Deer Nutrition & Management Protein Levels And Antler Growth (Protein levels in whitetails significantly affect their overall health, fertility and antler growth.)


Big antlered bucks are what most deer hunters, breeders and enthusiasts want. Most would probably agree that the best way to achieve trophy racks is to properly feed their deer. The question is, what should you feed them?

Is a straight deer food pellet best or is a mixture of grains better? Perhaps a combination of both is best. The answer can be a personal one so perhaps the politically correct answer is "protein."

What you feed your deer can have a significant impact on their health, fertility and antler growth. Just what kind of protein and how much you should feed your deer is the million dollar question.

Top deer feed companies do research not just to determine the optimal levels of protein, but the optimal types of protein too. For example, studies show that certain amino acids, the building blocks of proteins in deer feed, do a better job of growing antlers than others. However, because most people do not have a professional consulting relationship with a deer nutritionist with a PhD who can formulate feeds to include these amino acids, the best thing deer enthusiasts can probably do is to either feed a high-quality commercial deer pellet or just focus on feeding an optimal level of protein.

The exact level of protein your deer need is determined by many things, including, but not limited to gender, age, body condition and time of year. In a perfect world, a deer manager would feed a specific level of protein to the bucks, a different level to the does and yet another level to the fawns. That is because each has different physiological needs requiring different levels of protein.

Bucks have an incredible protein demand for growing antlers and this level is different than what pregnant and lactating does need. Growing weaned fawns requires a specific level of protein all by itself. To make things even more complicated, all of these animals have different protein level requirements again during the fall and winter.

Feeding a protein diet to each of these animals is probably not realistic. So, it makes the most sense to feed a level that is more than adequate for all three in the spring and summer, and then feed a different more than adequate level to all three groups in the fall and winter.

This leaves you with a two-staged feeding program based on the time of year. Research show a deer diet that nets out to at least 16% protein should cover the protein needs of bucks, does and fawns in the spring and summer. "Net" means after all food sources are considered. For example, if you feed a 16% protein pellet but your deer also have access to natural forage that is much lower in protein, the net protein in the diet would be less than 16%. That is why it is probably wise to go ahead and feed a 20% protein diet if your deer have access to other food sources. This will make sure they receive at least the 16% protein they need.

Because deer handle high protein diets very well, there are no real risks associated with them eating high levels of protein. A 20% protein diet is essentially your protein insurance policy. If you are a deer breeder and feeding deer in confinement with limited natural forage or food plots available, then you also need to feed a roughage source such as high quality hay.

The other option is to provide a complete diet, which means all the roughage is built into the feed. Some feed companies make a complete pellet containing all the nutrients deer need, including roughage. This eliminates the cost and hassle of feeding hay.

In the fall and winter, a deer diet that nets out to 14% protein should cover the needs of bucks, does and fawns. However, feeding a 16% protein diet at this time of year is probably wise if your deer have other food sources available. When the consumption of other lower protein foods are accounted for, the final protein in the diet should net out to around 14%.

As deer protein requirements drop in the fall and winter, the necessary energy level rises. Bucks are burning a tremendous number of calories chasing does during the rut and their feed intake can drop by as much as 50%. These factors can result in bucks losing up to a third of their body weight, which can dramatically reduce their body condition. Poor body condition can spell disaster for antler growth the following spring.

A well-fed buck in excellent body condition going into the spring can start growing antlers much earlier than a deer in poorer body condition. So, feeding your deer year-round with optimal levels of protein, energy and roughage, can dramatically increase your chances of seeing trophy bucks. (Editor's note: For more info on deer nutrition, feel free to e-mail Rob Echele at or visit .) END