Whitetails 365: Overseeding Grain Plots
By Tom Peplinski
For the past 30 years or so, I’ve always tried to plant some sort of grain food plot. It has always been my experience that when late season hits, deer will navigate toward standing grain food sources if available. If none are available, then just about any food plot they can get at will also draw them in. But with the popularity of hunters now putting in food plots, I don’t want to get caught heading into a late season muzzleloader hunt without standing grains.
There are challenges small food plotters have when putting in grain plots and hoping for a grain yield to hunt over. Over-browsing is a big one, where deer will eat down a soybean or corn plot preventing it from ever getting to the point where it can produce a yield. I’ve also seen racoon decimate a corn plot in the milk stage in just a week. Then there’s that drought factor we see every decade or so. There are mitigating things we can do to prevent this but none are bullet proof. I have a friend who irrigates his grain plots from a small pond…that’s one solution though not practical for most plotters. I electric fence my grain plots which works great for over-browsing but does nothing for drought and very little for a herd of racoons!
With creative ways like irrigation and electric fencing on our side, you’d think that we would never have a failed grain plot. It still happens. But the good news is that failed grain plots can still be rescued before hunting season. And more so, even soybean and corn plots that are successful going into fall can still be optimized, (for lack of a better term), so that you produce even more food for deer to eat. And, it doesn’t end there!
I’m talking about over-seeding and cover crops for food plotters. It’s something I’ve been doing for quite some time and yet I feel I am still learning. But with over-seeding, food plotters are now able to take an existing grain food plot and keep it green going into the fall hunting season. Just as our grain plots are starting to end their life cycle and dry down, our over-seeded plants are taking off and providing a green source of food within the drying grains. It’s a perfect scenario where deer have both grain and greens in the same plot. It maximizes a small parcel and a hunter’s ability to provide a ton of food with limited acres.
My favorite and easiest way of over-seeding is to simply broadcast winter rye right over the top of standing soybeans just as they begin to yellow. If possible, I’ll time this with a rain, but it’s not necessary. With adequate ground moisture, the rye will swell and sprout within a day or two. More likely, the rye will simply sit on top the ground until the next rain, then swell and sprout within a couple days. It is the easy way to keep a yellowing soybean plot green. By the time the beans have lost all of their leaves, the rye is filling in nicely providing a green source of food within the soybean grains.
I can do the same thing with my drying down corn. As it starts to mature and yellow in late summer, I can over-seed with winter rye. The harder part in standing corn is that the only good way to do the over-seeding is to walk down the rows running a hand spreader. With 30” rows, it can sometimes be a real pain with all the stalks and leaves smacking you in the face as you try to broadcast the seed. And, making matters worse, in my corn that is simply broadcast, it can be like walking through a maze of sorts with my hand spreader. This last year I tried running my Polaris Ranger right through the corn with my broadcast spreader and it worked great to spread the seed…but I did of course, knock down a lot of the corn. Using either method, I still ended up with a grain food plot filled in with greens. In both soybeans and corn I’ll over-seed at a rate of 100 to 300 pounds of winter rye to the acre.
I’ve also tried over-seeding different types of plants into my grain plots but haven’t had the success I’ve seen with winter rye. Brassicas seemed like a good option but the plants never took very well for me. Two years ago, I tried over-seeding clover into half of one of my bean plots. There was a lack of moisture that fall, and by the time it rained well enough to sprout the clover, their slow establishment meant very little green food. At the same time, the other half of the plot I had over-seeded with winter rye was lush and green. Other than winter rye, (or winter wheat), the only other success I’ve had in trying to establish greens into grains is with slight tillage. The tillage however, does destroy some of the grain crops making it less than ideal. I have witnessed, (although not done myself), pretty good results no-till drilling all sorts of seed varieties into standing soybeans. I don’t personally have a no-till drill and the cost of buying one for food plots has so far kept me away from this option.
The following spring, my winter rye over-seeding will act as a carry over crop, (or cover crop), and will explode into growth as soon as it begins to warm up. Deer will hammer the winter rye in spring because it is the only thing green at first. By May, the winter rye will be a foot tall, and by the end of May it will be five to six feet tall if left unchecked. You have many options for dealing with the rye in the spring. You can terminate with herbicides, (glyphosate), tillage, or plant right into the standing rye cover crop and terminate later.
I’ve done all three methods. I have some soybean plots going on 10 years cover cropping with over-seeded winter rye. This cycle of soybean, (over-seeded with winter rye in fall), then planted to soybeans the following spring is still going and the beans look good every year.
Some final points: When I use cover crops like winter rye, my weed control is superb compared to just herbicides alone. And, I see little to no erosion from wind or rain, no standing water, and those plots are much better producers during heavy rains or drought like conditions. In some ways, it’s been a game changer for me!