Why Do Deer Eat What They Eat?

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to talk to several people about food-source preference at the shows and seminars I have been involved in. Many have said that the deer on “their” property seem to like a particular type of forage that, in most cases, would be mostly ignored. I had one gentleman swear to me that the deer on his property would only eat fescue. Fescue, in fact, is typically not preferred and is one of the last things deer will eat. Further questions led me to discover that other than some cedar trees and cat-tail, fescue was about the only other food source on the property. No wonder the deer were eating it; they had few other choices! This, along with other similar discussions, led me to using the analogy of “buffet style” food-source preference.

The idea of a buffet is that you can pick and choose the types of food you prefer. If you like T-bone steaks and the buffet has them, you will stack your plate full of T-bones. If all they have is some dried-out roast beef, you will eat that because you are hungry and need to eat something. Maybe the buffet had T-bones, but by the time you got there, they were out … so you pick your next favorite thing, even if that item was far down the list of your cuisine preferences. Then again, maybe you normally love ice cream and even though it is available at the buffet, you opt for the hot chocolate as it is the dead of winter and you need something warm to fight off the cold outside.

The same is true for deer and the food-source preferences they exhibit. If they have a highly digestible, nutrient-rich food source to eat, they will most likely choose it. For example, given the choice between tender, vegetative, large-leafed legumes and mature heavily stemmed legumes, the choice easily goes to the vegetative legume. However, if the choices are between a mature, heavy-stemmed legume and a clump of fescue, the mature legume will likely win out. This seems like a fairly simple concept, but it is one that is often not considered by hunters and landowners.

For example, maybe your deer seem to eat only a certain forage type simply because they have not been offered a more highly preferred alternative. Keep this in mind the next time you plant your food plots, and consider the buffet analogy.

Are you offering T-bones or dried roast beef?

Matt Harper is Deer & Deer Hunting’s Nutrition Editor.

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