Can Deer Digest Hay in the Winter?

By GrowingDeer,

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We just received 2 feet of snow.  Would it be a good idea to put out a few bales of hay for the deer?  Or would it actually harm the deer because their digestive systems can’t handle the hay this time of the year?




Great question that currently applies to much of the whitetails’ range!

Providing feed that deer are not used to digesting, especially when they are stressed, can cause them great harm or result in death.  This is because deer only ingest the food (which they will gladly do during periods of stress), bacteria populations that live in their gut perform most of the digestion.  There are many species of bacteria in a deer’s gut and each species is somewhat specific to digesting different types of food.  Food sources in nature tend to become available and unavailable slowly over time.  For example, a few acorns will fall early and then more and more will fall until the supply will taper off.  The species of bacteria that helps digest acorns increases and decreases in population density in accordance with the quantity of acorns ingested.  However, when food resources are very limited, the population of bacteria decreases significantly.

If a deer herd that is stressed by a significant amount of snow suddenly finds a rich food source such as grain or high quality hay, they will consume large quantities.  However, they won’t have an adequate amount of bacteria in their digestive tract to digest the ingested food.  This is why deer given emergency supplemental food during periods of winter stress often die with a stomach full of the food provided by folks with great intentions.  All supplemental feeding programs should start slowly and be very closely monitored (if started at all).  This is especially true during periods of stress such as during winter storms.

You were wise to ask first!

Growing Deer together,