What To Feed Deer In Your Backyard: Safe & Healthy Options

Wondering what to feed deer in your backyard? Learn the top safe and healthy options that will keep deer around and well fed in your backyard.

What to feed backyard deer

Whether you are just a nature lover or a big game hunter, there are plenty of reasons to want to feed deer. Deer weigh a lot and need a lot of food. Having deer around attracts all kinds of other wildlife, so if you are looking for real outdoor living, all from the comfort of your backyard, feeding and attracting wild deer is the first step.

Deer can eat a variety of plants, including:

  • Acorns
  • Soybeans
  • Oats
  • Alfalfa or hay (Warning: Do not feed during the winter)
  • Turnips
  • And many others, depending on the time of year.

Deer prefer freshly grown plants, so if you want to increase your chances of deer sightings and facilitate the herd’s growth, you should plant these legumes and vegetables for the deer to eat.

One of the best times to plant is during the fall and winter when they do not have as much foliage to feed on in their surrounding area. 

What Can You Feed Deer In Your Backyard?

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A deer in a backyard

If you have been wondering what to feed backyard deer, there are plenty of formulated deer food mixes to save you the time of growing fresh plants, as well as space.

For people with smaller backyards or planting areas, using deer feeders can be a great way to start supplemental feeding for your local herd.

There are two main types of deer feeders: spincast and free choice.

Depending on your preference, you might be inclined to purchase one or the other, although they both are capable of providing the same amount of your best deer food per day. The significant difference is that a spincast feeder allows you to input how much food should be distributed that day.

And if you’re handy you can even make your own DIY Deer Feeder:

The best food for deer feeders is called pellets, made with a deer’s entire body’s nutrition in mind.

You will not have to worry about accidentally feeding the deer something that is not good for them or might cause a bad case of indigestion if you only provide the deer pellets explicitly manufactured for deer. 

Deer may take a few days to understand that the pellets are a source of food and not some strange human toy, but if you also add oats or other cereal grains into the feeder as well, they will gobble up a whole mouthful and quickly realize that the pellets are a tasty source of much-needed nutrients and energy.

Can I Feed Deer In My Backyard?

Depending on the size and fencing involved in your backyard, there is no reason why you cannot feed deer in your backyard.

The deer will need a way to access your backyard and the food therein, so make sure that if you have a fence, it has a hole large enough for even a beefed-up buck to fit through without needing to squeeze his way in. 

Remember, feeding deer in your backyard is not the same as going to a petting zoo.

These deer will be wild and not accustomed to human contact.

You will need to leave the food in large, unattended spaces for the deer to come and graze in without alarming them with your sudden and unexpected presence.

Do not attempt to pet them while they are feeding. (We know, that’s a bummer but they could kill you, which would be a major bummer!)

In addition to accounting for the presence of the deer themselves, you will need to place multiple feeders throughout your property strategically.

On average, it is recommended to have one feeder per 20-30 deer you expect to feed.

If you use feeders instead of troughs, you should look for ones with wide openings to account for growing antlers. 

backyard deer with antlers

Those antlers are part of the reason why deer might wander further afield to come and investigate your backyard for food.

Be prepared to increase the amount of food available in the winter, when other sources are gone, and in the summer, when the antlers are growing and the deer need extra nutrition to support that growth.

What Is An Inexpensive Way To Feed Deer?

Even smaller species of deer would win an eating contest with most humans. The average whitetail deer consumes around five pounds of food per day.

Although you do not have to supply all of that food, if you want your backyard to attract deer regularly, you will probably need to lay out some serious money to keep them satisfied. 

However, you will likely find that purchasing deer feed and the feeders associated with them is much more expensive than merely growing the natural crops yourself.

Purchasing seeds or starter plants are relatively affordable. If you are willing to invest the time and energy of tending to crops that you know are deer food, gardening is the cheapest way to feed deer.

You can purchase seed to create your own backyard deer feed plot and have the fresh growth they love sprouting in no time for a fraction of the cost.

Alternatively, if you do not have space or soil necessary for a healthy crop, you can purchase large quantities at a local farmer’s market or grocery stores.

Most of the vegetables are relatively inexpensive, even in bulk. However, a basket of turnips will not go far, so bring along a truck or flatbed so that you can bring home multiple bales of hay or alfalfa.

If you already have trees growing on your property, you might have an inexpensive way to feed deer right there under your nose.

Depending on the tree species, deer might have been dreaming about feasting on your maple branches or red oak twigs for some time. It is hard to believe that deer want to eat bark, but they do. 

What Foods Will Attract Deer?

If you do not want to fall back on using feed for deer and would rather know the specific ingredients involved, this section is for you.

The common question of what do deer eat can be answered in two broad categories: vegetables and legumes. A large amount of either or both categories is sure to attract deer because animals crave reliable food sources.

Deer also enjoy foraging for individual tree branches.

Although we might not think of tree bark as being particularly easy to munch on or digest, deer enjoy gnawing on larger branches and ingesting smaller ones. The best species of tree twigs for deer include:

  • White and yellow birch
  • Witch hazel
  • Red oak
  • Beaked hazel
  • Mountain maple
  • Striped maple

Another way to ensure that the food you put out will attract deer is to put the food near a water source close to or on your property.

Animals need water even more than they need food, and you can be sure that if there are deer in the area, they will be frequenting the watering holes nearby. You can entice them with food through sheer convenience. 

Can You Feed Deer Carrots?

It is not unhealthy or harmful to feed deer carrots, but they should not be the primary food source for a herd of deer.

In other words, carrots are a treat that many different deer types greatly enjoy, but they provide little nutritional value. They cannot be a substitute for the other vegetables and legumes that constitute most of a deer’s diet. 

When it comes to what deer love to eat the most, carrots are pretty high up the list, but you should think about them as a type of deer candy.

Good in small quantities and perfect for initially attracting deer to your backyard, but not great for a whole meal. Small amounts of carrots can be a great way to reward the deer for feasting in your backyard. 

Can Deer Eat Bread?

Similar to corn, bread often contains ingredients that are simply too high in starch for a deer to digest comfortably. Wheat and barley’s starch content can lead to anything from simple indigestion after consumption to death, depending on how much a deer has eaten.

Feeding bread to a herd of deer can be fatal for all of the members.

What Should You Not Feed Deer?

Wheat, barley, and corn should not be fed to deer.

Unfortunately, deer are not sophisticated enough to know not to eat things that are especially bad for them. The high starch content in those foods can kill a deer because their stomach cannot digest and break down those starches. In the winter, deer might inadvertently consume them with nothing else to eat.

Some foods should never be feed to deer, but other foods, such as hay and alfalfa, should be administered with care.

Starving deer, or deer subsisting on smaller rations during the harsh winter environment, might have trouble consuming the hay, and their stomachs may protest. That is because hay expands a lot in the stomach.

Chronic wasting disease is prevalent among specific deer populations and is a fatal disease.

It can be transmitted through urine, feces, blood, and saliva from one infected deer to another but is originally introduced through contaminated food or water sources. You should always be careful about what you feed deer or grow for deer to eat.

Once a member of a herd contracts chronic wasting disease, it can be challenging to control its spread.

It takes over a year for an infected deer to start showing symptoms like massive and sudden weight loss and difficulty walking, and the disease is contagious before symptoms appear. 

What Can You Feed Deer Instead Of Corn?

Generally, it is recommended to feed deer cereal grains like oats instead of corn.

They lack the high starch content that makes corn so tricky for a deer’s stomach to process and can easily fill your troughs or other deer feeders, in addition to manufactured deer food. In fact, those deer food pellets probably already contain oats too. 

Corn is a complicated subject because, for herds of deer who live in areas where corn is commonly grown and found as a food source throughout the year, the deer can consume it without any adverse effects. A deer’s stomach is quite versatile and can develop the necessary acids to break down the high starch content over the course of the year.

That being said, it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to feeding deer in your backyard, and you should stay away from corn when given a chance.

One alternative that a lot of people consider is deer corn. Deer corn is specially formulated corn that is high in carbs and fat that can give deer a good energy boost for the hard winter ahead. 

Should You Feed Deer In Your Backyard?

The ethical question of feeding deer revolves around the idea that nature provides precisely what is needed to sustain a healthy deer population.

By ensuring that a local herd of deer has a reliable food source during the winter, you are giving them the sustenance needed to have more babies come springtime.

In the summer, more deer will have enough to eat when the heat requires additional nutrients, and the antler-growing season is upon them. If too many deer exist, they will quickly outgrow the natural food and water sources in the area and unbalance the local ecosystem.

Natural predators such as coyotes or bears may also be attracted to the area in larger numbers.

If you are a hunter hoping to attract such game with a growing deer population, you will undoubtedly achieve it, but you will need to be careful not to rob other grazing animals of their food sources and further unbalance the ecosystem nature has created in your region.

However, if you live in an area with a lot of deer hunting, there is no harm in feeding them.

It is easy to get caught up in the ethics of hunting for sport versus hunting for eating the deer, but the fact of the matter is that many states and provinces have to hand out a certain number of hunting licenses each year to diminish large deer populations that are getting out of hand. Keep that in mind when you decide to feed the deer. 

In Summary

There are plenty of reasons to feed deer in your backyard, but you should be sure to give them nutritious food that is also delicious. Many well-meaning people put out food for local herds of deer that the deer turn to during the lack of their food sources in the winter, only to find that the wrong kind of food can be more harmful than no food at all.

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