MERTZON — Spending big bucks to feed “Big Bucks” may not be the panacea many deer managers think it is.
Over the past decade, many ranchers and hunters have started feeding programs for their deer herds to increase quality by larger antler size and body weight. The better the buck, the more he’s worth.
Big money is the reason. West Texas is sheep and goat country, and these enterprises have not been too profitable in recent years. To help fill the financial void, many have turned to their wildlife resource. Hunting leases in the area typically bring from $2-$5 per acre — not insignificant in an area that measures land by sections rather than acres.
To maintain optimum lease prices, deer must be cared for. At some point, most managers contemplate a feeding program. But feeding isn’t cheap.
Dr. Dale Rollins, wildlife specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in San Angelo, said white-tailed bucks need a 13 percent to 16 percent crude protein diet to develop their genetic potential. With feed costing around $200 per ton, the rancher hopes it’s deer that eat all the feed. Sadly, such is not the case.
“While year-around feeding programs are becoming more popular, there is little evidence that the practice is economically effective,” Rollins said. “When I ask a rancher or hunter if his feeding program works, they usually say, ‘Well, they sure eat a lot of feed.’
“This can be interpreted several ways, but the bottom line is he doesn’t really know if it’s cost effective or not. A major drawback is the amount of feed lost to nontarget species.”
Rollins and Irion County Extension Agent Scott Edmonson recently completed a study on a West Texas ranch that proved much of the feed is not consumed by deer.
“We wanted to see what actually eats feed from free-choice feeders and how often it’s done,” said Rollins. “Our data measures ‘visitation,’ not feed consumed, though one would assume there’s a correlation. Obviously, a species such as quail visiting the feeders 15 percent of the time would not eat 15 percent of the feed, but with larger species the loss is significant.”
To see who’s coming to dinner, Rollins and Edmonson staked out three self-feeders with infrared sensing units. Each system consisted of a transmitter, receiver and 35mm camera. When an animal attempted to feed, an invisible infrared beam was “broken,” and the visitor was photographed. The system had a 30-minute delay interval so only one photo was shot during each half hour period. Rollins said the delay was an attempt to ensure unbiased data. The date, hour and minute were recorded on each negative.
“There were at least 12 wildlife species using the feeders,” said Edmonson. “These included white-tailed deer, wild turkey, raccoon, opossum, porcupine, ringtail dove, quail, several species of nongame birds, ravens, ground squirrels and rabbits.
“Our study suggests one of the reasons why supplemental feeding of deer is probably not cost-effective: the deer miss out on much of the chow. The non-target species comprised 50 percent to 73 percent of the visitations. In such instances, deer use may account for less than 50 percent of the feed consumed.”
Raccoons, porcupines and opossums were the most frequent non-target species.
“They liked to just lounge around the feeders, eating at their leisure,” the agent said. “They definitely aren’t the eat-and-run type.”
Rollins said deer visits at the feeders ranged from 27 percent to 50 percent on a seasonal basis. They used the feeders almost exclusively at night as did raccoon, porcupine and opossums. The most commonly photographed species at most feeders were white-tail deer, gamebirds, raccoons and porcupines.
Rollins said different species usually were tolerant of each other around the feeders. However, on a few occasions, antagonistic encounters between raccoons and deer were photographed. Raccoon aggression may be another limiting factor against the more timid deer. A similar study completed in Sutton County by Rollins and Preston Faris, Sutton County Extension agent, revealed the same results.
“On a brighter note,” said the specialist, “bucks tended to feed more than does, thus increasing the efficiency of getting the supplement to the target animal.
“Our next step is to evaluate live-trapping of unwanted varmints,” Rollins said. “We then will attempt to document the practicality of a before-and-after trapping campaign. We also hope to evaluate different feeder designs to see if any are more selective in what species they feed.
“Until then, if you insist on supplemental feeding, just grit your teeth, grab your wallet and get ready to feed ’em all.”