A guide to maximizing your deer herd’s potential and monitoring their health
By Audrey Pfaffe
The season’s over. The antlers have fallen, and the ‘off-season’ has begun. It seems like general knowledge to a deer hunter that spring and summer are for setting up trail cameras, putting out mineral and planting food plots. The next few months leading up to opening weekend come fall are consumed with the weekly routine of checking mineral sites, spraying, mowing and managing the plots – but why? The answer lies within the nutritional fundamentals of a whitetail deer.
Sure, deer have been thriving, reproducing and growing antlers for many years before we realized the benefits of mineral supplements, but to those focused with growing larger antlers to harvest that buck-of-a-lifetime or concerned with their herd health and seeking additional health and reproductive benefits, mineral supplements are a no-brainer.
Every bag of mineral, regardless of the brand or which company produces it, has a nutritional breakdown of the mineral content inside. A ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 of Calcium to Phosphorous is ideal for a free-choice mineral, as they are the two main minerals that contribute to antler growth. Selenium is essential for reproductive and lactation health in does, and should run in a mineral mix at a rate of 18-20 ppm. Zinc is also very important for overall herd health as it strengthens hooves and aids in healthy skin and coat condition. Other minerals in a free-choice mix include Copper (Cu), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K), Manganese (Mn), Iron (Fe), and Cobalt (Co) to name a few, and each play their own role in a whitetail’s well-being.
Beneficial Salt-Fact or Fiction?
Contrary to what you may have heard, salt in a mineral mix is NOT a filler. In fact, salt is the only nutritional element deer cannot derive from their natural environment, making it the only mineral they will actively seek out.
Think about it: for those of you who live in regions with a lot of snow and ice in the wintertime, I’m sure you have experienced salt trucks and snowplows spreading a sand/salt mixture along the roadways to combat the nasty road conditions. You may also then witness deer (as well as other animals) in the ditches and roadsides licking up the salty residue. This is because they were lacking sodium in their diet.
Besides being an attractant, salt also has a few nutritional qualities. While it regulates blood pressure and helps cells transfer liquid, it also aids the deer’s body to absorb the other nutrients they ingest.
Some companies with very little salt in their mineral mix try to make up for it by adding scents and flavoring (which are beneficial in their own way). However, for an ultimate attractant, a mix of 20 percent salt or more is recommended. Or better yet, a mix of 20 percent salt and flavoring with scent!
Mineral Site Preparation
A well-managed mineral site is not only easy to achieve, but also low maintenance once it is established.
The ideal location should be on the ground along a well-traveled trail or near a feeding area. It’s also best to establish the site out of direct sunlight and in a mostly shaded area. By raking away leaves and sticks, you can ensure the mineral is applied directly to the soil below, preferably in a 2’ x 2’ area. The moist ground will absorb the mineral much quicker and will be a much more appealing lick for the deer, as dried out, crumbly soil will not be as effective.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see much action at your new mineral site right away. Most times it takes deer a couple weeks to discover it and get in the routine of a daily visit to the lick. But once they find it, they could very well hit it hard and hit it often! We have had knee-deep holes in our mineral sites in less than a month!
Each mineral company has their own recommendations on application amounts and when to reapply. But the general application rates are one mineral site per 40 acres, and add 10 to 15 pounds of mineral to the site every 4 to 6 weeks. You can of course, adjust your own rates depending on your herd size and how often they visit the site. A mature buck will consume 1 to 2 ounces of mineral per day if allowed. Like taking a daily vitamin!
Mineral sites are a great place to set up a trail camera. The mineral draws in deer so you’ll tend to have more in front of the camera than when setting up on a trail alone. This also lets you see what deer are visiting the mineral, how often they are visiting and give you a way of better monitoring the herd and their health.
When choosing a camera for your site, choose an infrared trail camera so you don’t have a white-flash that is more likely to spook deer. You can strap it around a small nearby tree or use a tree or ground stake trail camera mount. Once your camera is set up, make sure to knock down any weeds and break twigs out of the way that could falsely set off your trail camera on windy days.
Changing Nutritional Needs
As the year progresses, so do the nutritional needs of a whitetail. Physiological and hormonal changes (breeding, pregnancy and lactation, antler growth) and seasonal changes (spring growth, summer heat, snow and freezing winter temperatures) have a huge impact on a whitetail deer’s diet and needs.
Spring: The does are either still in their gestational period or are just starting to give birth to their fawns. They need some nutritional support, much like a pregnant woman taking prenatal vitamins. Additional selenium and zinc are highly beneficial during this time, as selenium is directly related to reproduction and lactation. Bucks are in the beginning stages of antler growth, and additional calcium and phosphorous will help them get off to a good start.
Summer: Though the does have given birth by now, they are still eating for two (or three or four!) and benefit greatly from additional vitamins and minerals. During the summer, it is not uncommon to see both does and their fawns visiting a mineral site multiple times a day. Bucks are in their bachelor groups and are most likely living the good life. Their only focus at this point is growing their antlers and replenishing their weight lost during the rut and winter. Another thing to keep in mind is the increase in water intake from all the plentiful summertime leafy greens in their diet. This creates a drop in potassium and salt levels that must be replenished.
Fall: Fawns are mostly weaned and a whitetail’s main focus is to stock up on food and nutrients before the upcoming rut and winter. The bucks have shed their velvet and only hard, shiny, magnificent antlers remain. During the rut, bucks will rarely eat food or a visit mineral site, as breeding is their only focus. Does however, show little change in their feeding routines during breeding season.
Winter: Regardless of sex or age, survival is the name of the game! Deer are far less concerned with minerals and are much more focused on high-energy food sources. Many deer are recovering from injuries as well, either from fighting or being hunted. However, they will revisit a mineral site from time to time, so don’t neglect replenishing a site just because there is snow on the ground.
With better insight into what deer need nutritionally at any given time of the year, we can be better prepared in the off-season to build a better deer season. Food will, for the most part, always be first priority. By being able to target those nutritional needs, you can strengthen your deer herd from the inside out. Big bucks stem from a healthy herd, with a proper nutrition program at the source!
*Don’t forget to check your state and local game laws regarding baiting and feeding of deer!*
Audrey Pfaffe and her husband are owners of Monarch Whitetail Nutrition, LLC. Audrey is an outdoor enthusiast who loves bowhunting and is also prostaff for Outdoor Eyeblack and ScentCrusher.