Cereal grains are one of the best types of forages you can plant in late summer to help wildlife. Oats, rye and wheat as soon as they reach a few inches tall will be attractive to deer, while brassicas (discussed last week) will often be more appealing after frosts convert starches in the plants into sugars. That gives a window of up to a month or so where cereal grains will be your go-to plants for nourishing and drawing in deer before the brassicas become sweeter and more appealing and the focus shifts to them.
Then later, after the brassicas get eaten down, deer will switch their attention back to the oats, wheat, and rye from mid-winter into early spring. Those crops will continue to produce new green forage right into March and April, when perennial clovers and alfalfa come on strong.
Prepare the soil just as you did for brassicas, then consider these four major cereal grains for planting in the Shenandoah Valley over the next few weeks.
Rye — Rye is popular with novices because it is very easy to plant. Simply spread it out on a tilled plot and you’ll have a green field that will attract deer. Disking it in lightly about 1/4 inch is better still, and light cultipacking will help it germinate best.
Cereal rye — Cereal rye has good cold tolerance, but its protein level is modest, at 10-15 percent. It also doesn’t have as much taste appeal to deer as the other grains. You can solve this problem by mixing in annual clovers, which also add nitrogen to the soil, and improves the plot’s overall palatability to deer.
Oats — Oats are the second major cereal grain to consider and in most cases a better choice than rye. These plants originated in Turkey, Iraq and Europe thousands of years ago. They produce forage quickly and have higher protein content than rye, in the 15-25 percent range.
As a rule, whitetails also prefer the taste of oats over rye. Biologic’s Trophy Oats are excellent as are those offered by the Whitetail Institute. These contain early-maturing varieties and cold-tolerant species in the mix so they’ll perform well from August through winter.
Oats are most attractive when they just emerge to a height of about 6 inches. After that they often get too tall and tough to interest deer.
If you don’t have enough deer to keep oats eaten down into the 3-5 inch range, cut the field back with a mower to this height. New tender growth will emerge and deer will feed heavily on it. Mixing with clover can also help improve the taste appeal of oats while distributing browsing pressure.
Wheat — This is another good cereal grain for fall plantings, with 12-20 percent protein and a taste deer relish. I, too, comes back strong after grazing. Both oats and wheat can be planted slightly deeper than rye — a half to one inch. Broadcast and disk the seed to that depth, then pack the ground lightly for good seed-to-soil contact and germination.
Wheat can survive the coldest temperatures throughout most of the U.S. and Canada. As with oats, if you don’t have enough deer to keep it at the optimum 3-5 inch height, mow it down periodically and it will regrow fresh tasty shoots.
Triticale — First developed in laboratories in Sweden and Scotland around 1875, this cereal grain is a hybrid combination of rye and wheat. It was created to blend the yield potential of wheat with the vigor and disease tolerance of rye. It succeeded admirably in that and has a high yield, good protein content, and excellent digestibility.
Triticale works in lower pH soils than wheat and will tolerate cold better. Planting techniques are the same as for rye. Triticale is great for a stand-alone crop, but it also performs well in mixtures with clover or brassicas.
Monitor your plots to determine which ones attract the most deer and when they reach peak production. With these insights, you can then make adjustments in future years to get the ultimate combination of brassicas and grains to see deer through one of their most difficult and stressful times — fall through early spring.
With this one-two punch of brassicas and cereal grains, plus native foods, you’ll keep the deer well-nourished and content.