Originally created 04/29/01

Nutrition is key to health of whitetails



Age and genetics help produce trophy whitetails, but proper nutrition is just as essential, according to a nationally known deer and elk consultant.

"I never want to give a deer a reason to leave my property," said Todd Stittleburg of Black River Falls, Wis., who conducted a whitetail nutrition seminar at American Sportsman in Martinez last week.

"Food, cover and water are all a whitetail needs," he said. "They'll usually spend the majority of their lifetime within one-half mile of these sources."

Stittleburg's company, Antler King, markets mineral supplements and food plot seed mixes for whitetails. Fourteen years of research have shown nutrition to play a major role in antler development.

Food plots are important for antler growth, and soil testing is a prerequisite for successful food plots. "They're kind of like life," he said. "You get out of them what you put into them."

It is important to prepare the soil, fertilize heavily, repeat the process yearly and make sure the pH level in food plot areas is correct for the blend to be planted.

Lime can be used to elevate pH to desired levels, which should be at least 6.0 or better for clover and alfalfa. Southern soils with an abundance of planted pine often are acidic and require liming.

Deer nutrition is a year-round project, he added.

February through August is the time for antler development, when deer need protein, minerals and vitamins.

In September, when antler growth is complete, their needs shift to energy; foods with carbohydrates sustain bucks through the strenuous rutting season.

But protein is the single most important factor in nutrition. A Pennsylvania State University study into the effects of protein diets on deer proved conclusively that whitetails excel under such programs, Stittleburg said.

Fawns that were fed a 16 percent protein diet gained an average of 108 pounds in a year, while those with a 9.5 percent protein diet gained only 50 pounds.

Similarly, young bucks that were fed a protein diet of 16 percent grew six to eight-point racks with 12 to 15-inch beams their first year, while young bucks that were fed a 4.5 percent protein diet produced spikes or no antlers at all.

Once deer season is over and winter sets in, remaining bucks are vulnerable to disease and predators and need nutritional assistance more than ever.

A study in east central Illinois using radio-collared mature bucks showed that 36 percent died of natural causes - after surviving hunting season.

The deaths occurred from December to April, during which many bucks lose 25 percent of their body weight from the stress of the rut.

Balancing the buck-doe ratio is equally important, he added.

"It's best to have a one to 1.5 ratio," he said. "I've studied deer all over the country and the highest quality is found in places with the lowest ratio. When the ratio is out of line, antler size and body weight decline - a lot."

Spike deer, he added, usually are the result of late-born fawns and eventually produce quality racks. Such deer should not be shot.

An abundance of spike bucks also means the buck-doe ratio is out of balance, leaving does to be bred in December and January. Fawns born late the following spring will yield only spike antlers their first year.

"But we've grown plenty of Boone & Crockett bucks that were just spikes that first year," Stittleburg said.

Managing habitat for trophy whitetails:

Test and improve soils used for food plots.

Maintain food plots year-round.

Use mineral supplements for added nutrition.

Provide protein during antler growth months.

Energy foods with carbohydrates are needed during the rut.

Manage harvest for proper buck-doe ratio, 1.5 to 1.

Give spike bucks an opportunity to mature.