Whenever we receive an abnormally severe winter --- and I'm pretty sure this one qualifies --- Iowa outdoor enthusiasts become acutely aware of wildlife's daily struggle for survival. Tens of thousands of us respond to the plight each winter with the installation and maintenance of backyard bird feeders.
Feeding winter wildlife is a noble endeavor, but only if done correctly. Doing it wrong can have dire consequences and, in some cases, can even lead to the deaths of the very creatures we attempt to aid.
Some of the most dramatic examples occur when people begin feeding deer. This practice is generally limited to the harshest of winters when foraging deer are highly visible and often move into highly populated residential areas in search of food such as shrubbery or the "small grains" found at backyard bird feeders.
Many people, me included, enjoy having white-tails visit their property. But since deer have cloven hooves and big brown eyes, just like Elsie the cow, many folks automatically assume that adding a bale or two of hay to their backyard feeding program might be a good idea. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
According to DNR Wildlife [Deer] Biologist, Tom Litchfield, there are basically two types of hay, and neither should be used to feed wintering deer.
"Grass hay is the worst," says Litchfield. "A deer cannot digest grass fast enough to keep itself alive. It is a rumen volume thing, which is why deer are browsers (twigs and shrubs) and not grazers.
"Alfalfa hay --- a legume --- is more digestible for deer, although it's mainly just the leaves that deer select for," adds Litchfield. "But if an already stressed deer eats a large quantity of alfalfa --- especially if that deer is already losing condition and has eaten very little alfalfa in recent weeks --- it will usually be dead within 24 to 48 hours, sometimes sooner. It's that dramatic."
The reason, says Litchfield, is because naturally occurring bacteria in a deer's rumen [stomach] does most of the work associated with digestion. If a deer hasn't eaten much alfalfa recently, the rumen flora [bacteria] needed to digest that material are at very low levels. If a hungry deer suddenly finds alfalfa hay at someone's backyard feeding station and tanks up, it then has a stomach full of food it cannot digest. The end result is that the deer dies with a full stomach.
"This same scenario is true with most nutritious feeds if the deer is stressed and then suddenly comes upon an abundance of feed that it has not been eating recently," says Litchfield. "Deer are almost never single item feeders by choice, they like a variety and "famine to feast" where they can suddenly fill up on a single item is not a natural occurrence for herbivores."
Providing stressed deer herds with a sudden supply of hay is simply a case of killing them with kindness.