Deer: Food and Water Needs


White-tailed deer are browsing animals. They prefer to eat the succulent tips of many different shrubs, vines, and trees. Dear also eat a variety of other foods including leaves and hard and soft mast. Deer do not predominately eat one food throughout the year, instead their diet is determined by plant availability, nutritional content, and seasonal nutritional requirements. A habitat-management plan for deer should provide adequate diverse food supplies for all times of the year.

Spring and Summer Browse

Summer foods mainly consist of the growing tips and leaves of annual and perennial forbs, trees, and shrubs. Deer prefer summer grape, red clover, Virginia creeper, blackberry, asters, and lespedezas during this period.

Fall and Winter Foods

If plentiful, acorns are the primary food. Lacking acorns, deer feed on corn, lespedeza, wheat, other crops, and a variety of native plants, such as sumac and buckbrush. Twigs of sapling trees and various shrubs also are important winter foods.

Virginia creeper leaves

Virginia creeper is an important summer food for deer. 

A closeup of an acorn
Acorn. Nappadol Paothong

Manage wooded habitats for deer by increasing the availability of food and cover by opening the canopy to allow light to reach the forest floor. Maintain a diversity of acorn-producing trees and protect the area from cattle grazing. For a good supply of acorns, maintain mature oak trees of several species, such as post, black, white, northern red, chinquapin, blackjack, and scarlet. About 20 acorn-producing oaks per acre are ideal for deer. These trees should average at least 14 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH). The number of acorns produced by each tree will depend on crown size, age, health, and weather.


Creating brush is the most commonly used technique for improving white-tailed deer habitat. The brush stage, or seedling/sapling forest, has nearly three times the amount of twig production, or browse, per acre as a saw-timber stand. Managed timber harvest is a good way to create brush, since many of the harvested trees will re-sprout from the stump, providing plenty of easy-to-reach forage. If engaging in a timber harvest, be sure to leave enough mature oak trees for a satisfactory acorn crop.

Shrubs and vines are another type of brush. Some common shrubs and vines browsed by deer are blueberry, dogwoods, sumacs, grape, greenbrier, and viburnum. Woodlands should be fenced to exclude livestock because they compete directly with deer for food.

Important foods plants for deer:

  • acorns
  • alfalfa
  • asters
  • blackberries
  • black haw
  • bluegrass
  • cherries
  • cinquefoil
  • clovers
  • coralberry (buckbrush)
  • dogwoods
  • elms
  • goldenrods
  • grain (corn, milo, and soybeans)
  • grapes
  • greenbriers
  • hazelnut
  • Korean lespedeza
  • lettuces
  • oats
  • partridge pea
  • pawpaw
  • persimmon
  • poison ivy
  • pokeweed
  • roses
  • soybeans
  • soybeans
  • sumacs
  • sunflowers
  • tick trefoils
  • violets
  • Virginia creeper
  • wheat
  • wild beans
  • wingstems

Food plots

Food plots have become commonplace in deer management in recent years. While good supplemental nutrition can provide benefits to deer, providing excellent native food and cover sources should be your primary goal. Only after that has been achieved will food plots reach their full potential.

Quality nutrition starts with quality soil, so it’s important to test and amend your soils as necessary. Contact your local private lands conservationist for help taking a soil sample. There are dozens of food plot seeds and blends, and each has its merits and shortcomings. For best effect, you should plant a variety of foods on your land, scattered about in different parcels. Around 2 to 5 acres of food per 40 acres usually provides sufficient forage, especially if you’ve managed the property to promote plant diversity. Choose plants based on factors such as soil type, soil moisture, amount of shade, other nearby foods, and your goals for the land (for example, biological benefits, increased hunting opportunities).

An important aspect to consider regarding food plots is that deer do not like to feed far from cover during the day. If your food plot is more than 50 yards from cover, the most use may be at night. To increase daytime use consider planting protective screening cover such as tall native grasses, shrubs, or quick-growing tall annuals, such as forage sorghum, to provide the deer a sense of security when using the plot.

Water management

Water is often not a limiting factor for white-tailed deer in Missouri. Deer meet their water needs from three sources: free water (drinking and eating snow), preformed water (from the vegetation they eat), and metabolic water (from the digestion of fats and proteins). It is ideal for deer management purposes to have at least one permanent water source per square mile.