Fawn Nutrition and Management

Start With Nutrition
A healthy doe is the start of a good fawning season. It’s no secret that when the doe is on a good nutrition program and predators are kept in check, a 90% surviving fawn crop is reasonable (Verme 1965). In the study that proves this point, the research team fed does at different nutritional planes. Does fed good nutrition thru gestation only lost 5% of fawns from nutritional related problems. Does that were underfed in fall and winter and restored to good nutrition in spring, lost 19% of fawns. Does that were underfed thru winter and spring lost 93% of the fawns. Many of the fawns from underfed does were born alive but died within 48 hours. They just didn’t have the body reserves to get through the birthing process and get hooked up to the doe before they expired. A good nutrition program for the doe herd is a fundamental start of a successful fawning season, but it’s not the only topic on the table when discussing a successful fawning season.

Once fawns are born how do we ensure a good survival rate? If the doe raises the fawn, we need to make sure she claims it and that the fawn is nursing. Sometimes yearling does don’t claim their fawn, and that makes all of the other necessary factors harder to align. A fawn needs to eat every few hours, so by careful observation the manager needs to confirm that the fawn is nursing. Once this is confirmed, look for activity to increase over the next few days. When the doe is with the fawn, the fawn should be moving around after a day or two – more than just nursing, starting to explore a little. When the doe is not there the fawn will stay very still. If this isn’t happening, the fawn may be sick or just not nursing well.  At three to four days of age, it should be pretty difficult to catch a healthy fawn. If activity seems low enough to indicate that the fawn isn’t nursing well, hand-raising is an option. 

Patience in Hand-Raising
Hand raising fawns is a lot of work but has high rewards. The first three requirements are patience to dry the new fawn, patience while it takes nourishment, and patience in setting up a pen or stall. The manager needs to make sure the fawn is dry and warm as soon as possible after it drops. Use a warm hand towel to gently rub the fawn dry. The next key step is to make sure the fawn gets colostrum in the first 12 hours of life. Ideally this comes from the doe. If supplementation is necessary, the best sources of colostrum – in order – are: another deer, sheep, goat, cow, and manufactured colostrum replacer. This order ranks the milk fat and protein closest to that of the deer. If the fawn is willing to nurse, give it what it will consume over the next 12 hours offering every two to three hours. If the fawn is unable to nurse, the only alternative is to tube it. To tube a fawn means to pass a small tube through the mouth all the way to the stomach and then give 20 to 40 ml of colostrum every hour until it has consumed 150 ml. This takes a lot of patience and TLC (To be honest my wife is better at tubing animals than I am). Inexperienced staff should meet with your vet for a coaching session. The tube must end up in the right place: the rumen. A misplaced tube could go into the lungs; this is where the coaching session with the vet will really help. Lastly we want to make sure we have a warm safe place for the fawn. They will most likely need a supplemental heat lamp. Make sure the lamp is high enough so the fawn cannot hit it but low enough to provide warmth. Be sure to consider stall size and wattage of bulb.

It’s important to take a strategic approach to hand feeding. Hand raised fawns are more docile and less afraid of people. Many breeder operations that use artificial insemination prefer to hand raise does because it doesn’t stress them as much to work them. In addition, having a few hand raised does in a herd can help calm others in the herd – and that can be handy if animals need to change pens. Conversely, hand raised bucks can be a problem. They lose their natural fear of people. During the rut a fully antlered buck may actually become more aggressive towards people in a pen situation. While the bucks are still immature you need to have a plan on how to deal with hand raised bucks. Safety of family and employees needs to be a top priority.

Next Stage Nourishment
Once past the colostrum stage, offer milk replacer or whole milk. High quality milk replacer can lead to very good results. Whole milk sources rank the same as colostrums sources. Deer milk is on average 8.9% fat and 8.2% protein, compare this to sheep that which is 7.6% fat and 4.2% protein, goat which is 4.5% fat and 3.3% protein and cow that is 3.9% fat and 3.1% protein and it’s obvious that deer milk is different. It’s important to look for a milk replacer made for deer and not one made for another ruminant. Most milk replacers for lambs, kids and calves are somewhere in the 20 to 25% protein range and 18 to 22 % fat. When you mix them into solution you end up with a 4 % fat liquid feed for the animal. Fawn milk replacers should be higher than this to get liquid feeds at the fat and protein levels similar to deer milk. Look for fawn milk replacers in the 30 -35% protein range and 30 to 35% fat range. Fawn milk replacer should also contain some type of medication or direct fed microbial to prevent scours. If feeding whole milk, consider adding a direct fed microbial for scours control.  Read the tag on your milk replacer but in general fawns are fed every 3 to 4 hours in the first and second week and then less often from there. The stomach on the fawn is so small that it’s important to keep to a schedule like this. The other important item here is to keep all milk handling equipment and bottles clean. Bacteria love milk replacer and whole milk; everything must be cleaned after every feeding.

Offer fawn starter feed when the fawn is a few days to a week or so old. At first the fawn will just nose it around but over time it’ll start to eat. Eating starter feed very important to rumen development. Remember that a ruminant animal has a 4-part stomach. The parts are: reticulum, rumen, omasum, and abomasum. The big players here are rumen and abomasum. The abomasum is the gastric stomach like people have. In the adult deer it may be 10% or so of this group of organs. By comparison, the rumen which is the fermentation vat holds the vast majority of the digesta, or food being digested.  In a fawn the abomasum makes up 50% or more of this group of organs. The rumen is much smaller than in the adult and is relatively undeveloped.  If you think about this, when a fawn is born it is really not a ruminant like its’ parents. It’s more like a baby pig in nutritional terms.   Using this approach, the nutrition program during the first month or two of the fawns’ life should help develop the rumen as well as provide nutrition for growth of the fawn. It takes the right blend of starch, sugar and digestible fiber to stimulate growth of the rumen wall and drive intake of feed. It’s important to also provide enough metabolizable energy and protein (amino acids) to drive growth of the body.  To address these needs a good starter feed should contain 20% crude protein, 4.5% or more fat, and crude fiber at 10% or higher. Be sure to ask about type of fiber though, because all fiber is not equal. Digestible fiber is the key. High quality starter feeds will contain vitamins A, D and E and B vitamin fortification. Direct fed microbials are often added to starter diets to help with rumen development and reduce incidence of scours. 

End the Fawning Season…With Nutrition
Typically fawns are weaned at 10 to 12 weeks of age. The key to weaning is good starter intake. Fawns are ready to wean when they’re eating the starter well. The stress of weaning is reduced because their systems are already accustomed to eating dry feed. Fawns should be eating 2% or more of their body weight as starter feed at weaning. Once they’ve reached this threshold it should be a manageable transition.
When it comes right down to it, nutrition isn’t a seasonal topic. The quality of a feeding program impacts herd health year round but it’s most obvious in the newest members. It takes a vigilant eye, the patience of a saint, a good bit of elbow grease and a solid starter feed to make the most of this spring’s fawn crop.  

Bobby Deeds
Wildlife Specialist