White-tailed deer do eat grass, but they do not eat a whole lot of it. Contrary to popular belief, deer consume only a small quantities of grass and usually only when it is young and tender. In general, grass makes up less than 10% of a deer’s annual diet. Forbs and browse make up the majority of whitetail food.
People commonly see white-tailed deer eating in fields of grass, but are they eating the grass itself? Probably not. During the spring and fall, cool-season forbs, commonly referred to by people as weeds, are available and abundant. These are the plants that deer are looking for among all that tall grass! Preferred forbs are like ice cream to deer, so it’s not surprising that they would be combing grass fields looking for these tasty treats.
Deer, however, will make use of grass when it is tender. Once grass become more mature, the structure of the cellulose becomes coarse and hardened, making it less palatable to whitetail as a food source. Deer do like some crops that are closely related to grass, such as oats, wheat, and rye. As such, the winter crops are often used as food plots and serve as important cool-season whitetail foods.
Spring brings about young, tender grasses that deer will use, but so does the fall. Cool-season grasses such as wild rye are an excellent deer forage. In addition, areas that have been recently burned are also sought out by deer because of the tender, nutrient-rich new-growth grass that quckly emerges. This is why prescribed burning is an important component of good deer and turkey management.