R. W. Swift and C. E. French started whitetail deer research in 1952, at the request of Roger Latham of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Fawns collected by the PGC were bottle-raised in the early years of the project in chicken wire pens (later adding hog wire, then pine boards) at the Ben Heim farm that adjoined Penn State University property and was under lease to the College of Agriculture. It was learned that the voluntary intake of balanced rations fluctuated drastically with the seasonal hormone changes related to reproductive and antler-growing cycles.

After French resigned in 1958, 24 new pens and a concrete block building to house feed, scales and other equipment were built by Robert L. Cowan and T. A. Long. A new crop of fawns were bottle-raised comparing various milks and milk replacers. The Heim farm lease was dissolved in 1959, and the new pens were dismantled and moved to Penn State, with labor and some fencing provided by PGC. During the 1960s, much of the research focused on relationships between bone metabolism and the endocrine cycles of the male deer. Grants from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) supported this work, enabling the equipping of labs for radioisotope studies on bucks at all ages and stages of antler development. Cowan and E. W. Hartsook received training at the Oak Ridge Center for the use of radioisotopes in biological research. Dr. John George studied the effect of feeding DDT to deer in a second set of 24 pens erected at this site. The 48 pens were surrounded by a number of larger holding paddocks for group-feeding trials and breeding groups of deer.

Construction of the Mt. Nittany Expressway wiped out this facility in 1970-71. A grant of $100,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation provided less than half the cost of relocating the pens to the present location, which opened in 1972. Data from extensive feeding and digestion trials, mostly with deer from the Penn State breeding herd, enabled development of equations relating digestible energy (DE) intake to weight gains or losses of growing deer and to seasonal endocrine-related weight changes. The equations provided a basis for estimating the DE consumed by deer in enclosures of natural habitat, thus measuring carrying capacity of habitat types. They also predicted weight gains in deer identical to those listed for sheep in the current NRC publication, confirming that our knowledge of domestic animal nutrition could have been applied directly to the management of deer.

Author: Robert L. Cowan, Professor of Animal Nutrition