Winter Rye Food Plots Can Be a Lifesaver for Northern Deer

June 12, 2024 By: Ryan Rothstein

“Here comes another one,” my dad whispered. “That’s got to be over a dozen already, they’re coming out like ants!” 

We were tucked in a box blind overlooking a food plot, hoping that a gobbler or two would come down with a case of mid-April lovesickness. Trouble is, we couldn’t take our eyes off all the deer that kept streaming into the emerald field. By sundown, we’d seen over 20 deer in the food plot, and bumped another dozen or more out of other plots on our walk back to the truck. There was only one thing that could’ve pulled in deer with that kind of magnetism in mid-April in central Minnesota – cereal rye. 

Often an afterthought for a food plot crop, cereal rye (Secale cereale), sometimes called winter rye, has become a literal lifesaver for my local whitetails. 

Winter’s Impact on Whitetails

Here in the Upper Midwest, Old Man Winter has a bad habit of sucker-punching whitetails, sometimes two or more years in a row. For my friends in more southerly regions, when I’m talking severe winter, I’m talking numerous week-long (or worse) stretches of below-zero temperatures, 15 or more inches of snow on the ground for long periods of time, or some miserable combination thereof. In other words, some brutal living conditions for just about any critter. 

Long stretches of severe winter weather and deep snow can make things tough for northern deer, as seen in this trail-camera photo from the author’s hunting land in central Minnesota.

When we get smacked with severe winter for two consecutive years, it can cut the deer herd anywhere from 20 to 60%, with rut-depleted mature bucks and undersized fawns the first victims. In points north of me, that mortality figure can be even higher.

Just as South Texas deer managers are always preparing with the next drought in mind, deer managers in the northern Plains and Great Lakes states need to manage with the next severe winter at hand. This makes it paramount to prioritize habitat management to ensure a suitable supply of browse is available each year. 

Though many land managers and deer hunters default to food plots alone to fill this gap, that can be a fatal mistake in the Great White North. Food plots are only as good as the deer herd’s ability to reach them, and two feet of snow with a crust on top is a surefire way to have starving deer if food plots are your only tool in the box. That’s where native woody browse becomes critical to getting deer through the depths of winter.  

Build Winter Browse First

Native shrubs and young, regenerating woody browse such as aspen are the work horse that will see deer through the worst of a northern winter. Provided that browse management has been a priority and deer numbers have been kept in balance with the habitat, most northern herds can get through most winters with relatively little mortality. 

However, the one time when native vegetation falls short is that period just after snowmelt. In the northern latitudes, there is typically a gap of a month or more after winter breaks where native vegetation is still mostly lying dormant, providing scant nutrition for the local herd. Though seeming counterintuitive on the surface, around this period is when many deer finally succumb to winter’s toll. 

Whitetails are essentially running a negative energy balance throughout the winter due to the lack of available nutrition and the fibrous, low-quality browse diet they subsist on. Particularly in years when winter overstays its welcome, this negative energy balance starts to reach critical levels by late March or early April. Even if the snow finally breaks around April Fool’s Day, deer still need to survive for another month off little more than woody browse. For some deer, by then it’s already too late, and they won’t recover from such a long period of running on an energy deficit. 

This end-of-winter gap is the one area where food plots can trump native forage, and where cereal rye shines, giving definition to the term “enhanced nutrition.” 

Strengths of Cereal Rye in the North

Of all cereal rye’s many positive qualities as a crop, perhaps the most important for a northern deer manager is the impressive tap root that plumbs down multiple feet into the soil. It’s this tap root and the vast network of smaller, lateral branching roots that allows cereal rye to go dormant as temperatures dip below freezing and begin growing almost immediately when the sun shines and mercury climbs over freezing again. 

The importance of cereal rye’s cold tolerance cannot be overstated. It’s this ability to simply lie in wait during a harsh northern winter and emerge almost immediately upon snow melt that makes cereal rye an absolutely indispensable component of a northern deer manager’s food plot toolbox. 

Where normally deer may still be scrounging through low-quality browse for a month until the native vegetation wakes up, deer with access to cereal rye are munching on a food source that can produce 15 to 25% crude protein within a week of snowmelt. This can be the turning point where a deer herd goes from running a negative energy balance back to taking in more calories than they’re burning. 

This trail-camera photo from the author’s Minnesota hunting land shows deer feeding in a rye food plot in March, just after snowmelt and as the rye is coming out of winter dormancy and growing again.

I’m banking on sound habitat management to provide my local herd with a buffet of highly palatable, desirable native forage during the growing season, utilizing brassica-based food plots to aid deer in bulking up during the fall months and getting through the rut, and making sure to conduct some browse management at least every other winter to keep deer fed through the winter months. Incorporating cereal rye into my fall plots puts an exclamation point on that gap between winter and spring to kickstart their growing season. 

Over the past five years, even with a couple horrendous winters in the mix, I have noticed exceptional body weights, body condition scores, antler scores, and fawn production across age classes among the deer we’ve harvested. Though I can’t point to a single management tactic as the defining factor, I’m willing to bet it’s all playing a role, and watching whitetails pile into the food plots to chow on cereal rye with gusto during turkey season is all the proof I need to let me know that rye is making a difference. 

What about winter wheat? Rye has a slight advantage over wheat for cold tolerance. Also, rye produces significantly taller and denser cover when it matures and goes to seed in spring, which provides additional fawning cover.

Rye Food Plot Strategies

So, what’s the best strategy to begin using cereal rye? That’s another beautiful thing about this crop – there isn’t a magic bullet for growing it. That same root structure I mentioned before is also why cereal rye is incredibly drought tolerant and can grow seemingly anywhere. I’ve seen and heard stories of cereal rye growing everywhere from a crack in the sidewalk to the bed of a truck. 

Like any of the cereal grains, rye can be planted as a stand-alone crop, or it can incorporated into blends of other cool-season annuals and perennials. You’ll find detailed guidance on planting rates, blends, and other planting guidelines in this article.

Winter rye emerging in a blend with daikon radish. One mixture that works well in the northern U.S. is 50 lbs./acre of rye plus 2 to 4 lbs./acre of a brassica like rape, kale, turnips or radishes.

I generally try to plant my cool-season annual blends sometime in mid- to late-July here in central Minnesota. For those near the Canadian border, I’d suggest moving that seeding date up to early July. For those in the mid-latitude states from Nebraska to Ohio, I’d probably bump that back to early August. 

I have also had success by borrowing a page from the playbook of the regenerative ag community and broadcasting rye into established corn or soybeans. When seeding into corn, I like to broadcast cereal rye at a rate of about 100 lbs./acre when the corn is approximately knee-high. To sweeten the pot, I also like to add daikon or tillage radish at a rate of 5 to 7 lbs./acre (These are a bit higher than normal rates, but I bump them up to compensate for reduced germination as a result of broadcasting into a standing crop and the reduced amount of sunlight hitting the ground). This is straight out of the regenerative ag playbook. When a farmer in my region is planting cover crops into silage corn, this is almost exactly the recipe, and it works wonders for food plots. 

Rye emerging in a young stand of corn. The author broadcasts rye into corn when it is about knee high. When the corn matures and dies back, the rye will be ready to take advantage of the sunlight.

Soybeans can be a bit more challenging, but my results have certainly been encouraging enough to continue adding rye. I like to wait until around Labor Day, and then I’ll broadcast cereal rye at about 100 lbs./acre. This timing seems to work well, as soybean leaves will start to brown and die shortly thereafter, allowing the rye some space to grow. One word of caution with soybeans – you will notice fewer hunting season benefits to rye seeding into beans compared to other forages, but the spring benefits in northern latitudes still make it more than worth the modest cost. 

Regardless of the planting strategy you use, remember to consider your weed-control needs in deciding what you plant where, and how you choose to blend cereal grains with broadleaf crops. Also remember to rotate fields and avoid planting the same species in the same plots in consecutive years to ensure maximum crop production.

Production and Attraction

Regarding cost, compared to nearly any other food plot crop, cereal rye simply can’t be beat. According to my records, I spent about $16 per 50 lb. bag of cereal rye in 2023. Considering rye doesn’t complain about pH or soil amendments and still manages to produce 7,000 lbs./acre in dry weight, I’d be hard pressed to find a more economical food plot option acre over acre. 

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention cereal rye’s ability to draw deer during hunting season. There’s just no denying that the tender, green leaves of cereal rye, winter wheat, and other grains draw whitetails in the fall. In fact, I’ve seen whitetails go out of their way to mosey into a corn plot in October that had cereal rye growing between the rows and nibble on that, completely ignoring the ripe corn cobs next to their heads. 

Ryan Rothstein with a Minnesota buck he arrowed in a food plot. The buck had a mouthful or rye when Ryan recovered him.

Whitetails on Rye

The last buck I killed in Minnesota was a 4½-year-old 8-point. I kept tabs on this buck through the early season and knew it was a matter of time before I flung an arrow at him. This buck was a daytime regular on a soybean plot, and I knew he must be bedding nearby. I set up on him twice only for him to come out on the green field about 200 yards away.

After realizing he’d abandoned the soybeans for the green fields of brassicas, clover, and cereal grains, I adjusted and made sure to be positioned over the most likely green field the very next time I had a northwest wind. I was in luck – within two days, a cold front swept in with northwest winds, priming things for a sit to go after him. Making sure to be in place extra early, the sit was passing with virtually no deer movement. No sooner had I started to get down on my luck than I heard the slow, steady crunch of leaves that can only be an older buck cautiously picking his way through the woods. 

As he came level with the food plot, I drew back and waited for him to clear the final trees. Entering the plot, he lowered his head to start feeding, and I drew one last breath before releasing my arrow. The shot flew true, and I knew I would have a short blood trail. 

After watching the buck crash, I gave him a good half hour or more before climbing down. When I walked up to the buck, I could see right away he had some green clinging to the corner of his mouth. Looking closer, I realized the buck died with cereal rye still in his mouth. 

That was all the proof I needed to keep including cereal rye as a major part of my food plot management. If you haven’t given cereal rye a shot, particularly in the northern latitudes, give it a whirl this season. It’s beyond easy to grow, and you might just be amazed at its ability to draw deer in for hunting opportunities.

About Ryan Rothstein:

Ryan Rothstein is a diehard deer hunter, biologist, and habitat manager hailing from central Minnesota. A longtime NDA member, Ryan received his Master's degree from the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute studying whitetails in South Texas. He then moved back home to Minnesota where he works as a biologist and land manager. When he's not chasing whitetails, you can find him scouting new public land or working on habitat management projects for the upcoming deer season