How To Cope With Deer Feeding Bans

By Gerald Almy

When my wife, daughter and I pulled up to my mother’s condominium at Canyon Lake in the Texas Hill Country, we were greeted with an impressive sight. A pair of does, three fawns and a heavy 10-pointer I would have loved to see in the woods during hunting season shuffled lazily out of our way before we could pull in and park. The retired colonel who lived in a nearby unit put corn out every afternoon, and the local whitetails were on their way in for an early evening snack.

Probably no place in the country has a longer or more deeply ingrained tradition of feeding deer than Texas. Condo owners and suburbanites do it for entertainment. Landowners and ranchers do it to provide nutrition to supplement natural foods and farm crops, and improve antler growth. In some states and Canadian provinces, ranging from Florida to Saskatchewan, it is also used as a hunting method to attract deer into gun or bow range. However, whether it is done as a hunting aid, to provide nutrition or for the fun of it, feeding deer is a common activity throughout North America. Some do it with a passion, but others feed casually. However strong their attitudes about it, more and more of these people are waking up to a stark reality: Their cherished activity has just been deemed illegal. Deer feeding bans are becoming more common throughout the country. Sometimes, it’s in a small township where deer-vehicle collisions are becoming a problem. Other times, counties or large sections or all of states are prohibiting this activity for other reasons. Often, the motivation is to reduce the spread of diseases such as chronic wasting disease or bovine tuberculosis. Many hunters and landowners believe the bans are unneeded or excessive in their scope and severity. Nonetheless, we live in a land ruled by laws. Unless the laws are changed, there is no choice but to abide by them. The fear among biologists is that a sick deer might leave saliva on food while feeding, and another deer might ingest it and contract the illness. Wildlife managers in Virginia, for example, recently banned feeding deer in a large multiple-county area as a “containment zone” after one deer near the border of West Virginia tested positive for CWD. The deer was killed just a few miles from where the disease had been present for several years in West Virginia. It’s a scenario that’s playing out more across the country. In addition, if you think law-enforcement officials don’t mean business, consider this: One landowner in a Michigan region that was under a ban was ticketed for feeding deer after the food he supposedly put out for birds was eaten by deer. However, a ban on feeding deer doesn’t have to be a major blow or hardship for hunters and wildlife managers. “Food plots almost always offer a better way to feed deer and improve the quality of the animals and in most cases, it is much more cost effective than feeding," said Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America. "It’s also legal in every state.” Before delving into how you can replace supplemental feed with food plots and other habitat-management practices, let's look at the motivations for feeding deer. I admit that where and when it’s been legal, I’ve fed deer often. At first, my main goal was one of the four primary reasons why this activity is so popular—entertainment. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather watch a few does and even a spike or fork-horn feeding than sitting through 99 percent of what’s on TV. There’s nothing like seeing a real deer in the wild, and feeding makes that a lot easier than just hoping to glimpse an animal randomly walking by. The second major reason is to help deer during a rough climate period, such as extreme drought, bitter cold or deep snowfall. Sometimes this can help. In other cases, if done improperly, it can make things worse. A third reason people feed deer is to increase the carrying capacity for the land or the number of deer an acreage can hold. Cover can limit the number of deer a property can hold, but the amount of food available is also a crucial item. Be careful not to overdo this because too many deer on a property can harm the natural browse the property provides. You can support more deer by supplementing their food supply. However, be forewarned: This can get quite expensive, not to mention the time and effort of cleaning, maintaining and filling feeders. Moreover, when you start it, you shouldn’t skip some times and feed others. You’ve increased the population. Now you must support the extra “welfare deer” living on handouts. The fourth major motivation for feeding deer is to try to improve their antler growth. This is not something you can attain, however, simply by dumping out a few buckets of corn. Instead, you need scientifically designed products, such as Imperial Whitetail Results deer feed or Cutting Edge nutritional supplements. These products contain a high protein and energy level, essential minerals and vitamins and can help antler growth by supplementing the natural food supply which in most parts of the country is low in protein and nutrients. Deer need 16-18 percent protein in their diet for optimum health and antler growth, and most natural foods are much lower than that. Raising those with a high-protein feed supplement can help on managed properties. In summary, you can justify or explain the rationale for feeding deer on four levels: entertainment, assistance during stressful weather, increased carrying capacity and improved antler growth. All are valid reasons. However, these needs can usually be better satisfied by planting food plots. Let’s look at them one at a time.


If you have an area where you used to put a bucket of corn out, find a nearby spot you can view, and put in a small, high-quality food plot. Manage it intensively by fertilizing often, mowing and even hand-weeding it. Give it all you’ve got. Chances are you’ll soon see more deer in that small plot than you were seeing on a corn or apple pile. In addition, they’ll be feeding naturally, making it a much more aesthetically appealing scene to watch. The potential spread of disease through saliva contact will be almost zero. And odds are you’ll see more mature bucks on this plot than at a crude food pile.


This past year my area in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia had its worst winter on record with 3 to 4 feet of snow on the ground, followed by the worst drought in 70 years. These are times that make your heart go out to wildlife. Your main goal is to help the animals survive rather than worrying about how many bucks you’ll see or how big their racks will be next fall. But by planting the right food plots, you can help deer just as well or better than a pile of corn would. “Having diversity in the various food plots can help the animals through these stressful times,” Scott said. “When possible, have perennials and annuals. Also planting warm-season and cool season annuals can help as well.” Look into a product such as Tall Tine Tubers, Double-Cross, No-Plow, Pure Attraction or Winter-Greens. These plants have the potential to grow so tall that the leaves will be accessible even in deep snow. And when deer devour the greenish-blue leaves, they’ll have access from trampling the snow to the turnips in the case of the Tall Tine Tubers. These products can help provide the carbohydrates necessary for energy production in bitter-cold winter weather. For searing hot drought conditions, make sure you have some plots of Chicory Plus or Chic Magnet. This especially palatable type of chicory can survive and thrive even when clover is stressed or growing poorly during the hottest, driest summer periods. And it has the high protein levels lactating does and antler-growing bucks need. Extreme is another product you can put in to cope with drought conditions; one that does well in poor-quality or acidic soils where few other plants will grow.


This is possible with pellets, corn or soybean feed stations, but it’s far less expensive and more fun to increase the acreage devoted to food plots. “When the tonnage of food plot forage you offer the animals is raised, more deer can be carried,” Scott said. “But be careful not to raise the number of deer above the carrying capacity of that property because natural browse can be — and in extreme conditions — will be negatively affected.” And you don’t have to be out filling, cleaning, repairing and monitoring feeders or distributing food by truck. You also don’t have to worry about the concentration of deer that might spread diseases. A food plot can provide as much forage for deer as 100 acres of mature woods. The math is clear: You can have more deer on a given amount of land by dumping food out regularly, or you can do it even better by putting in just a few more food plots.


Thousands of hunters and land managers across the country have also seen their food plots enhance antler growth because of the plots’ ability to provide high protein. Scientifically designed pellets and high-quality nutrition supplements can also enhance antler growth. “When the available nutrition is improved with higher protein levels during the antler growing and lactation times, the health of the herd will be improved, including antler size,” Scott said. Here’s how the typical situation goes. A hunter normally sees some 110- to 120-inch bucks in the herd and is happy to harvest those. Then he starts putting in a few quality food plots. The next thing you know he is taking 130- inch bucks and maybe sighting a few 140s on his trail cameras or in the field. It doesn’t come instantly, but within a few years, hunters who add quality food plots on their properties can very reasonably expect to see results such as this: a 10- to 20-inch increase in the antler quality of the average buck taken. Make sure you plant various plant types that grow best at different times of the year and in varying weather conditions, so one or more of them are always thriving. Consider having a crop of PowerPlant coming on in the late spring and summer months. Have Winter-Greens, Tall Tine Tubers, Pure Attraction or No-Plow peaking when PowerPlant is succumbing to hard frosts. Besides food plots, consider thinning your woods or even clear-cutting small select patches. This can offer an abundance of new natural foods as more sunlight reaches the ground and forbs, bushes and saplings begin to appear. Planting fruit trees and edible shrubs can also help. Therefore, whether you want to see more deer and bigger-racked animals or want to help the local herd through stressful times, do not think supplemental feeding is your only or even the best choice. In addition, if you are facing a newly imposed feeding ban, do not despair. For most deer managers, an assortment of food plots, coupled with timber-stand improvement and planting shrubs and fruit trees, is a better bet anyway for promoting the health of the herd and antler growth.