NASHUA, Iowa — Oats and other small grains can be grown successfully in Iowa and the upper Midwest, said Stephan Gailans, research and field crops director with Practical Farmers of Iowa. During the June 26 field day at the Northeast Research and Demonstration Farm, he shared some of what he has learned from working with farmers who are doing it.
Gailans talked about the oats variety trial at Nashua, a five-year partnership between PFI and the research farm. PFI is also working on oats trials with research farms at Kanawha and Boone and a partner farm near Charles City.
Oats must be planted as early as possible in the spring, Gailans said. Studies show that as planting time moves from late March to late April, a bushel to a half bushel per day in yield potential is lost.
The oats at Nashua were planted April 9. The cool weather in May and June has been great for the crop.
“We want to plant as early as possible to avoid hot, dry conditions that start occurring this time of year during flowering, anthesis and then flowing into grain-filling period,” Gailans said. “Oats want that longer, milder grain-filling period. That can really affect grain production and test weight.”
If it gets too warm, it also speeds up production of the plant, affecting its reproductive abilities.
Some producers are growing oats for cover crop seed, Gailans said. There is also a food market. Food-grade oats must achieve a 38 pounds per bushel test weight. Standard oats are 32 lbs. per bushel. Farmers are also raising oats as livestock feed and as straw for bedding.
“What plays into some of these seed quality, grain and straw yields are why we're doing these yield trials,” Gailans said. “Variety selection is a major factor. Breeders in Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been developing new lines of oats, but they haven't been trialed in Iowa. We've been working to get these seed materials and put them in trials.”
One of the main reasons the farmers Gailans works with like small grains in their rotations is the other opportunities — for livestock forage or cover crops for nitrogen and soil improvement.
“If you have raised hay, you've probably used oats as a nurse crop for alfalfa or clover,” Gailans said. “You co-seed oats with alfalfa or clover and they hang out under the oat canopy. When you harvest oats in mid-July, the alfalfa or clover are ready to take off. You can make hay or use as a legume green manure for next year's corn. The benefit of small grains may not be in bringing a lot of pennies to the bank book by selling oats or straw, but that clover going to next year's corn can reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer you need.”
Studies across the upper Midwest have shown 50 to 150 units of nitrogen fertilizer replacement from clover or alfalfa, Gailans said.
“Farmers told me that's why a small grain in their rotation is appealing to them,” Gailans said. “They're willing to not make oats super profitable because of the long-term benefit to their whole system.”
Another way to get diversity is to forego co-seeding oats with alfalfa or red clover and planting something after the oats are harvested. Being able to plant Aug. 1 gives farmers many more cover crop options that are not available after Labor Day.
For the oat variety plot at Nashua, research farm superintendent Ken Pecinovsky field cultivates, drills the oats and then cultipacks. Gailans knows farmers who no-till drill oats into soybean stubble. Some even no-till oats into corn, but light tillage is helpful.