Do Deer Eat Hay?


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When the winter rolls around and food is not easy to come by in the wild for certain animals, many of us naturally want to help them! For those of us who are fortunate enough to live close to deer, it can be particularly difficult to watch them struggle to find adequate food, especially in the cold. For example, if you’re preparing your wild yard for visitors – do deer eat hay, and should you put it out for them?

Deer will eat hay, but it is difficult for them to digest. Their bodies need adequate time to adapt to it – if not, it can kill them.

Why can’t deer eat hay?

Deer are physically unable to eat rough, coarse grass and similar vegetation. Hay is particularly dry and coarse – meaning it’s among the hardest for their systems to process.

Essentially, it is old grass, and while many animals survive living on it, a deer’s stomach doesn’t work quite in the way that one might assume. When their bodies have become used to surviving on leafy plants, weeds, and fruit during the summer months, it can be dangerous for them to switch to a completely different foodstuff suddenly. 

Ultimately, their digestive systems do not have adequate microorganisms to digest the hay, and when they make a sudden switch or eat too much hay on an empty stomach, their stomachs remain full and can back up.

As you may imagine, this can both be very painful for deer and impractical when they need to escape from predators. Deer usually opt for lighter, more protein and energy-rich vegetation that gives them the boost they need to get away at short notice. Otherwise, they make for very easy prey to catch.

Deer generally won’t eat grass for the same reasons, especially if it is particularly long. Therefore, if you want to deter deer from your yard (or would prefer them not to make a snack of your lawn), it may be worth growing your grass a little longer than usual.

Sadly, it is impossible to know whether or not a wild deer has had the time to prepare for a seasonal shift in diet, and therefore, feeding extra hay to them could be a dangerous mistake. It’s best not to make such assumptions – and to stick to giving deer food they are guaranteed to love. Did you know that you can easily attract deer with peanuts, for example?

As winter rolls around, consider scaling back your deer feeding – as you won’t necessarily know if they’ve switched to ‘winter diet mode’ yet or not. It’s better to play it safe and focus on feeding them from spring onwards. However, there are plenty of plants deer love that you can simply grow and leave to propagate.

Does hay attract deer? 

Hay can indeed attract deer and other big animals in the wild, especially during the colder months when food is scarce. However, it’s not necessarily a good thing – for reasons we’ve covered above!

Therefore, it’s not unheard of for deer to eat hay when food is low or in desperate need of energy. When facing starvation, deer will eat whatever vegetation they can in the wild, which can end up badly for them.

It’s therefore recommended to avoid using hay to attract deer to your yard – you may be doing them more harm than good. You should certainly never use hay as a deterrent, either – it would be a cruel mistake.

What is the best thing to feed deer? 

There are plenty of raw foods and natural vegetation you can leave out for deer, including acorns, oats, fruits, vegetables, and more. Deer aren’t too picky in terms of the food they like to eat, but their stomachs are extremely sensitive.

Again, it may be dangerous to feed the deer during the winter months as you could interfere with their natural food adaptation. By feeding them things that they will not commonly find in the wild in the winter, you are lowering their chances of being able to adapt to their new diet.

In the winter months, deer commonly eat whatever they can find, usually twigs. You could chop a few branches off of your trees, and pile them up for your local deer if you wish. You will give the deer a covered hiding spot if they need it, too, by piling them up.

It is best to keep the pile stacked up throughout the winter, especially if the deer have become accustomed to it.

However, it is always best to leave the deer to find what they need, and let them adapt to their environment. Some sources even suggest that you shouldn’t feed deer at all for various reasons relating to environmental balance and overpopulation.

What’s more, there are some states in the US where it’s even illegal to feed deer at all. Therefore, be careful before you reach for the fruit and nuts – and check that your state permits you to treat your local wildlife.

What should you not feed deer? 

Various sources suggest that feeding deer on corn, potatoes, barley, and wheat is never a good idea – largely thanks to the starch they contain. Hay, of course, is high up on this list, too – however, some anecdotal evidence suggests you may be able to in moderation.

You should also avoid feeding deer on meat and even some salad items such as lettuce – again, it is all due to their sensitive digestive systems. 

If you can feed deer in your state and want to attract them, try growing trees deer love and focus on offering a mess of nutritious, organic nuts and fruit.

It should go without saying, but always avoid giving deer any salted, spiced, or candied items – if they can’t find it in the wild, it has no place in your deer feeding plot. Additionally, avoid feeding deer in the winter months, period as it can possibly prove to be fatal for them!

About The Author
Robert has been an avid birdwatcher pretty much his entire life. Living in the suburbs he does his best to bring wild birds into his backyard. He currently has 13+ bird feeders in his yard and also raises and races homing pigeons. Robert writes part-time for Wild Yards, mostly about the subject he cares most about - birds.

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