Oats Are an Annual Forage to Consider as a Double Crop After Wheat

Stan Smith, OSU Extension PA, Fairfield County

On May 1 of this year, not only were Ohio hay inventories down 55% from this time last year, but they were at their lowest since at least 1950. U.S. hay stocks were down 34 percent from a year ago and were the lowest May 1 stocks on record. Regardless of the hay crop we are able to put in the barn this year, forages will remain a valuable commodity as long as corn, soybean and wheat values remain high. A few weeks ago in this publication Rory Lewandowski discussed annual forages that could be planted now to supplement scarce forage supplies. As we look forward to wheat harvest beginning around the State over the next week or so, perhaps now is a good time to discuss another annual that fits nicely as a double crop for those cattlemen who have some wheat in the rotation – that being oats.

The reason I mention oats now is, unlike when we double crop with soybeans, it’s NOT important to rush to get oats planted as soon as possible after wheat harvest. In fact our experience has been that we get a greater yield and higher quality feed if we wait until the end of July or very early August to plant oats for forage. Without getting into a science lesson, it seems that the oats prefer the cooler average daily temperatures we typically experience beginning in August, and they are more likely to not push out a seed head but remain vegetative until extremely cold temperatures shut them down completely sometime in December.

Not only does an August 1 planting date seem to offer more yield and higher quality oats, but it also allows ample time to harvest the straw (straw inventories are low similar to hay!), haul manure, and control any perennial weeds and volunteer wheat that might be present. Based on our experience for the past 10+ years in Fairfield County with oats planted after wheat harvest, if you can utilize a forage for grazing, baled hay, or silage late this fall or early winter, oats appear to be the most productive, highest quality, least cost alternative available to Ohio livestock producers for planting late in the summer. In fact, if planted most any time before late August, there’s an opportunity to ‘create’ on a dry matter basis anywhere from two to five tons of forage while investing little more than the cost of 80-100 pounds of oats and 40 pounds of nitrogen.

Based on experiences with summer planted oats since 2002, Curt Stivison, who initiated this work in Ohio, and I offer these suggestions:

* Optimum planting date for oats from the perspective of yield is not until the first of August. Early August plantings also have resulted in the highest total amount of TDN produced per acre. Later plantings will be slightly higher in quality, but typically not enough so to offset the yield advantage of an August 1 planting. While being more conducive to a mechanical harvest in early Fall, planting in early to mid July reduces both yield and quality. The earlier oat plantings also have exhibited more susceptibility to rust.

* Regardless the planting date, or variety, no-tilled seeding rates of from 80 to 100 pounds of oats have consistently resulted in optimum forage yields.

* Optimum nitrogen application rate has been 40 to 50 pounds per acre. This application not only produces the highest yields, but at current values of nitrogen, it’s also the most cost effective rate. Higher rates of nitrogen actually depressed yields based in our 2008 plots.

* Over the years, many growers have been successful using bin run ‘feed’ oats originating in Canada. Most of the concerns with utilizing ‘feed’ oats are obvious: no germination test, and the potential for bringing some weed seed onto the farm. One problem we experienced for the first time two years was that a few of the Canadian oats in the “feed bin” were apparently winter oats. After getting started in the fall, they went dormant over winter, and then elongated in the spring much like winter wheat does after breaking dormancy.

* The optimum combination of productivity and quality of August planted oats arrives 60 to 75 days after planting. Apparently due to the heat, oats planted in July mature more quickly and thus, rapidly decline in quality beginning 50 to 60 days after planting in most years.

* Oats harvested 50-60 days after planting and while still in the boot stage of maturity may offer some regrowth that could be grazed.

* A weed control application of glyphosate is a necessary and cost effective practice prior to oat planting.

An additional advantage observed when using oats for an annual forage crop is the opportunity to capture the total tonnage produced with a single harvest cutting if grazing is not an option. Only making a single harvest late this fall is the most cost effective management strategy.

As oat harvest options typically beginning by November are considered, grazing provides the most effective and affordable alternative. In 2002, locally the Wolfingers strip grazed oats all winter and actually began the calving season on them before the oats ran out in mid March.

Dry baling oats in the fall has been done around Ohio, but it’s a challenge considering that oats will dry less than half as fast a grass hay. Cut in November, that typically means at least two weeks or more to cure them. 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 in December most years in Ohio. When they finally freeze, and if it’s not a wet winter, growers may be able to let them die and dry while standing, get a few days of dry frozen weather in January, mow them, rake them and quickly bale them after they’ve essentially 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 the standing oats is not an opportunity, perhaps chopping and ensiling oats is the best alternative 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 to 60% 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 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.

During the winter of 2013 Ohio Forage and Grassland Council Annual Meeting, I was invited to share the following presentation, which includes a number of photos, about our past experience of growing oats late in the summer for forage. Oats, planted after wheat harvest, into the stubble, are indeed, a consistently productive and high quality forage alternative!