Outdoor Articles

How Nutrition and Health Affect Whitetail Breeding Activity

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Big Game Hunting

How does what the deer eat affect their behavior?

It’s not often talked about, but researchers have discovered that poor nutrition can affect not only the timing of the rut, but also the activities of the rut. During a study by Dr. Karl Miller and Dr. Larry Marchinton in Georgia it was found that the number of rubs in an area were related to the mast (acorn) abundance, and that during years of little mast production rub densities were reduced by 30 to 60 sixty percent. It was also found that rubs were less common in pine and mixed pine-oak stands than in oak or primarily oak and pine stands.

The researchers thought that the presence of rubs in mast producing areas was due to the type of food in the area, not necessarily the type of trees in the area. Regeneration areas and thick hardwood types were avoided as rub sites on all of the Georgia study areas; and old fields were highly favored as rub sites.

I find this to be true in the upper Midwest too; bucks rub more near oaks when they are dropping acorns, and they rub more near agricultural and old field edges than they do in dense hardwood forests. However, I have seen numerous rubs near old clear cuts and old fields that have begun to regenerate with saplings. I suspect that rubbing in agricultural areas may be dependent not only on the amount of acorns available, but also on the type and amount of other preferred food sources in the fall, such as alfalfa, soybeans and corn. Because the condition of the deer in the Georgia study was highly dependent on acorns, and their physical condition was poor because of low acorn production, it resulted in a less intense rut. Either the deer were simply not healthy enough to be as active as they would normally be during the rut, or they spent more time looking for any remaining mast than they did in making rubs.


If the deer in your area suffer from poor nutrition, because acorn or other mast production is down, or because agricultural crop production is low, you may see less rubbing (and possibly scraping) than normal. Poor nutrition may also result in less daytime trolling, chasing and breeding activity, resulting in a longer than normal breeding phase.

There is also evidence that poor nutrition and health may cause does to come into a later than normal first estrous, or not come into estrous at all. Poor nutrition can affect late born doe fawns (which might breed during their first year if they are healthy), older does, and does that bred late the year before. Does that breed late, give birth late and wean their fawns late are often nutritionally stressed during the fall. Any doe that nurses is stressed, and the more fawns the doe has the more stressed it is. Studies of over 1,600 does in Minnesota show that 15-20 percent of the adult and yearling does may be bred after the third week of November, and that up to 50 percent of the yearling does may breed after December first.

It is also believed that poor doe nutrition can result in later development of the does fawns, and of her fawn’s eventual offspring. This means that the timing of the rut, the health of the deer in the winter, the reproduction rates of the does, and fawn survival are dependent on good herd nutrition and health. If the deer are nutritionally stressed, during any single year, it may affect breeding activity and survival rates for the next few years, and for the next few generations of deer. To avoid this you scan take steps to see that the number of deer in the herd does not exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat, take steps to improve the habitat, and provide minerals and supplemental food sources (food plots and feed sites) in the winter.

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