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Important Facts on Deer Browse

Wrtitten by Dwight Lincoln
on 17 July 2014

When discussing deer diets, many people do not realize what deer actually eat. For the most part deer eat forbs (weeds), browse, and mast (acorns and other fruits). 'Browse' consists of stems and leaves of woody plants. Contrary to most thinking, seldom do deer eat grass. Of the different classes of plants, deer 'prefer' forbs when available; however, they are not always available so browse is considered the staple that carries them through hard times such as droughty summers and the winter.

Browse plants for deer can be placed into three categories (1st choice, 2nd choice, or 3rd choice) according to preference by deer. Generally, the more palatable and digestible plants have higher preference by deer. Palatability refers to the taste while digestibility refers to how easily the animal can break it down to withdraw the nutrients. Growth stage of the plant and season can change both palatability and digestibility. As a plant matures lignin builds up in the cell walls of the plant. Lignin is nearly completely indigestible, so the more mature the lower the digestibility. A plant can be an important browse plant at an early growth stage and then nearly useless as it reaches maturity.

A plant that is considered a 1st choice plant is one that deer readily seek out and prefer; normally this would be a plant high in palatability and digestibility. The 3rd choice plants are a classification that should be browsed on very little. These plants are extremely hard to digest and are likely very bitter and could even be toxic. Second choice plants fall somewhere between and deer will utilize 2nd choice plants but these plants are typically not as nutritious as 1st choice.

With browse classifications in mind, we will discuss plants that are important browse plants. Take into account browse classifications change as you move to different areas of the state. In the Oak- Prairie district there is quite a lot of diversity in browse plants. Hackberries and elms are species that provide enormous benefit as a browse species. Their saplings are extremely beneficial and they're considered a 1st choice browse plant, and because of the low amounts of lignin, they are more digestible. The mature hackberry and elm would fall more into a 2nd choice browse category. Another beneficial 1st choice shrub is American beautyberry. You will notice it by the purple berries around the stem. Beautyberry is readily eaten by deer and the berries are great for birds too. Vines such as rattan, green briar, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle and even poison ivy are 1st choice browse. Common 2nd choice species would include yaupon, grape vines, hawthorns, and some oaks (water and willow oak). Plants that you don't want to see deer browsing on are the 3rd choice plants. Some species that are considered 3rd choice are cedar, coral berry, and Hercules club.

By knowing the browse preferences of deer, you can get a good idea of the deer densities on your land. If you see heavy browsing pressure on 1st and 2nd choice plants and browsing on 3rd choice, you probably have too many 'mouths' on the range. This brings up another subject we will have to discuss later. 'Mouths' can also refer to cattle and goats since they will directly compete with deer and consume browse during stress periods.

For more information on browse surveys thatyou can conduct on your property, contact yourlocal TPWD biologist, see our website at; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildlifebiologist.