Winter Wheat vs Winter Rye For Deer

Both winter wheat and winter rye are cool season crops that deer love to eat and bed down in.  They can both be planted in the fall to provide a steady food source throughout the winter, so which one is better for deer?

Both crops are great for providing plots that deer love to hang out in, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks.  Winter wheat is a great nutritious cool season food source, but winter rye is hardier and easier to cultivate in most areas within the US.

Why Plant Winter Wheat (Triticum aestivum)?

Winter wheat is an effective crop that can thrive in many different climates and will provide a nutritional food source through the winter and into the spring.  Winter wheat is one of the most popular cool season foods of deer throughout the United States.

Nutritional Benefits Of Winter Wheat

Winter Wheat vs Winter Rye For Deer

Like many cereal grains winter wheat is a great source of protein and fiber for deer.  Crude protein levels can reach as high as 20% as it approaches maturity.  This combination of protein and fiber makes a nutritional meal that is easy to digest which will keep deer interested all winter.

Wheat is also a great source of carbohydrates, which is what deer need for sustained energy during the cold season.  

When Is The Best Time To Plant Winter Wheat?

Winter wheat can successfully be planted anytime in the fall, with the optimal time depending on the climate.  It needs warm daytime temperatures combined with cold nighttime temps to successfully germinate.

In colder and dryer climates it should be planted in early to mid fall, September or October.

In warmer climates with milder winters, it should be planted in mid-fall or early winter, October or November.

How Easily Does Winter Wheat Grow?

Winter wheat is a tenacious cereal grain that is cold-hardy, adapts to many different types of soil, and is semi-tolerant to drought.  It also has an extremely high germination rate, upwards of 80% in most conditions.

Drawbacks Of Winter Wheat

Many varieties of wheat have awns (a long thread-like protrusion from the seed head), which deer don’t seem to prefer compared to awnless winter wheat varieties.  If you decide to plant winter wheat, make sure that it is an awnless variety to increase the chance that deer will feed.

Awnless Varieties Of Winter Wheat

There are plenty of awnless varieties of winter wheat from a multitude of different seed companies, but some popular cultivars of both sportsmen and farmers include:

Why Plant Winter Rye (Secale cereale)?

Winter rye is a great cover crop for deer not only because it provides an excellent food source, but because it also provides an area for deer to bed down in.  Rye is a favorite cuisine among deer, and it thrives in a variety of soils, unlike many other cereal grains.

Mature rye can grow up to five feet tall, making it an ideal crop for deer to bed down in. This means deer will come for a meal and stay to sleep, eliminating the need for deer to migrate to do so.

Nutritional Benefits Of Winter Rye

Winter Wheat vs Winter Rye For Deer

Winter rye makes a healthy food source for deer because it is high in protein and fiber.  Crude protein levels can reach up to 25% as the crop matures.  This makes for a nutritional and easily digestible snack that will keep deer coming back for more.

How Well Does Winter Rye Grow?

Even in poor soil conditions, winter rye will grow faster than other cereal grains, including winter wheat. It germinates quickly, even in acidic soils that don’t necessarily need to be fertilized as heavily as other cereal grains.

It is a much hardier crop than winter wheat as well, meaning it can handle intense grazing pressure from deer, below-freezing temperatures, and drought while still regenerating and providing a food source that lasts all winter.

When Is The Best Time To Plant Winter Rye?

The ideal time to plant winter rye varies depending on what part of the country you live in.  Seeds will need to be sown earlier in colder climates so that they have proper time to germinate and establish.

Up north where the winters come in earlier, stay longer, and get colder rye needs to be planted in the late summer or early fall.  Any time from late August to mid-September will give the crop ample time to establish and provide a food source through the winter months.

Further south where the climate is warmer, rye can be planted later in the year and still thrive throughout the winter.  Any time during September or October will provide the crop enough time to establish.

Drawbacks Of Winter Rye

The mature seed head of rye isn’t usually a deer’s first choice when it comes to feeding.  They enjoy the entirety of the plant while it is still immature, but once it has a chance to reach maturity in the spring, it will prove less effective as a food source than winter wheat.

Winter rye is so hardy that it can proliferate to the point of choking out other crops that are planted in conjunction with it.  This can be avoided by broadcasting seed less densely than you would in a plot that solely holds winter rye.

Benefits Of Planting Both

While both of these crops will provide an ongoing food source for deer during the winter and spring, winter rye is a better crop for enticing deer to stay the night.  Planting both of these crops will satisfy the need for food and a place to safely bed down at night.


Winter wheat seems to be more popular as a food source for deer, while winter rye proves more effective for providing protection that deer like to sleep in.  To fully experience the maximum benefits from both crops, consider planting both to attract deer and keep them around longer.

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