As autumn arrives and preparations continue for this year's hunting season, many land managers will look to plant fall food plots. These fall plots will not only help the overall herd of deer by providing a supplemental food source throughout the winter but are also used to help congregate deer movement to certain areas where they can be more easily hunted. The most common question I always get asked by hunters and landowners alike is “What should I plant?”
Without knowing their experience, equipment, land, or region, it is always hard to answer that simple question. Dozens of plant species run through my mind, but my most common answer is barley.
Barley is a cereal grain that has been cultivated for over 10,000 years. Similar to other popular whole grains such as wheat, oats, rye, and millet, barley can be grown in all regions of the United States, thriving in most climates and growing conditions. Barley is a commonly farmed species, harvested for cash crop and directly fed to stock. So why plant barley for deer?
Planting and getting a healthy barley is super easy. I have broadcasted it and drilled it, both methods having great success. The seeding rate is expansive, anywhere from 70-130 pounds per/acre is acceptable. By having such a large margin, it is easier for lesser experienced individuals to grow a thriving plot. Moreover, the most common mistake made by land managers is overseeding.
Most backyard plots are planted with an ATV broadcast spreader which can be extremely hard to calibrate. I always urge people to measure the acreage of the plot, get their desired planting rate, and then lightly broadcast the seed until finished. This may entail going over the plot two or three times, but it will be way more evenly spread than trying to do it accurately in one coverage.
The soil prep for barley is also wide-ranging. Anything from conventional tillage to no-till methods can be used. Like all seeds, seed-to-soil contact is very important, so the more you can do, the better. On the other hand, while I was planting barley this summer I split a pile of seed on the gravel driveway, only to come back a few weeks later to see a small, yet thriving patch of Barley.
One of my favorite things to do while managing a property in Kansas was to over-seed barley on top of standing soybean fields. As the deer devour the leaves and pods of the beans, the broadcasted barley fills in, making it an absolute smorgasbord. Barley can continue growing into frigid temperatures and is extremely frost-resistant.
One of the greatest advantages barley has over other commonly planted species is its low water requirements. From germination to maturity (roughly 75-90 days), a barley plant only needs four to six inches of rain. That may seem like a lot, but when you compare to corn, which takes 20-30 inches of rain, or soybeans that take 20-25 inches of rain, it's a vast difference. This makes barley extremely drought-resistant and allows it to be planted in dryer times of the year. This also allows extremely flexible planting dates. I've planted it from March to September. Barley does need more sun than most broadleaf plants, so plots that lack sunlight might not be ideal.
Barley germinates rapidly, usually within two or three days. This allows it to choke out any competing weeds after planting. Fertilization isn't needed in most situations. Barley is not just deer food, it is a great food source for almost all game animals. Ducks, turkey, upland birds, and even elk can be found in barley. When barley matures it forms a nutritious seed head. These seeds not only act as food, but uneaten seeds can re-seed the plot in the spring making it great for spring turkey hunting. Barley is also a nutritional powerhouse. It packs more protein and carbohydrates than corn while boosting healthy amounts of potassium, fiber, iron, magnesium, and B6.
Next time you go to plant your plots, keep barley in mind. Yes, it might get beat out by other species in some categories such as nutrition or tonnage, but it's almost impossible to mess up. In my opinion, it’s the greatest value with the least risk. Moreover, its tolerance to drought and frost paired with easy soil prep and fast germination, makes it a no-brainer plot for beginners and experts alike. Plus, it's the cheapest seed you'll find.