What Do Deer Eat?

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 compare to body size, and depend heavily on grasses for their diet. Grasses are relatively low in crude protein and digestibility when compared with legumes or forbs (broadleaf weeds).

Because of these nutritive parameters, grasses have a longer residence time in the cow 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.

White-tailed deer, on the other hand, are what people diet business call “concentrate selectors.” Their rumen is small relative to 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 forbs and browse (leaves and twigs of wood plants), which are usually higher in crude protein and digestibility than grasses. Keep this in mind: grasses comprise only a very small part of the overall diet of the white-tailed deer, usually less than 10%.

Warm season perennial grasses that supply cattle with msot of their nutrients will not meet the nutrient and consumption requirements of white-tailed deer. Thus, good habitat combined with supplemental feeding should always be considered for proper deer herd health.

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 containing these grasses work. Other useful introduced forages include both warm and cool season legumes. Native plants used by white-tailed deer include browse, forbs, soft and hard mast (fruits, acorns), and mushrooms.

Forbs and mast, while providing good nutrition, may not be available each year or at times of the year. Browse is usually the most important source of deer nutrition because of year-round availability.

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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