As impressive as cereal rye is at building soils, it’s equally impressive as a deer feeder. Planted in late summer or early fall, it offers a pretty darn stable 15% protein until it kicks into grain production the following summer. That’s not bad at all.
Better still, it’s how cold-friendly cereal rye is that nudges it over the line. That same deep and comparatively expansive root system that is so fantastic at building OM also allows the plants to go dormant when the temperatures dip below freezing. When the temps rise and the soil thaws, the plants return to growth mode until they mature.
The importance of that can’t be stressed enough on quite a few levels. For those who experience intermittent winter thaws, you can often get new growth spurts while almost all of the other plant life is still dormant.
For as great as that can be during the winter, it’s really in the spring when cereal rye’s ability to jump to life can be worth its weight in deer-saving gold. That late winter, early spring period also happens to be when bucks and does need highly digestible protein the most due to growing antlers and fawns.
Those who live in areas experiencing legitimate winters tend to stress how hard the winters are on deer, and for a good reason. Whitetails in regions with harsh winters typically run negative energy balances all winter. That means it takes them more calories to live than they can derive from their comparatively poor-quality winter food sources.
Here’s the rub, though. For as hard as winter can be on deer, it’s very often the period between thaws and eventual spring green-up that can be the true kiss of death to struggling whitetails. Those two- to four-week periods between snow melt and spring green up are great for not having to walk through snow, but sticks, buds, dead grasses, and weeds are still negative energy balance foods for deer. That delay before spring green-up is the final straw for many “winter-killed” deer.
Cereal rye plantings nearly eliminate that stretch. Rather than talking weeks to more than a month before kicking back to life, cereal rye is talking days. Having a 15% protein, easily digestible food source within days of the thaw, as opposed to weeks or more, can be a huge deal, in addition to all those feeding windows during winter thaws. Cereal rye can be a deer’s best friend when it experiences a tough winter.
As a bonus, deer don’t wait until winter to feed heavily on it. Although deer will feed on it from its emergence, it’s a prime midseason draw for deer feeding.
Deer like greens for many different reasons — one of which is that a diversity of food helps their stomach biology break down other foods. That’s likely why cereal rye starts getting hot as other greens mature and die. Regardless of the reason, by mid-October, expect cereal rye plots to start heating up sooner if one travels north and a bit later as one goes south.
From then on, expect cereal rye to draw as well as corn, beans, brassicas, or just about any other excellent food plot plantings. Sure, one day, they’ll want beans more than anything else, and another day corn or brassicas, but cereal rye will hold its own with all of them. As a bonus, it grows more when over-browsed, unlike those other popular plantings