Browse is the bread and butter when it comes to whitetail food. Although white-tailed deer use three major plant groups–forbs, browse and grasses–and prefer forbs, forbs are not always available. Grass makes up only a small percentage of their diet. Browse, which consists of the leaves and tender twigs and stems of woody plants, is readily available throughout all seasons of the year. Deer use the browse of both deciduous and evergreen plant species, and browse tends to be the most stable food source for white-tailed deer throughout much of the country.
The nutritional value of a browse plant to a deer depends on the palatability, availability, and the quality of the browse species. Palatability is the combination of characteristcis, such as tenderness, taste, and smell, that influences an animal to eat a particular food. Palatability has the most to do with a deer’s preference for certain food items until the availability of those foods decreases. At that point, a deer’s diet is determined more by availability than anything else. If a plant is unavailable based on habitat conditions or because it has been entirely consumed by animals, then even though the plant is highly preferred as whitetail food, it’s no longer availabee.
The quality of a browse is based on its level of crude protein, as well as digestibility. These factors together determine the true nutritional value of the browse plant. A plant may have a high level of protein, but if it is not digestible, then the value of the plant is not realized by the animal. Some people believe that deer have a natural instinct for identifying and consuming the forage plants that are most beneficial from a dietary standpoint. I imagine that a whitetail’s ability to identify foods is in their genes, but I suspect they also pick up cues from their mothers at an early age.
Examples of Browse Plants classified by preference:
High: Hawthorn, Hackberry, Elm, Red Oak, Plum, Mistletoe
Moderate: Virginia Creeper, Redbud, Posion Ivy, Grape
Low: Sumac, Live Oak, Pecan, Mimosa, Shin Oak, Dogwood
In short, browse is an important component of the white-tailed deer’s diet. Although deer use a variety of native and introduced plants, browse makes up the greatest percentage of a whitetail’s diet throughout the year. Preferred browse species vary by region and ecoregion based on precipitation and soil type. To find out more about what deer eat, contact your local department of natural resources.