What Do Deer Eat?

While white-tailed deer are ruminants like cows, but their diet selection is much different. Cattle are grass-roughage eaters, have a relatively large rumen compared to body size and depend heavily on grasses for their diet.

Grasses are relatively low in crude protein and digestibility when compared with legumes, forbs (broadleaf weeds) and the new-growth of browse plants. To a white-tailed deer, browse consists of the leaves and twigs of trees, shrubs (brush) and vines.

Deer Eat High Quality Foods

Because grass is relatively low in nutrition, grasses need a longer residence time in animal’s rumen. Longer residence time increases rumen microflora (bacteria and protozoa) degradation and digestion of the forage. Thus, for grass-roughage eaters like cattle and sheep, residence time is quite long and rate of food passage is slow.

Deer can’t go slow! They have higher physical demands for energy and can not afford to carry around extra, dead-weight. Instead, white-tailed deer focus only on the most palatable, most-easily digested food items found in their habitat. This ensures that they get the most energy possible with the lowest amount of food intake. Besides, eating takes energy.

What do Deer Eat Then?

White-tailed deer are what people in the diet business call “concentrate selectors.” Their rumen is small relative to their body size. Thus, their diet must be higher in nutritive value and capable of being rapidly degraded in the rumen.

Therefore, white-tailed deer rely primarily on the good stuff, the forb and browse plants that are found growing in their environment — which are usually much higher in crude protein and digestibility than just about every species of grass.

What Do Deer Eat?

Keep this in mind: grasses comprise only a very small part of the overall diet of the white-tailed deer, usually less than 10%. I think this important to point out because so often I hear people say, “the deer have so much grass to eat.” Yes, you may see them in a field but it is not the grass they are eating. They are instead searching for interspersed forbs/weeds that are much easier for them to digest and loaded with protein.

Warm season perennial grasses that supply livestock with most of their nutrients will not meet the nutrient and consumption requirements of white-tailed deer. In fact, a white-tailed deer will not survive in a field of grasses.

Only grasses that are rapidly degraded in the rumen, such as the small grains and ryegrass, are used to any extent by deer. This is why winter food plots for white-tailed deer containing these grasses can work. Other useful introduced forages include both warm and cool season legumes. Deer will use these small grains and legumes, but not even they are able to comprise a complete deer diet.

Deer Eat A Diversity of Foods

Good diverse plant communities, possibly even combined with supplemental feeding for those interested in maintaining deer body condition, should always be considered for proper deer herd health. Deer are very selective feeders so they require a diverse environment, a diverse diet to remain healthy. White-tailed deer prefer high quality habitat.

Foods Deer Eat

For several reasons, deer are often observed feeding along field edges. First, deer are very difficult to see in dense woods so we rarely see them there, even though they are there. Second, there is always a greater diversity of food available at the intersection of field and the edge of a woodland. This is because forb diversity is low in woodlands, but browse diversity is low in grasslands. Put them together and you have a deer buffet!

More Resources on Deer Diet

A Wild Deer’s Diet

The complete list of native plants used by white-tailed deer include browse, forbs, soft and hard mast (fruits, acorns), and mushrooms. Deer are not classified as grazers, but rather are commonly referred to as browsers. Each day, a deer’s mission is to get high quality food with as little effort as possible.

Forbs and mast, while providing good nutrition, may not be available each year or at certain times of the year. Forbs are often abundant during the rainy seasons such as during the spring and fall. Deer will consume these readily when available because they are very high in protein levels.

What Foods do White-tailed Deer Eat?

Browse plants tend to be more stable, so they lend themselves to being termed the “bread and butter” of a deer’s diet. Again, browse plants are trees, shrubs and vines. These types of plants are deeply rooted and can persist through the summer. During the winter, when natural foods are low, deer will also eat old, dead leaves directly off the forest floor. They are low in nutrition at this point, but they may be the best food available to them at that time.

Browse is the most important source of deer nutrition because of year-round availability. Important browse plants include greenbriar, poison ivy, grape vines, honeysuckle, hackberry, elm species, oak species and a variety of other trees and shrubs that are palatable in the area/region where the deer live.

18 Replies to “What Do Deer Eat?”

  1. Deer are my favorite wild animal, and this information about deer food habits also helped me with a school report. Now I know all about what deer eat. Thanks for the info!

  2. My dad and I had a couple of things we needed to know about whitetail and deer management and this site is good. Thank you for this information!

  3. MM-

    Although deer eat grass, keep in mind that they consume very little as a percentage of their diet. Whitetail prefer forbs (which are commonly referred to as weeds) and browse (commonly referred to as brush).

    The types of forbs are quite diverse, but good forb plants for deer are spiderwort, clover, and Engelmann daisy. Browse plants vary by region, but deer will use leaves of hackberry, elm, and grape. They also eat the mast (fruits) of many plants when in season.

  4. I am concerned about planting rhododendron near a frequently used deer passage. I recently read that they could possibly be poisonous to the deer. Should I reconsider my planting location? Thanks.

  5. Thanks for telling me what deer eat. When they eat mushrooms, can they tell if it’s poisonous or not? And what types of fruit do they eat?

  6. Katie, deer have evolved to over time to “know” what to eat, but each deer will sample things. If it does not bother them, they eat more. Deer will eat all sorts of fruit: apples, pears, dewberries, black berries, strawberries, as wells as nuts like acorns, walnuts, and pecans.

  7. I have a very large planter in my yard full of hens and chicks. The deer have been eating either the roots or the succulent parts because they take them out of the planter. Will these plants hurt them or make them sick? I got a picture on my wildcam.

  8. Patricia, if the deer are still eating them then I would not worry about it. Deer know by sampling plants which ones to eat and which ones to avoid. Obviously, they like yours!

  9. Why won’t the deer come into my woods there is A LOT of apples and pears and all that crap?? I’m getting sick and tired of these bucks. I lay out a bunch of food and they won’t come in!!!

  10. I’ve noticed that deer tend to avoid pastures where the cows have overgrazed. The only time they eat in them is after a rain, when new forbs spring up from the ground. If you have cows, make sure they are not eating the browse too hard or deer will have little to eat until it rains again.

  11. Our lawn man told us the deer had dug up our grass in areas to eat the grubs that appear at certain times of the year. Sounds dumb to me!

  12. Mary, he may have meant armadillos? Or possibly raccoon. Or maybe even feral hogs depending on the size of the excavated soil. Armadillos and even raccoons have been known to dig up grubs in well-maintained lawns. Deer? No.

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