This winter, it isn’t the weather that’s putting stress on the livestock food supply at Sky Range Ranch. It’s the deer.

Mule deer

Mule deer in the woods. These native deer tend to winter on the hillsides eating sagebrush or in the woods eating brush.

As ranchers, we love wildlife and enjoy seeing animals making themselves at home on our ranch. We have a lot of deer — both mule deer and whitetail. The whitetail are not native here; we never saw any in our valley when I was a child. Then, a few decades ago, they appeared on ranches along the river and gradually expanded their territory up the various creeks. Mule deer range all over the mountains as well as in our fields, but the whitetail prefer the lower valleys, brushy areas along the streams, and the green fields — especially farmers’ fields.

Even though whitetail deer are smaller, they are more aggressive. The newcomer whitetails have displaced most of the mule deer on our creek. We’ve had many whitetail does raise their fawns in our fields and pastures and we enjoy seeing them. But over the last several years, their numbers have increased and they have suddenly become a serious winter problem.

Every year, we buy some alfalfa hay to augment the small amount of grass hay we put up for our cattle and horses. The whitetails have decided that alfalfa is the best free lunch in town. While a few have nibbled on our haystacks in winters past, a year ago they came in such numbers that we had to try to fence them out of the stack yard. They not only ate big holes in the hay bales but they wasted even more by pawing and pulling it out of the bales and trampling on it. We had elk panels around the stack yard but had to button things up even tighter to keep out these little deer that could weasel through very small spaces.

The whitetails also started eating off our feed truck, which is always loaded with hay for the next morning’s feeding, and they ate the big alfalfa bales we leave next to the heifer pasture. We bought big tarps to cover the hay truck and the heifer hay, though tarping and un-tarping it at every feeding time has made an extra chore.

This winter has been even worse. In spite of our elk panels and blockades, 20 or more whitetail deer have found a way into the stack yard, going through the creek to get under the fence and eating on our stack at night. Even after we put poles across the creek, they found another way in. So in mid-January, our daughter Andrea and her kids brought their two young dogs down to the stack yard and tied one at each end of the stack. They made a doghouse for each of them and while Jasper patrolled one end of the haystack, Olive worked the other, guarding the hay from the deer.

Dog guarding haystack

Jasper guarding one end of the stack…

Farm dog guarding haystack

…and Olive guarding the other end.

The dogs were so successful keeping the deer out of the haystack that more of the deer began eating alfalfa hay with the heifers. Some of the deer are so bold that they just lie around in the field and wait for us to feed the heifers. My granddaughter Emily took a few photos of some of the young deer hanging around with the heifers during the day.

Deer and heifers in field

Deer waiting for feeding time, to eat with the heifers

After evening feedings, the deer ate so much of the heifers’ hay that for several nights, the heifers were empty and hungry by morning. The deer also jumped into the horse pens and tore down the electric fences.  They especially like to go into Veggie’s pen and eat all his alfalfa hay. Poor old Veggie is 29 years old and has bad teeth. It takes him all day to eat his morning feed, and all night to finish his evening meal. If the deer eat it, he doesn’t get enough to eat and will lose more weight.

29 year old horse

29-year-old Veggie

Lynn started shooting fire-cracker shells at the deer to scare them away, some nights going out several times to shoo them off, but they come right back. So we called the Department of Fish and Game and asked what we could do to try to remedy this problem. Three of their wildlife people came out the next morning and assessed the situation. They didn’t have a solution for the deer eating our heifers’ and horses’ alfalfa, but they did bring some strong plastic netting material — something the deer can’t eat through — to wrap around our haystack to protect it.  With the haystack wrapped, we no longer needed Andrea’s dogs to protect it.

Haystack with netting wrapped around it

Netting around haystack

We moved the dogs to a new location, putting their little houses by the fence in the field where the heifers are, and staked them there. That worked nicely for a couple days; they barked at the deer and the deer stayed away from the heifers.  Then the deer got smart, realizing that the tethered barking dogs couldn’t actually chase them, and snuck up around them.

Guard dog Jasper

Jasper in his new location

Guard dog Olive

Olive, guarding the field

So we continue to have too many deer eating the hay and we’re having to feed extra hay, just to make sure there is enough for the livestock and the deer. At this rate we’re going through our winter supply of alfalfa too quickly! We’re hoping that the warmer weather and melting snow (with green grass showing up beneath) will take the pressure off our shrinking hay supplies —  that is, if the deer will disperse and go graze in the fields again instead of eating up our alfalfa! They are a bit spoiled, like people, and prefer the easy meals.

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively on animal health care, authoring thousands of articles and 24 books on the subject. Her books include Storey’s Guide… See Bio

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