Rain Makes Grain, and Forage Too!

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension

The yields of corn and beans we’ve experienced around much of Ohio this fall is nothing short of remarkable. This, despite planting most of the crop a month or more late last spring. The same is true for the fall growth of forages, especially oats that were planted after wheat harvest or into acres which remained unplanted due to last spring’s horrible planting conditions.

As we’ve visited with a number of Ohio cattlemen who planted oats for a late forage crop during the summer and early fall, there seems to be two comments consistently being shared: a) yield and quality is very good with most reporting 3 to 5 tons of dry matter per acre being produced, and b) now that we’ve grown it, how do I harvest those fields that aren’t fenced and able to be grazed?

Harvest of dry hay/oats this fall has been virtually impossible due to constant rainfall. Harvest as silage has been almost equally difficult due to soft field conditions and the lack of a harvest window with no precipitation in the immediate forecast.

Unfortunately, we’ve only been growing summer/fall planted oats for the past ten years and we don’t have an abundance of experience, or research data to draw from regarding quality deterioration in an oat crop harvested this late or later. The little experience we do have suggests that oats can maintain their quality into winter similarly to fescue.

Locally the Wolfingers no-tilled two bushels of bin run oats into a harvested 30 acre wheat field on August 5, 2002. Immediately ahead of the grain drill, 100 pounds of urea was spread as a source of nitrogen. On November 8 that year, they began to strip graze 44 bred cows and one mature bull on the oats that had grown to an average height exceeding 30 inches, and possessed an estimated dry matter yield of five tons per acre.

These forty five head were offered approximately 8 foot by 950 foot strips of the oats once a day, plus low quality hay in a round bale feeder. It was calculated these strips of oats yielded the equivalent of approximately 40 pounds of dry matter per head each day, of which the cattle were consuming all but about 6 inches of the stubble. At the same time they were also consuming less than a large round bale of hay per week in addition to the oats. This 30 acre field of oats maintained these 45 cattle for 4 months.

oats1 oats2

Photos: strip grazing oats in 2002

In fact, the strip grazing continued daily until mid February, 2003 when 20+ inches of snow, prevented the opportunity for the cattle to effectively graze the oats field, and the cattle were placed on a ration of hay. After about 3 weeks of additional snowfall, thawing, refreezing, rain, and more refreezing, strip grazing of the remaining oats resumed on March 6 and continued until the oats were completely harvested 3 weeks later. By this time, the first cows were already calving. Quality of the forage remained good right up until the end, despite the difficult weather conditions experienced over much of Ohio that winter. Throughout the grazing period, the nutrient analysis of the consumed oats as compared to a local stock piled fescue field looked like this:

% crude protein

% dig. org. matter

% free nitrogen

% free phosphorus

Sample Date Oats Fescue Oats Fescue Oats Fescue Oats Fescue
11/19/02 18.13 8.65 64.24 60.56 1.91 1.43 0.53 0.34
12/31/02 14.73 11.4 63.49 60.11 2.00 1.60 0.38 0.31
1/23/03 13.35 9.22 64.34 58.52 1.49 1.23 0.35 0.32
3/11/03 11.12 8.19 60.08 60.36 1.52 1.21 0.32 0.37

* The stockpiled fescue sampled above had not received supplemental nitrogen in 2002


Pictured above, a field of oats in Fairfield County last week. Planted the second week in August, no nitrogen applied.

As we consider the alternatives for harvesting oats that might still be standing, in response to the questions we’re getting, at this point I suggest that perhaps it’s best to continue being patient until dry or frozen soils permit mechanical harvest or grazing. Fact is, today most oats have yet to die, and have experienced little drying as they stand in the field.

Baling oats in the fall and even into January has been done around Ohio at times in the past, but it’s a challenge considering that oats only dry about half as fast a grass hay. Dropping them on wet soils certainly won’t enhance the curing process. Wet wrapping them is an expensive alternative. Using an in-line bale wrapper/tuber is a little less expensive per ton than individually wrapped bales if the equipment is available locally.

Oats won’t die until temperatures have been in the mid 20’s for several hours. That means they’ll still be green and alive for a few more weeks around much of the state. When they finally freeze, and if soils dry a bit, growers may be able to let them dry out standing, get a few days of dry frozen weather in January, mow them, rake them and bale them quickly after they’ve essentially dried and cured standing.

In Canada, growers have sprayed their oats with glyphosate and let them dry out while standing. Then, after a few weeks and at a time when they get a dry week, they mow, rake and bale them all in a day or two. Locally, that’s been done once which allowed the oats to be baled in late December and January.

If grazing standing oats is simply not an option, perhaps chopping and ensiling oats is the best alternative that remains for harvest. This offers several advantages over baling or wet wrapping. Obviously the issue of curing the plants for dry harvest becomes a moot point. Chopping and ensiling into either a permanent structure or bags is also likely less expensive than wet wrapping individual bales. Perhaps even better, as detailed by Francis Fluharty a few years ago in this publication, chopped forages are 30% more digestible than long stem forages.

Admittedly chopping and ensiling is likely more expensive than rolling dry hay, but when you consider you get essentially no storage losses, the timeliness of harvest which is afforded, and the more digestible feed which results, it’s a good alternative. And if you’re able to bunk feed the chopped and ensiled oats, there will be no “bale ring” feeding losses to be experienced.