Ryegrass: Going Against the Grain

March 29, 2012 By: Bob Westerfield


I might get shot just for mentioning the use of annual ryegrass as a potential food plot crop, but the truth is I have killed too many whitetails over this stuff to completely ignore it. Ryegrass gets a bad rap from most food plot specialists, and for good reasons. I’ll admit ryegrass is low in nutritional value and difficult to eradicate once established, but for certain situations – especially for food plotters on a shoestring budget – it might just be the difference between having a food plot or not.

Before we go on, get it straight that “ryegrass” is not the same crop as “rye.” Rye is a cereal grain like wheat or oats that is a popular component of fall food plots. This is an important distinction.

While ryegrass is not at the top of my list of ideal food plot crops, I can’t deny that it can actually be very effective in luring hungry white-tailed deer. While many food plot enthusiasts would never consider this plant, it seems no one ever told the deer not to eat it. In my early bowhunting career, I killed many whitetails over nothing but cheaply made ryegrass food plots. Looking back twenty-something years ago, I used ryegrass because it was cheap and simple to plant, especially considering I didn’t have decent food plot equipment then. Many of today’s commercially produced food plot mixes marketed as “throw and grows” contain a good measure of some type of ryegrass. While I now use many different combinations of clovers, peas and cereal grains in most of my food plots, I still manage some remote plots in lower-quality soils that are sown in nothing but ryegrass. I killed a fairly nice 9-pointer last year over this kind of remote food plot with my long bow.

Now, more about this plant.

Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) is an annual grass crop that can grow in most areas of the United States. It is the same grass that homeowners often overseed their warm-season lawns with to have a green lawn all winter long. Because of its popularity with homeowners, it is available virtually anywhere, including the big box stores. Ryegrass is best established in the fall and can be planted as early as late August in the North or September in the South. This hardy annual grass is extremely easy to establish and great for areas with poor soil or places where bringing in large equipment is prohibited. If you can scratch the ground with a rake and put the seed out, you can get ryegrass to grow. I use it primarily on rough food plots in narrow firebreaks between hardwoods and cutovers. Ryegrass will grow in full sun or fairly heavy shade, which makes it adaptable. Ryegrass can also be mixed with cereal crops or legumes, but I think it’s best to use it on its own in those rough or difficult-to-plant areas. If you can use a tractor or quality ATV implements to prepare the soil, you should grow higher-quality crops and skip the ryegrass.

In those remote plots and firebreaks, use a backpack leaf blower or rake to clear the ground. If you can reach the area with an ATV and a drag harrow to loosen the soil, so much the better. Using a hand-crank or push spreader, I would plant 30 to 50 lbs./acre. I normally plant very small tucked-away food plots (about a tenth of an acre) so I rarely need more than 5 to 10 pounds of seed per area. Ryegrass will actually grow well even without proper fertility, but fertilizing will make it perform better and be more enticing to whitetails. Adding lime where needed and a high nitrogen fertilizer will certainly go a long way to boosting the plots growth and attractiveness.

Ryegrass germinates extremely quickly, and you can have a huntable food plot within a week and a half after planting if you get timely rainfall. I have killed deer late in the season on ryegrass plots, but its limited nutritional value and attractiveness begins to decline in late winter and early spring. Ryegrass will shoot up tall seed heads in later spring that are attractive to other wildlife species such as quail, turkey and other birds. This annual grass will often persist into the early summer in the South and later in cooler climates. It is a heavy re-seeder and light disking in the fall with additional fertilizer will often revitalize the plot. This is one of the dangers of ryegrass. Don’t plant it in plots where you eventually hope to grow quality annual or perennial crops, as you may have to eradicate the ryegrass to clear the way for higher-quality forage.

One more thing: If ryegrass is highly attractive to deer where you hunt, this could be an indication that they don’t have enough quality natural forage to choose from. Be sure to read the other materials available from QDMA about habitat management to learn techniques for balancing habitat quality with deer density.

While annual ryegrass may not be for everyone, for those with limited equipment and funding, it might be just the ticket. Also, there are varieties of perennial ryegrass that have more attributes and fewer disadvantages. I go into more detail on this and other aspects of ryegrass in the full species profile in Quality Whitetails magazine, the membership journal of QDMA.

About Bob Westerfield:

Bob Westerfield is a faculty member in the Horticulture department for the University of Georgia. He serves as the department Extension coordinator as well as a state vegetable and fruit specialist. Bob lives on a small farm in Pike County, Georgia, where he raises livestock and manages his land for whitetails and wild turkeys. Bob is an avid bowhunter, preferring to use traditional equipment in the form of a longbow and primitive black powder rifle. He is now contributing the "Food Plot Species Profile" series in every issue of QDMA's Quality Whitetails magazine.

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