Drawing on 38-years experience managing deer in a wide range of contexts, Callum Thomson discusses the complex business of feeding. Covering the advantages of feeding and balancing requirements with economics, Callum gives lots of practical advice based on his own tried and tested systems.

From my observations going round the country, the feeding of deer is at best average; there is a general lacklustre approach or a total lack of understanding. There is a great deal of information available in regards to feeding deer, most of it coming from New Zealand where the deer farmers have become very sophisticated with their techniques and are matching the cattle and sheep farmers with production figures. This article is about how to make the best use of feed in relation to quantity, quality and management of a daily feeding routine. The whole subject of feeding ruminants is complex, but I will try and convey in simple terms tried and tested systems that I have been using for many years.

The following paragraph, taken from an article on the Deer Industry New Zealand website, sums up a great deal about feeding deer in different circumstances:

The feed requirements of deer differ depending on their age, stage of growth, the season, feed quality, environment and management. To maintain good levels of production throughout the year the feed supply has to match the stage of production and seasonal requirements in terms of usable or ‘metabolisable’ energy (‘ME’), protein and trace elements. (Source: www.deernz.org/deerhub/feeding)

First of all we need to have some understanding of the feed requirements of the different animals within a herd. As an example, the table below gives an indication of maintenance levels for red deer.table-for-callum-deer-feeding-article

As you can see there are some significant differences in recommended amounts. So, when you go out to feed deer, whether park or wild, you are faced with calves, hinds, yearling hinds, young stags and old stags all requiring different amounts of feed. On farms most of the stock will be separated, so feeding can be adjusted to suit.

Objectives need to be set. What are you trying to achieve by feeding: is it better returns from venison, better trophies or potential live sales? This question needs to be answered before feeding takes place because it has a key impact on feeding management. How much you are prepared to spend on feed should be determined by how much your potential sales are. The revenue from trophies or live sales can be substantial, with venison it is more of a numbers game. If you can achieve all three it is worth feeding at high levels. I am going to concentrate on wild and deer park feeding in what follows – farmed deer feeding is worth an article on its own.

Feeding wild deer

At one time feeding wild red deer here in the Highlands was commonplace, but with current management polices and reduced returns, many estates have ceased feeding. However, I would argue that it is more essential now because estates are having to generate income from reduced populations of deer. The aim would be to lift the production of the hind stock Currently you will be lucky to have a 40% calf survival rate after the first winter, meaning for every 100 hinds, sixty will be barren or not rear a calf through to yearling age. Good feeding, along with other management strategies, will help to lift performance. If you could have 60% survival of the calves after the first winter this will give you ten more stags for every 100 hinds from which to draw income, and it will also lift the quality of all the deer being fed.

So how do you achieve good feeding? If I were to give you one piece of advice in relation to any type of feeding it would be ROUTINE. Deer are very much creatures of routine – there is no point in turning up one day at 8am then the next 10am, they need to know when you are coming so they can get on with the rest of their day.

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Next, the amount of feed needs to be determined. One mistake I see is people putting out the odd bale of silage which has the effect of only the dominant animals feeding, and the very ones that need it, the young animals, cannot get a chance. The other problem is only feeding small amounts of concentrate. Again the dominant deer get the most; there is no point in drawing deer off the hill for the odd nut or two.

Going back to the table above, when you are feeding wild red deer this is what you will encounter, so all you can do is see how many deer are coming to the feed in total and determine how many stags, how many hinds and how many calves. This will give you some idea of what to feed. It is not an exact science but you are trying to achieve a balance of requirements. Let’s take an average deer of 100kg live weight – this covers most of the hinds and the smaller calves and a proportion of the stags. You need to be feeding 4 x 25kg bags of 16-18% protein cobs or rolls per 100 deer, plus good quality silage as required. The cobs need to be put out in long lines as quickly as possible – putting them out on foot is not fast enough the best way is off the quad bike or other vehicle. I cannot emphasise this enough, it gives all the deer a chance of their share. The silage must never be allowed to run out in the feeders allowing all categories of animals to get their chance, or feed the silage in long lines.

This level of feeding will cover maintenance plus a small amount over, I am assuming that there will be some rough grazing and adequate shelter. Root crops can also be fed. Care must be taken as gorging can lead to acidosis, but feeding in conjunction with silage should keep there gut correct.  Feeding should start late-November and continue until there is adequate grass in the spring.

I am very much basing this on the deer’s requirements not the economics of it all, which would obviously need to be considered in relation to income. The feeding of wild red deer in the highlands can be problematic and it is a long term commitment – once you have started you must continue. But given time the performance will improve: stags will recover better after the rut and calf survival will improve. With current culling polices, feeding will also help to keep the deer on your ground.

One of the downsides of feeding wild deer is that the stags will not venture far from the feed site which can lead to overgrazing in the feed area, so try and pick somewhere that is rough and has no agricultural or conservation importance.

For me the feeding of deer in the south of England in comparison to the north of Scotland has a totally different purpose. In Scotland it is all about survival for the deer, but in England it is about assessing numbers and helping to achieve your cull numbers with fallow.

At Woburn we used to feed the wild deer three times per week with grain. Sugar beet or fodder beet would be fed as required; the fallow and muntjac would come readily to the roots. There used to be a large scale pheasant shoot at Woburn, but since this ceased it is my opinion that the quality of the muntjac went down. The amount of grain we were feeding was small and did not have any impact of lifting the quality of the bucks, but it allowed us to monitor what was in the woods numbers-wise, and we could take note of where the good bucks were. Another option is to put out automatic feeders set for say twice per day. The muntjac soon became used to the routine, but fallow damaging the feeders was a problem, so the feeders had to be protected. Putting out salt licks in the woods seemed to me to be a waste of money.

Park feeding

There are many similarities between feeding wild and park deer. You have the same issue with multiple ages and sexes coming to the feed all with different requirements, but in a park you have a level of control you do not have with wild deer.

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At Woburn we had nine different species, up to 1,300 deer wintering on the park. To have this density of stock and achieve a high level of performance the feeding regime had to be of a very high standard. When I went to Woburn in 1992 there were too many deer in the park and we had to reduce numbers whilst lifting the performance of the hinds to achieve calving percentages of 80-90%. As one part of our management strategy I had to look at what the benefits would be of significantly increasing my budget on feed. At the forefront was the aim to stabilise and increase the health status of this world famous herd, but other benefits would follow suit: reduced deaths, more venison, better trophies and bringing the herd back to being the best in the world. We spent 20 years developing systems: different feeds, combinations of feed, protein supplements, sea weed, all different types of silage, maze, red clover, lucerne. We fed sugar beet, fodder beet, carrots, turnips – it was all about using what the estate grew and being cost effective.

Most of the species ran as one herd so we had fallow, reds, sika and Pere David’s all in the main part of the park. We split them up into feeding groups: fallow does, fallow bucks, sika does, sika stags, red hinds, red stags and Pere David’s. It was like having invisible barriers and I would say 90% of the time it worked. This allowed us to target the individual groups with feeding to match their requirements. We achieved it by having a rigorous routine – feeding in almost the same site, at the same time, every day without fail. Our route round the park never changed so we would get to the same feeding site within a 10 minute period every day.

The following gives an example of what we fed.

Red stags, sika stags, fallow bucks:  2kg head/day of 16% protein concentrate + silage and roots.

Fallow does, sika does, red hinds:  1kg head/ day of 16% protein concentrate + silage and roots.

All this was great except for the species I have not mentioned – Pere David’s. They moved about like locusts and we never knew where they would be. We would turn up with our feed for 100 red stags and find 400 Pere David’s waiting. It was a problem that we never really overcame.

While the type, quantity and quality of the feed was important, the way it was fed was equally important: long lines of concentrate put out with the quad bike as fast as possible. We used what we called tram lines – 100 meters in length,10 to 15 metres apart and, depending on the amount of deer, five to eight lines. Anyone who has ever fed deer will know that they spend a great deal of time moving around the feed site instead of getting there heads down eating. The tram line system cut this down because they did not have so far to go between places and spent more time eating.

When feeding silage or roots you should always delay this until the deer have finished their concentrate. Otherwise calves or young stock will get into the habit of eating silage rather than nuts. When you have large numbers silage and roots should be put out in long lines so all shy feeders get their share. It is a good idea to have your silage analysed as this will give you some idea of how much concentrate is needed. Other feeds, like whole crop, can be fed as a complete diet, but it needs to be of good quality to satisfy dietary requirements.

When you are feeding females and their calves/fawns the young ones will stand off the feed in groups as they are unsure what is happening. So, another tip is, as the feeding days go on and you have finished putting out the feed, go round the calves/fawns on the bike gently encouraging them towards their mothers and the feed – they will soon learn what it is all about.

All of the above works in conjunction with good pasture management.  Spring and summer grazing is critical so your deer can lactate well and go into the winter in good condition. No amount of feed in the winter will regain condition once it is lost

The one critical issue I have not talked about is staff. They need to be motivated and buy into the concept because they will be at the sharp end, every day, seven days a week. Staff must be flexible and have the ability and confidence react to circumstances as they go about the feeding. They need to observe the deer, looking for condition loss, sick or injured animals, and be making suggestions to improve feeding based on what they observe.

I would encourage everyone who has an interest in deer and their management to join the British Deer Farms and Parks Association (www.bdfpa.org) they are very pro-active with information and training.  As we all know, when you enclose animals you have a duty of care. But, given the chance, deer will respond to good management and may surprise you with the economic benefits.

Key summary points to keep in mind when feeding deer

  • Know your objectives.
  • Understand the feed requirements of your herd.
  • Focus on quality of feed.
  • Establish and stick to a routine.
  • Use long feed lines put out quickly.
  • Be flexible in response to observations of the animals.
  • Ensure staff are motivated and understand the aims.