Planting Oats for Deer: A Comprehensive Guide


If you’re looking to attract more deer to your food plots, planting oats is a tried-and-true strategy. Oats are not only highly attractive to deer but also perform well in a variety of conditions. In this article, we will explore the best techniques for planting oats to maximize their appeal and nutritional benefits.

Why Choose Oats?

Oats, scientifically known as Avena sativa, are cool-season annual cereal grains that are particularly favored by deer. Compared to other cereal grains, oats rank consistently higher in deer preference trials. Not only are they highly attractive to deer, but they also offer exceptional nutritional value. With protein levels exceeding 25%, oats provide the essential nutrients that promote healthy growth and production in deer.

Characteristics of Oats

Oats closely resemble other cereal grains during their early stages, but experienced food plotters can spot the subtle differences. Oats have a deeper green color compared to other grains, and their seed heads are classified as panicles rather than spikes. When fully mature, oats can reach heights of 2 to 3 feet under optimal soil conditions.

Planting with Purpose

One of the significant advantages of oats is their rapid germination and growth. This makes them an excellent choice as a nurse crop for slower-growing perennial clovers and chicory. Additionally, oats provide early-season hunting opportunities and offer impressive forage production during the fall and winter, with yields ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 lbs./acre (dry weight). Oats also exhibit excellent resistance to heavy grazing pressure.

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However, it’s important to note that oats have lower cold tolerance, especially in northern regions. To address this, select a cold-hardy variety and avoid poorly-drained soils. If you’re unsure about which oats to choose, consider reaching out to your local Extension agent or seed dealer for guidance.

Soil Preparation and Planting

Prior to planting oats or any other forages, it’s crucial to collect soil samples to determine the pH and fertility levels of your plots. This knowledge will help you apply the appropriate amount of lime and fertilizer to maximize forage production, attraction, and nutritional quality. Oats thrive best in soils with pH levels of 6.0 or higher, along with optimal nutrient levels.

To establish oats, you can either broadcast or drill them into a prepared seedbed. If broadcasting seed, create a smooth and firm seedbed through disking or tilling to ensure optimal germination and seedling establishment. For a pure stand, broadcast oats at a rate of 120 to 150 lbs./acre PLS (pure live seed) and lightly disk them into the soil at a depth of 1 to 2 inches. Good seed-to-soil contact is crucial for successful establishment.

Alternatively, if using the no-till drilling method, eliminate existing vegetation with glyphosate a few weeks before planting to minimize weed competition. Drill oats at a rate of 70 to 80 lbs./acre PLS, ensuring a planting depth of 1 to 2 inches.

To extend the life of your food plots into the following summer, consider including other forages that will be available after oats seed out and die in late spring. Planting a mixture of oats with annual clovers, winter peas, brassicas, or other annual forages can help prolong forage availability and enhance plot productivity.

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Oats also make an excellent companion for perennial clover and chicory plots. Their quick germination provides early attraction, while the lower height of oats allows ample space and sunlight for the lower-growing clover and chicory. To prevent competition, reduce the planting rate of oats to approximately 40 to 50 lbs./acre PLS in this scenario.

When to Plant Oats

The ideal planting time for oats depends on your geographic location. In the South, September or October is the recommended period, provided there is adequate soil moisture or rain in the forecast. In the North, it’s advisable to plant a cold-hardy oat variety in August alongside other cool-season forages to account for potential winter kill. This strategy ensures a quick source of attraction for hunting plots in northern regions.

Alternatively, oats can be planted or frost-seeded in April if desired as a spring/summer forage. However, if you’re looking for increased forage production during the summer months, consider selecting other legume forages like soybeans or cowpeas.

Weed Control

Oats have a rapid growth rate, which naturally helps suppress weed pressure. However, in some cases, additional weed control measures may be necessary. Various herbicides are available for controlling cool-season broadleaf weeds such as chickweed, wild mustard, henbit, and purple deadnettle, provided oats are planted alone.

For grass weeds like annual ryegrass in the South, herbicide options are more limited. Unfortunately, there are no herbicides that selectively kill ryegrass without harming oats. Adjust your planting strategy accordingly, focusing on forages that allow effective weed management in your plots.

If ryegrass is a concern and you still want to plant a cereal grain, consider substituting oats with wheat. Wheat allows you to spray the plot with herbicides like Axial XL or Achieve, which control ryegrass without harming wheat or other broadleaf forages in the mixture. Always read and follow the herbicide label for specific rates and safety instructions.

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Planting oats for deer food plots can significantly enhance their attractiveness and nutritional value. By following the proper soil preparation and planting techniques, you can ensure the successful establishment of oats in your plots. Remember to consider your geographic location and select the appropriate oat variety for optimal results. With oats as a centerpiece, your food plots will become irresistible feeding grounds for deer, facilitating their growth and overall health.

Visit the Ames Farm Center to explore a wide range of high-quality oats and other supplies for your deer food plots.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace professional advice. Always consult local experts for specific recommendations and guidance.