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Oats find a fit

Back in 2018,Wayne Koehler’s golden-hue oats just north of his house were rapidly nearing harvest.  

“It was along the highway, so they were very visible,” says the Charles City, Iowa, farmer. “I had some people stop and ask if I wanted to sell my oats to them. I’ve never had anyone stop and ask about buying corn and soybeans. It was clear that there was a demand that was not being met.”   

Oat Benefits 

At one time, oat fields were as common as the corn and soybean fields that now dominate the Midwestern landscape. In 1950, Iowa farmers grew 6.619 million acres of oats. In 2019, though, Iowa-intended oat plantings limped along at a paltry 135,000 acres. 

Still, oats have a number of benefits in complementing a rotation of corn and soybeans.

Disrupting weed cycles. “It can enable farmers to get ahead of problem weeds that can develop herbicide resistance,” says Alisha Bower, Practical Farmers of Iowa strategic initiatives manager. 

Scavenging nitrates. The fibrous root system of oats can soak up unused nitrates from nitrogen (N) applications. “This keeps nitrates from flowing into tile lines and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico,” says Bower. 

Spreading labor. Since farmers plant and harvest small grains earlier than corn and soybeans, they can better spread their labor over the growing season, says Bower. 

Boosting soil health. Oats can springboard cover crops off to a good start after harvest in late July or August. In Koehler’s case, he underseeded red clover with oats in both 2018 and 2019. He sold the red clover – that subsequently grew after oat harvest – for hay in the fall. The forage also helps nix erosion by covering the soil longer into the growing season. The variety of roots from cash and cover crops can also enhance soil health qualities like aggregate stability and water infiltration, Bower says. 

Complementing yields of other rotational crops. A long-term USDA-ARS trial at the North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, showed a 24% yield spike for corn when no-tilled in a four-year diverse rotation vs. a corn-soybean rotation.  

Oats Make a Comeback

Koehler grew up with oats on his family’s farm. In the 1980s, though, oats exited many crop rotations. One reason was the 1980s farm crisis, Koehler believes. Some farmers also phased out livestock, and those who stayed built confinement housing that did not use as much oat straw for bedding, he says. 

Still, oats surfaced on Koehler’s farm in the early 2000s, when he used oats as a nurse crop for hay. Nurse crops help suppress weeds and protect the soil as the forage crop establishes itself. 

Several years later in 2009, Koehler aimed to tile 50 acres of his farm. “Getting a tile contractor in the fall is a challenge, because everyone wants them then,” he says. Planting oats on that field enabled him to access a tiling contractor after August harvest, when tiling contractors are less busy. 

Discouraged by net income projections for corn and soybeans, Koehler again planted oats in 2018 and 2019. He marketed most of it for cover crop seed, but he also sold oats as livestock feed to the motorists who inquired about his oat field.  

He also sells straw to dairy farmers out of the field at harvest. He stores the balance of his oat crop and sells in the fall and winter to various buyers.

Management 

“If you look at the cost of inputs for oats, it is completely different from corn,” says Koehler. Iowa State University crop budgets for 2019 peg variable costs for corn yielding 218 bushels per acre following soybeans at $379.44 per acre. Variable costs for oats are much less at $150.75 per acre if seeded with alfalfa. 

Still, it’s not a plant-it-and-forget-it crop, Koehler says. Wet and humid conditions help trigger crown rust. This fungal disease can be dodged somewhat by selecting tolerant varieties, says Koehler. Timely applications of fungicides can help farmers manage crown rust. 

Koehler considers a field’s weed seed bank when selecting oat fields. “Giant ragweed and Canada thistle are usually the most troublesome weeds,” he says. If necessary, he spot-sprays 2,4-D amine or MCPA herbicide early postemergence. Adequate seeding rates also help deter weeds. “Don’t cheat on the seeding rate if you are growing oats for grain,” he says. 

Lodging concerns also exist. “If you apply too much nitrogen, the stalks will not support the oats,” he says. “So, I’m pretty conservative on N, adding about 50 pounds per acre.” 

Machinery

“The equipment issue is certainly a challenge, but one that can be solved without too much effort,” says Bower. A booming cover crop seed market has created more availability of drills that farmers can rent if they just want to test oats on a few acres, she adds.

Swathers are another story. Oats go through a sweating period following harvest when they shed moisture. Swathing enables this process to occur in the field, rather than risking spoilage if it occurs in a bin. 

“Swathers in good working order are few and far between,” she says. 

Storing oats in a grain bin with an aeration floor and adequate fan and vents can also remove moisture when straight-combining oats, Koehler says. 

Oats aren’t for everyone, Koehler says. Still, they may fit certain farms. 

“Oats can work on farms that have the equipment and the markets,” he says.

Oat Markets

Finding markets can be a challenge for oats, but several outlets exist, says Alisha Bower, strategic initiatives manager for Practical Farmers of Iowa. 

  • Food-grade oats. These markets aim at human consumption products like oatmeal. Bower says processing plants like Grain Millers at St. Ansgar, Iowa, exist to buy food-grade oats from Minnesota and Iowa farmers. 

Buyers pay a premium for food-grade oats. There’s a hitch, though, since farmers have to meet test weight and protein levels. 

“In Iowa, there’s no problem with hitting protein specifications  due to its rich soils,” says Bower. “But meeting test weight standards of 38 pounds per bushel is a challenge.”

Hot weather during head fill can crimp test weight. That’s why oat farmers plant early in order to dodge summer heat. Last year, Wayne Koehler, a Charles City, Iowa, farmer drilled no-till oats on April 9. 

“Even if the soil is a little on the sticky side, you want to push the envelope by planting early,” he says. 

  • Livestock feed markets. Oats that don’t meet human consumption standards can make livestock feed. Although prices paid are less, protein and test weight standards are lower. Outlets include smaller livestock producers and ones as large as Smithfield, which is buying oats and wheat at its Allerton and Davis City locations in southern Iowa in 2020, says Bower.
  • Cover crop seed markets. This market can be more lucrative than livestock feed, though there are many regulations to meet, Bower says. High germination is key, she adds. 
  • Commodity grain markets. Granted, unit trains for elevators to fill with oats don’t exist as they do for corn or soybeans. Still, some elevators will accept oats, even if they don’t advertise it or put out bids, says Bower. They use it for markets like creep feed for cattle, she adds.

Varietal Investment 

Seed and chemical companies have poured billions of dollars into corn hybrids and soybean varieties. Oats? Not so much.

“Oats and other small grains could really benefit from additional investment in research and development,” says Alisha Bower, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) strategic initiatives manager. 

PFI, supported by General Mills, Grain Millers, Inc., and Albert Lea Seed, is conducting oat varietal performance trials. Meanwhile, public breeding programs still exist across the Upper Midwest. 

PFI is working with public breeding programs to create a varietal selection tool for farmers. “Farmers could put in their ZIP code, and the program would predict what variety would perform best in their area,” Bower says. 

This tool will be beta tested in 2020. If you’d like to get involved, contact info@practicalfarmers.org.

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