Alfalfa is currently recommended as the first choice legume to seed. Many studies and observations confirm alfalfa is highly palatable to white-tailed deer when the plants are vegetative and/or actively growing.
Provided moisture is adequate, the plant has good regrowth potential. Separate paddocks can be cut or grazed at staggered times through the summer to keep plants vegetative and palatable during summer and fall.
Alfalfa is capable of supplying the high protein requirements of white-tailed deer through the summer. When properly inoculated, legumes obtain a portion of their nitrogen requirement from atmospheric nitrogen fixed by bacteria in nodules associated with their roots.
This free source of nitrogen fertilizer enables a legume to produce a high protein forage. Alfalfa and other legumes are high in calcium, similar to the levels found in browse.
The calcium requirements of white-tailed deer are highest in spring and summer due to rapid growth by fawns, lactation by does, and antler formation by bucks.
Alfalfa has a proven record for high production and persistence across all of the soil zones. The creeping rooted varieties are more tolerant to grazing. Cicer Milkvetch (CM) palatability to white-tailed deer is unknown. CM is slow to begin growth in spring, but its growth continues well into fall.
It retains green leaves late into the season for good quality fall grazing. Studies show mature stands of CM have significantly higher protein and energy than mature stands of alfalfa. Yields of CM can vary considerably compared to alfalfa, but typically it yields 20 per cent less than alfalfa. CM does not produce as well when managed with multiple clippings in a season. This would be the case if it were grazed continuous and season-long.
It can equal alfalfa production when stockpiled and cut or grazed once in fall. In some cases it has out yielded alfalfa because of its resistance to pocket gophers. This could be an important feature for ranches located on sandy soils where pocket gopher activity is higher. CM is recommended in the Moist Dark Brown, Black and Grey Wooded soil zones. New varieties that are high yielding and easy to establish are scheduled to be released in 2000.
Sainfoin is the preferred legume of elk in all seasons, so it would likely be grazed by white-tailed deer. Sainfoin is promoted in the beef cattle industry as a non-bloating legume, but this is not a concern for white-tailed deer producers.
Sainfoin yields 80-85 per cent of alfalfa over the long term. It has a big seed and is easy to establish. In some cases it has out yielded alfalfa in the first two years because of the quick establishment. It is drought tolerant and is recommended in the Brown, Dark Brown, and Black soil zones.
Alsike Clover (AC) palatability to white-tailed deer has not been confirmed. It is likely AC would be grazed because elk will readily graze it along side of alfalfa. AC tolerates up to six weeks of spring flooding. It may be seeded in potholes where alfalfa will drown.
AC is recommended in the Grey Wooded soil zone because it needs high moisture to survive and produce good yields. In all other soil zones, it is limited to lower flooding areas because it will most often not survive on drier sites with competition from other forages. AC is a short-lived perennial plant, but once established remains in the stand by reseeding itself.
In wild populations of white-tailed deer, grasses are selected most often in spring. Grasses are important for high quality early season nutrition because they are the first plants to start growth in spring.
On a ranch, early growth may be less important because the early spring nutritional needs can be supplied with hay or concentrates. There is little information available on which grass species are best suited for white-tailed deer. It is assumed species that remain and/or can be managed to remain soft and vegetative for a greater part of the summer will be more suited for white-tailed deer.
Meadow bromegrass produces a leafy vegetative growth and is likely the best choice grass for white-tailed deer pastures. If moisture is available it regrows readily for summer and fall grazing. Meadow bromegrass does not aggressively spread, so it allows the legumes to remain in the stand. Smooth bromegrass is relatively tall with coarse stems.
This height can provide hiding cover and shelter for fawns, but the stems will not be grazed. Smooth bromegrass has a strong creeping root which forms a dense sod. The sod can be an advantage during wet conditions to support animal and machinery traffic, but it competes strongly with the legume species.
Orchard grass would likely be preferred by white-tailed deer because it is soft and leafy. Unfortunately this grass is prone to winterkill in much of western Canada so it is seldom recommended. Crested wheatgrass provides the earliest spring grazing, but becomes stemmy and unpalatable in early summer if not grazed intensively.
If early spring grazing is a priority, consider seeding a small portion of the paddock to crested wheatgrass rather than scattering it throughout the paddock.
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