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Home » » Outdoors with Larry DiDonato - Feeding Deer in Winter Can Do More Harm Than Good

Outdoors with Larry DiDonato - Feeding Deer in Winter Can Do More Harm Than Good

Written By The Mountain Eagle on 2/2/24 | 2/2/24

Viewing deer by your home or farm during winter is a pleasant pastime. It’s natural to want to “help” them through the winter by providing human sourced food, but that could do more harm than good. DEC warns, “…feeding deer during the winter or other times of the year is unnecessary, prohibited in New York, and can have very negative consequences for deer, your neighbors, and surrounding wildlife habitat.”

Biologists say in the winter months, deer primarily eat woody browse. That consists of evergreen vegetation and the tips of thin woody branches which frequently contain dormant buds to meet their “daily nutritional and metabolic needs.” They further posit, “The digestive enzymes in a deer’s stomach change in the winter to better digest this browse. If deer are provided with unnatural food sources such as corn or hay after this change in diet has occurred it can result in deer becoming ill or even their death. Deer will attempt to utilize the unnatural food source, but can develop acidosis (i.e., grain overload disease) or enterotoxemia (i.e., Clostridium overgrowth) disease because they can’t digest the food properly. Both diseases occur acutely and can result in the rapid illness and death of deer in winter even though their stomachs are full.”

Biologists also point out the dangers of deer gathering closely as they feed on food piles. This nose to nose contact increases the risk of transmitting malaties such as chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other diseases like tuberculosis. When multiple deer visit an artificial deer feeding site, DEC says, “…they can shed CWD prions in its saliva directly on the food, which can infect any other deer that feed from the same site.”  They also caution crowding deer at human sourced feeding sites increases the risk for car-deer accidents and damage to shrubs, orchards, and tree farms. Artificially increased deer densities from well-intentioned human sourced supplemental feeding can also cause local deer populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the surrounding habitat, resulting in wildlife habitat degradation. A better strategy to help deer make it through the winter is habitat improvement, especially the creation and promotion of early successional habitat.

The single most effective way to improve survival of your local deer herd is to follow DEC’s guidelines for long-term conversion of older growth forests to promote young, new, edible, natural food accessible to deer year-round. If you want to help provide extra nutrition for deer in your yard this winter, cut young trees in a manner that folds them so that the tops touch the ground making them fully accessible and within reach of deer. If you leave enough of the diameter of the tree at the cut with the trunk still firmly planted in the ground, it will continue to grow throughout late winter and early spring. Early spring before “green-up” is the most critical period for whitetail deer concerning their nutrition. Fat reserves are depleted especially after cold winters with consistent deep snow pack. Its then they need lots of natural woody browse that their systems are accustomed to digesting, like that created by your half-downing younger trees. 

In short, this technique, plus and long term forest succession planning is “…the best way to ensure that deer and other species of wildlife have plenty to eat all year and avoids the negative consequences of deer feeding.” DEC provides assistance to folks who want to improve wildlife habitat on their property.  Contact a regional DEC deer or wildlife habitat management biologist for a list of tree and shrub species that deer prefer to eat in winter that you can promote on your property, visit DEC’s winter deer foods webpage

Watching deer in winter in a snowy white pastoral setting is a relaxing way to wile the long winter hours, especially when sitting beside the warmth of a fire. It’s encouraging to know we can engage in activities that provide food for wintering deer but important to know putting out piles of corn and hay for deer can do more harm than good. 

Happy hunting, fishing, and trapping until next time.

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