John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
This week’s column deals with a response I received to my Feb. 14 Sunday Gazette-Mail feature titled “Popping the corn myth,” which revealed how corn fed to deer could contain aflatoxin, a substance deadly to deer, turkeys and other creatures.
At the end of last week’s column, I mentioned that someone had called to complain about information contained in the Feb. 14 feature, “Popping the corn myth.”
The caller – a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture – said Curtis Taylor of the DNR was wrong when he claimed the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires corn with aflatoxin levels too high for human or livestock consumption to be labeled “deer corn.”
“You can bet it’s labeled that way because the aflatoxin levels are so high it can’t be used for anything else,” Taylor said.
“That statement is categorically false,” said WVDA spokesman Buddy Davidson. “There’s no such requirement, either at the state or federal level.”
As it turns out, Davidson was right. No regulation, state or federal, requires corn with high aflatoxin content to be labeled “deer corn.”
Instead, the USDA requires that all corn used in interstate commerce be tested and certified to contain no more than 20 parts per billion of aflatoxin. Further, the USDA requires that corn used to feed immature animals or full-grown dairy cattle contain no more than 20 ppb; that corn used for breeding animals or full-grown poultry contain no more than 100 ppb; that corn used to fatten hogs for slaughter contain no more than 200 ppb; and that corn used to fatten cattle for slaughter contain no more than 300 ppb.
Note the distinctions. Aflatoxin, a toxic substance secreted by a common corn mold, is known to cause cancer and to cause liver damage. That’s why the USDA only allows high-aflatoxin corn to be fed to animals that will be killed soon anyway.
Davidson told me that all corn sold in stores had to be labeled as containing less than 20 parts ppb. He also said WVDA officials had conducted 129 random tests for aflatoxin during the past two years. He said only one test turned up a reading of more than 10 ppb.
I asked to see the data, and he faxed them to me.
I frankly couldn’t tell what I was looking at. The “data sheets” were hand-scribbled notes on graph paper under the heading “Aflatoxin in feeds.” The data sets didn’t identify the sort of feed being tested, where the feed came from or what its intended use would be.
It was sort of like getting baseball statistics that read, “.327, 44, 127; 12-6, 3.62, 115,” with no indication which batter or pitcher the statistics were for.
So I did some more digging, and when I did I found what could well be the loophole that allows farmers to market high-aflatoxin corn.
“There are quite a few self-bagging operations on farms that sell deer corn,” said Neal Wilkins, who conducted an aflatoxin study for Texas A&M University. Wilkins warned against buying corn that didn’t disclose aflatoxin content on the bag label.
“Only feed that is labeled and tested as suitable for livestock should be used,” he added.
Curious, I drove to 10 stores in the Charleston-Huntington-Point Pleasant area and took note of how they marketed their deer corn.
Only two had products specifically marked “deer corn.” Both had been shipped in from out-of-state producers, and both had labels that certified the aflatoxin content to be less than 20 ppb.
None of the others listed aflatoxin content. Three of the stores got their corn from outside the state. USDA guidelines clearly call for such corn to be tested and labeled. There was no evidence it had been.
The other five stores sold locally bagged corn. Perhaps the corn had been tested and was aflatoxin-free, but there was no information on the label to confirm that. The labels listed carbohydrate and protein levels, but not aflatoxin content.
So where does all this lead?
If I were a property owner who wanted to feed deer, I’d buy only corn certified for use on dairy cattle. I certainly wouldn’t buy corn of unlisted aflatoxin content. I’d keep the corn dry, I’d feed it in small batches to prevent it from getting wet, and I’d supplement the corn with peanuts or some other high-protein item.
Feeding corn by itself to deer is like feeding cotton candy to a kid. It gives a quick burst of energy, but provides no lasting nutritional value. A well-planted wildlife food plot provides much more of what whitetails need than anything that could ever come out of a feeder.
Before researching this column, I didn’t know any of these things. I found them by checking authoritative sources (universities, agricultural agencies, wildlife agencies, etc.) through the Internet and by doing a little legwork of my own.
You can too. The deer on your lands deserve no less.