lactation are also at their peak. For both bucks and does, the mineral needs during spring and summer may be twice to three times higher than the rest of the year.

While minerals are found in plant material and certainly in the food plot vegetation, most soils are deficient in certain kinds of minerals. Therefore relying on plants to supply enough mineral to maximize productivity is not a wise management policy. The use of a quality mineral/vitamin supplement such as Imperial 30-06, 30-06 Plus Protein or Cutting Edge Optimize is the best way to ensure your deer herd is not suffering from any mineral deficiency. All three of these products supply needed minerals and vitamins, and Cutting Edge Optimize also supplies a 16 percent protein level.


 The fall and winter time frame approximately covers the months of October through January. The beginning of this time period (again depending on region) encompasses the all-important breeding cycle thru post rut. Leading up to the rut, both bucks and does are gorging themselves in order to put on fat stores for the upcoming winter. Being in optimal condition is also important as bucks and does in proper body condition will more likely have successful conception. Bucks burn vital energy reserves during the frenzy of searching, fighting and breeding that fills days between mid-October to early December. When the rut dwindles, bucks once again spend their time trying to consume as many calories as possible to replenish lost energy reserves.

During much of the fall/winter time frame, does are gestating, and the nutrients they consume are used for both the doe’s body condition as well as supporting fetal growth. A whitetail deer gestation period runs for about six months. The fall to mid-winter time frame encompasses the first and most of the second trimester of gestation. While the majority of fetal growth does not occur until the third trimester, adequate nutrition is none-the-less needed for healthy fetal growth. If a doe is in poor condition or has limited access to quality nutrients, it is common for one or more of the fetuses to be reabsorbed by the doe’s body as a self-protection mechanism.

Available natural nutrients are normally available during the early part of the fall/mid-winter time frame but gradually deplete as the days move deeper into winter. Most of these food sources are finite in that once the growing season is over, all you are going to have is whatever was produced in the spring and summer.

For example, an oak tree will produce a certain amount of mast, but once it has been consumed, it is gone and the oak tree is not going produce more mast until next fall. The same goes for most browse and forages. Once the cold weather stops plants from growing, there will not be any regrowth until next spring. For the northern half of the U.S., winter brings about harsh conditions such as bone-chilling temperatures and deep snow. These conditions deplete energy supplies even faster as deer burn energy to maintain internal body temperatures and expend calories for locomotion. So you now have a double negative, a finite and ever-dwindling food supply with conditions that call for energy demands.

Food plots can be used to help manage the nutritional needs of this time frame by planting forage types that will provide carbohydrates/oils/fats (energy). Winter-Greens (brassicas) are a great source of carbohydrates as well as tubers such as Tall Tine Tubers. These food plots are especially useful during the weeks that immediately follow the rut as deer, especially bucks, need to build fat stores. However, annual food plots designed for fall and winter cannot be replenished and contain a finite amount of nutrients. If the food plots you planted contain a total of four tons of forage or tubers, then that is all you have.

Depending on your deer density and the amount of available land you have to plant food plots, it is often difficult to plant enough food to get all the way through winter. In these circumstances, a nutritional supplement such as Cutting Edge Sustain, can be implemented into your nutritional management program. Sustain is designed specifically for the fall to midwinter time frame and is formulated to be extremely energy dense. What that means is that just a small amount of Sustain will provide deer with a lot of calories. Sustain is also unique in that the energy found in Sustain comes from sources that help to maintain proper rumen function. Many “winter” supplements found on the market are not much more than glorified corn mixes.

A deer’s digestive system and more specifically its rumen, is geared to derive energy from carbohydrates from fibrous material. Corn is high in carbohydrates but they are from starch instead of cellulose/hemicelluloses (fiber), and a deer’s digestive system must adjust to the high-starch diet for proper digestion and utilization. Sustain is designed to supply energy but does so from sources that do not require a shift in rumen microbial populations from what is needed to digest fibrous natural vegetation and browse. Also, Sustain contains minerals and vitamins at levels needed to match whitetail needs during fall and winter. Sustain also contain protein but again, only at levels needed at that particular time of the year. Finally, Sustain contains special nutrition-enhancing ingredients such as an ingredient that has been scientifically proven to increase the volatile fatty acid production which in turn increases the energy supply to the animal.


Late winter and early spring (February to early April) is likely the most nutritionally stressful period for whitetail deer that live in the northern two thirds of the U.S. Food sources have all but been exhausted and yet deer are still dealing with harsh winter conditions for much of this time period. If bucks entered the winter with limited energy reserves, this is the time frame when many of these bucks will succumb to harsh weather conditions, predation or starvation. Likewise, this is the time frame with the highest death loss of fawns that enter the winter in poor body condition. Does are entering their last trimester of pregnancy which is when 60 percent of fetal growth occurs. This rapid growth results in a higher nutrient demand for does; and if these nutrients are not available, it can lead to both poor body condition for does, and lower birth weights for fawns. Both birth weight and doe body condition are key factors to fawn survivability. Fawns that are born at a small body weight are far more likely to die within the first few days or even hours after birth. Further, if a doe is in poor condition prior to giving birth, she is less likely to supply adequate milk for healthy fawn growth and far less likely to raise her fawn(s) to weaning.

Aside from the worst case scenario (death), poor nutrition during the late winter to early spring time frame can have negative effects that are not as easy to see. For example, bucks coming out of winter must rebuild their bodies with the nutrients they consume before the nutrients will be largely utilized for antler growth. Antler growth is secondary to body health and condition, so the longer it takes to regain lost condition, the longer it will be before more nutrients can be used for antler growth. Therefore, if a buck comes out of winter in poor condition, he will have decreased antler size the following fall since early antler growth was stunted. Also, a lack of quality protein during early antler growth has also been shown to stunt antler growth. Fawns born from a doe in poorer condition and supplying less milk may survive to weaning but they will likely be lower in body weight than their fellow fawns born to does in good condition that supply large quantities of milk. Lower weaning weights often result in lower yearling weights which can be a predictor of eventual mature weights. In other words, if a fawn gets stunted the first few months of its life, it may affect what that deer will look like at maturity.

Food plots have their challenges for this time frame because deer have been utilizing the plots all winter and much if not all of the food plot forages may have been consumed. This is true unless you have planted enough food plots to supply the deer herd food all the way to spring. But in most cases this is fairly difficult to do. However, having quality perennial food plots as part of your food plot scheme can be extremely valuable especially a cold-tolerant perennial that will start growing early in spring. Imperial Whitetail Clover for example is very cold tolerant and is one of the first things on my farm to turn green and start growing in the spring. A few warm days in March and Imperial Clover plots are once again providing high amounts of protein and energy for the deer herd. But even with cold tolerant forages, things don’t always green up as fast as you need them to, so for the late-winter/early-spring “pre-green-up” period, a nutritional supplement designed for that period is a great management tool.

Cutting Edge Initiate is specifically designed to provide the right nutrients for the pre-green-up, late-winter/early-spring time frame. Initiate is energy dense like Sustain but contains a higher protein level to support early antler growth and late gestation fetal growth. Initiate also contains vital minerals and vitamins that are formulated in amounts to supply the specific needs of deer during late winter and early spring. Finally, Initiate contains the same specialty ingredients found in Sustain to maximize energy utilization in the deer’s diet.


Deer are out there on your property 365 days a year. They are there when you’re stopping by the convenience store to buy your last minute (forgotten) Valentine’s Day present and they are there when you’re hunting Easter eggs and watching the July 4th fireworks show. We may not be thinking about them then, but they are there and the nutrition available to them during all of these times will affect the quality of deer you see when you get back into your stand in the fall. Nutritional management should be approached from a 12-month perspective in order obtain the full benefits. If you are going to run a marathon, you must train for more than a few weeks prior to the event if you want to expect the desired result. It is no different with whitetail deer management. While the thought may seem daunting at first, some good planning and using the right products can make it relatively simple, and once you start you will probably find it to be pretty fun. Plus, the results you will see come your first season after you have managed your deer for an entire yearly cycle will undoubtedly make a believer out of you.