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How to Grow a Food Plot Free of Weeds and Grasses

Cereal Rye

Nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, is more frustrating or easy when trying to transform an old overgrown piece of dirt into a high quality food plot. With more than 35 years of food plot experience, I have gone through all the pitfalls and challenges associated with starting with a piece of bare ground strangled with evil weeds and grasses and making it into a successful food plot. For any food plotter who has been genuinely frustrated about food plots being overtaken by weeds and grasses, there is a simple and highly effective way to end your disappointment.

The first and most important step is to evaluate your soil by getting a soil test. The results will alert you to how much lime and fertilizer is needed to improve the soil. Weeds sap the fertility from fertile ground. So, get a soil test in order to know how to improve its fertility. Secondly, when creating a new plot, particularly one that has been clogged by bunch grasses and weeds, don’t disc the soil deeply--it will create more weeds to emerge. Instead, disc the top two to three inches of soil repeatedly until you have broken up all the clumps of dirt into a finer texture. I rarely disc deeper than a couple of inches in order to avoid disturbing the weed bed (weed seeds) which helps them to germinate and quickly overtake your food plot plantings.

One of the most important elements to converting an overgrown piece of dirt and making it a top-notch food plot is to make sure the soil is worked well in order to provide good soil to seed contact of what you plant. Assuming you have turned an old fallow piece of ground into a workable plot of soil, what is the best seed you can use to assure the plot’s success? While there are many choices, I can tell you from my decades of experience of planting successful food plots – an absolute top-shelf choice is cereal grain rye.

Rye, aka Secale cereale, is a cool-season bunchgrass. It is by far the most popular of all the small grains for deer including wheat, barley, grain sorghum, and triticale. It is also the most tolerant cereal grain used for wildlife plantings in the entire country. Rye also is tolerant of low fertility and acidic soil more so than the other grains. Rye reaches heights of 2 to 5 feet. Deer love to eat the tender, nutritious foliage which contains 10 to 25 percent protein.

A crucial element to planting rye is that it can play a major role in helping to effectively reduce weeds. There has been evidence that strongly supports that rye can be used for weed control since residues of fall-planted, spring-killed rye reduces total weed biomass by 60 to 95 percent when compared to controls with no residue. Rye residues actually modify the physical and chemical environment during seed germination and plant growth.

While rye can be planted in early spring, I have had excellent success planting it once the soil warms up. Like corn, it does best when the soil temperatures reach 60 degrees or above. I have had excellent success planting rye in June. Unlike most annuals, rye won’t be killed by frost or cold temperatures; it simply goes dormant, only to emerge again in spring, quickly overtaking the emerging weeds and shading them out. Rye also has a deep root system which helps to break up the compact subsoil which, in turn, increases the soil’s organic matter. Fall planted rye works exceeding well, too. When it is too late and too cold to plant anything else, rye is an ideal late fall planting.

I generally plant cereal rye as a stand-alone crop. With that said, however, I have planted some of my rye food plots in mixes. Sometimes I plant cereal rye with clovers and other times with a mix of clovers and other grains. A popular mix is rye (30 lbs./acre), wheat (30 lbs./acre), Renovation White clover (5 lbs./acre) and Marathon Red clover (6 lbs./acre).

Like all small grains, rye will do best and produce the most forage and seed production when the soil is properly limed and fertilized. Rye prefers a pH level of 6.0 and higher. Rye can be fertilized by putting down 300 to 350 lbs./acre of T-19 (19-19-19).

Rye is an easy plant to grow. It will germinate quickly (shading out weeds), provide high protein levels, and it is inexpensive to buy. Generally, a 50 lb., bag is less than $20.

Overview of Rye

Seeding Rates: Broadcast alone at 100 to 140 pounds per acre. When rye is planted using a drill use half that amount. When planted in a mix using other grains and clovers reduce the rye to about 30 to 50 pounds per acre.

pH Level: Rye prefers a pH of 6.0 or higher but will even tolerate some acidic soils of 5.8 to 5.9.

Fertilizer: At planting use 300 to 400 lbs/acre of 19-19-19 (aka T-19).

Planting Time: In the North Rye can be planted from spring to June, or fall.

Seed Depth: Rye should be planted one inch below the surface.

Compact Soil: Like all seeds, rye does best when there is good seed to soil contact.

Emergence: Germinates quickly, usually in several days.

CAUTION: Don’t confuse grain rye (aka Secale cereale) with perennial ryegrass.

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