With each passing year, I feel like Father Time passes by me more than he ever did before, and certainly more swiftly than I prefer. It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I planted my warm season food plots. The fact is it was 18 weeks ago. Unbelievably to me, in just a couple of weeks, it will be August. Late August is the genesis for planning and sowing many winter-hardy (aka cool-season) seeds including the most popular plants -- cereal grains, brassicas, chicory, winter-hardy clovers, etc. I will include some terrific winter-tolerant clovers later in this piece.
The Big 5 Winter-Hardy Small Grains
Over the last three decades of planting a wide diversity of wildlife food plots, my failures and successes have schooled me well. When it comes to planting crops that will draw deer into food plots throughout the entire deer season (from October to January) it is almost impossible to beat the winter-hardy varieties of small grains. When it is too late or cold to plant anything else winter-hardy grains, especially rye, make ideal late fall food plots. In my order of preference that includes the winter varieties of cereal rye, triticale, oats, wheat, and barley (Don’t confuse winter rye with ryegrass).
Winter cereal rye is a top choice. It is the coldest tolerant cereal grain planted for deer and other wildlife in the United States. Without question, rye is more cold-tolerant than the other four grains. Deer eat rye’s tender, nutritious foliage heavily soon after it sprouts (it contains 15 to 25% protein).
Rye is considered a “very reliable cover crop” by many research universities, farmers, food plot authorities and enthusiasts. During the fall and winter, cereal rye protects the soil, scavenges soil-N, and acts as a nurse crop for the legumes. In spring, rye provides structural support for the climbing legumes. Spring crops can be turned over as cover crops into the soil to provide organic matter and nutrients. Some nurse/cover crops include rapeseed, vetches, clovers, beans, peas, wheat, buckwheat, and even triticale. I have found grains, particularly rye, ideal to plant as cover/nurse crops.
It’s hard to beat the virtues of winter cereal rye. It contributes nutrition to the soil, lowers soil erosion, and improves water penetration and retention. One of rye’s most valuable assets, however, is it can be used to control weed biomass by reducing weeds from 50 to 95%! The seed is inexpensive -- generally less than $20.00 for a 56-pound bag. Winter Rye is planted mostly in late August to mid-September in the North and October in the South.
When planting rye or any of the other four grains I commonly plant them with a mix of clovers and other legumes. One of my most successful rye plantings was 30 ppa of winter rye, 30 ppa of triticale, 7 ppa of winter- hardy marathon red clover, 5 ppa of winter hardy white clover and 2 ppa of chicory. This mix not only adds excellent palatability, protein, and production value to the mix, the legumes make perfect companion plants for the rye by adding nitrogen in the soil which also aids the rye. Not only do deer eat the rye and clover enthusiastically from fall and into winter, the following spring, a rye crop will reappear as a jammed-packed plot of lush clover. Deer flock to it during green-up for much needed spring nutrients. When planted alone use 90 to 120 pounds per acre (ppa) of winter rye. In a mix broadcast no more than 55 to 60 ppa of rye.
A fascinating and helpful element about cereal rye is its “allelopathic” effects. Cereal rye produces several chemical compounds in its tissues that release root exudations that seemingly inhibit germination and growth of weed seeds. These allelopathic effects, together with cereal rye's ability to smother other plants with cool weather growth, make it an ideal choice for weed control.
When planting oats as a cool-season crop as a mix with rye or alone, only use the winter-hardy varieties. They include Buck Forage Oats, Imperial Whitetail Forage Oats Plus, Arctic Forage Winter Oats, Buck Magnet Oats, and other cold-season oats. Oats are a favorite planting for deer. They are excellent as a companion plant as well. Be careful, however, spring oats won’t work well as a fall crop.
The remaining winter grains include triticale, wheat, and barley. Wheat is the most winter-hardy of the three. It will attract deer into January. Triticale will attract deer into December. Barley is the least winter-hardy of the small grains. It is susceptible to winter kill earlier than the other grains. They can all be planted with clovers or other legumes and other grains. Triticale is a hybrid of winter-wheat and winter rye. It runs an awfully close second as my favorite winter-hardy grain. Triticale is higher in protein (20 to 25%) than winter wheat at 15 to 25% protein. If you are looking for extreme winter-hardiness, rye and wheat will provide the best longevity of the five small grains.
The grains are easy-peasy to grow and somewhat inexpensive. The seeds should be planted about 1 to 1.5 inches deep. After planting, compact the seed to help make good seed to soil contact. All grains prefer a pH level of 6.0 to 6.5. They will all benefit by fertilizing them at planting with 300 to 350 ppa of T-19 (19-19-19).
By the way, winter-hardy grains are not only my (The Deer Doctor) top favorite winter-hardy planting (and nurse/cover crops) they are also highly prized by other in-the-know food plot authorities including Dr. Higginbotham, an AgriLife Extension Wildlife Specialist, Bob Coine of Whitetail Paradise, Steve Bartylla of Deer and Deer Hunting TV, J. Wayne Fears the Food Plot Dr., Tom Indrebo of Bluff Country Outfitters, Gerald Almy, full-time outdoor-writer, food plot author Josh Honeycutt, and many of the well-known food plot experts and seed companies. Plant winter-hardy grains and deer will come when you want to see them the most – during the daylight hours of hunting season!
The Big 5 Winter-Hardy Brassicas
The family of brassicas are well-known for being winter-hardy plantings. My favorite big-5 brassicas in order of preference include forage rape, canola, kale, turnips, and radish. They will attract deer into December and longer. With that said, however, they do not, at least for me, outperform the winter-hardy grains. If you have enough land to plant, though, they are definitely worth planting.
Most brassicas provide high levels of protein. They can be seeded in August at a depth of 1/8 to ¼ inches. Their tiny seeds can also be top-seeded as long as they are compacted to make good seed to soil contact. Brassicas, like the grains, can be fertilized at planting with 300 to 350 ppa of T-19. Most brassicas require a top dressing 30-days later of an additional fertilizer like 34-0-0. Brassicas like a pH of 5.8 to 6.5. Be careful not to over seed brassicas. They will not perform up to par when they are over seeded. The crop will be spindly at best and can fail from not following the ppa that the seed manufacturer recommends.
The Big 5 Winter-Hardy Clovers
It is not commonly known that some clovers are classified as winter-hardy. In fact, a few clovers are categorized as “extremely winter-hardy” and can tolerate temperatures “below zero degrees F.” My five most preferred extreme winter-hardy clovers include FIXatioN Balansa which is winter-hardy down to -14˚F. It is the most tolerant winter-hardy of all clovers. Another extreme winter-hardy clover is Frosty Berseem. It will tolerate temperatures down to -10°F. Kura and Alice clover come in as my 3rd and 4th choices, respectively. They withstand temperatures from zero to 5°F. is Alsike clover extends deer grazing into November, but usually winter kills when temperatures are below 20˚F for extended periods of time. All these clovers can be planted alone or mixed with one another. They could be sown in spring. But when planted as a hunting plot, it would be better when sown in late July or early August, particularly just before a predicted rainfall. Fertilize them all with T-19 at planting. The pH levels should be 6.0 to 7.0, with 6.5 being ideal.
If you have questions about winter-hardy plantings or any other deer-related questions, email me at email@example.com. Last month I finished my latest book – “The Definitive Guide to Planting Wildlife Food Plots – Plant it Right and They Will Come”! It is scheduled to be published in early spring of 2022. Keep an eye out for it. It is a simple-to-apply, how-to book on Food Plot planting with more than 400 full color photos and is jammed packed with the latest food plot planting information. You can reserve your copy by ordering it in December. Pre-orders save 15% off the retail price. It will make a terrific Christmas gift to ask your spouse for. We’ll send along a gift certificate to give and ship the book as soon as it is printed.