John Deere combine

Bruce Bot drives the John Deere combine to pick up oat swaths for the Hennen farming operation of Ghent, Minn. As of Aug. 25, 76 percent of Minnesota’s oats were harvested, compared with 83 percent for the five year average. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

CROOKSTON, Minn. – Harvest is just weeks away and growers are already making plans for next year. With the corn and soybean market being what it is, adding oats or small grains to the rotation may be something growers are considering, but it is not a decision that should be made quickly. There are many challenges to oat production that must be considered first.

“I think there is room for oats, or any small grain for that matter, in a crop rotation, especially if you're running into troubles in either corn or beans,” said Jochum Wiersma, associate professor and Extension agronomist with the University of Minnesota Northwest Research and Outreach Center.

The troubles Wiersma is referring to are pest management issues such as soybean cyst nematode, corn rootworm or herbicide resistant weeds. Problems of that nature can be helped by adding a third crop to the rotation to provide better management opportunities and increase the yields of either a corn or soybean crop the following year.

Pest control benefits aside, growers are still going to want to get the best price they can for an oat, barley or other small grain crop. This is where growers need to plan ahead and start thinking about their small grain crop now.

“Whether it's organic or conventional, barley and oat are pretty much now grown under contract,” said Wiersma. “There is still a futures market in Chicago for oats, but in all practical terms, it’s a contract market.”

Groups like the Grain Millers out of Shakopee, Minn., are already contracting production acres for 2020, and if a grower wants to get started in small grains next year, they need to line up that contract this fall.

There a several opportunities out there for production though. Places like the Albert Lea Seed House will contract out seed production acres. Different breweries and malting facilities will contract out barley production.

There is room in the markets for growers to get involved, but there is just a bit of research that needs to be done to find those buyers.

“Whether it's wheat, oat or barley, you are producing a food stuff, not a feed stuff, and so the quality parameters in what that market wants are tighter,” he said. “It has more demands on test weight, protein content and other quality attributes.”

There are also stipulations on the appearance of the grain. It cannot be off-color or stained because that all affects the food quality.

In the past, when there was more of a commodity market for small grains, anything that did not meet the standard for food-grade could be marketed to livestock producers for feed. Today, that market really is not present, so it is important for growers to have a backup plan.

“You have basically food-grade or nothing and that's the biggest challenge in marketing now,” he said. “Growers that have alternative uses on the farm have more flexibility than those that have to sell it into the food markets.”

Livestock farmers – diary, beef or swine – that can use the small grains as feed are positioned better to get into small grain production. They still get the benefit of having a third crop in the rotation and if they cannot market that grain, they can save the livestock side of the operation some feed costs.

For growers that do not have livestock, it would be beneficial to talk to livestock producers in your area. Line up a backup buyer for the small grains crop should it not meet food-grade standards.

“We are on the southern fringe in many ways of spring cereal production, whether it’s wheat, oat or barley, they're all cool season, annual grasses,” said Wiersma. “We need a little bit of luck weather wise.”

A successful growing season requires an early spring. Planting should happen in early April, so the bulk of plant growth happens while temperatures are still in the 70s, versus the upper 80s and 90s later in the summer.

“When we get turned up to 90 degrees, hot and steamy, which is perfect corn weather, our small grain suffers a little bit,” he said. “If we're in the second week of May looking at the third week and we still haven't turned the wheel yet, I'll tell those growers, walk away from those acres, switch them to something else.”

In small grain production, it is important to have a backup plan. Whether that is a marketing plan, management strategies or a complete backup cropping plan for those acres.

There is room in production for growers to add small grains to their rotation as long as those growers plan accordingly.