Growing high quality oats

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Interested in growing oats for human consumption? Practical Farmers of Iowa offered “Growing High-Quality, Food-Grade Oats” as a recent webinar with A.J. and Kellie Blair presenting. The couple operates Blair Farm LLC, a fourth-generation farm near Dayton, Iowa, raising cover crops and small grains in a no-till system. In the last few years, they decided to grow food-grade oats.

A.J. said that raising food grade oats requires planning. “You have to do pre-season stuff with oats,” he said. “The planning part of it includes site selection. The first year, we picked a field that needed no tile. We weren’t able to get into wet fields early this year. With oats, as far as we can tell, it isn’t the type of management with corn and soybeans. Planting date is a big yield predictor.”

He said that a wet field will delay planting too long. A.J. recommends seeding three bushel per acre either alone or with clover. He planted March 30 this spring and April 25 in 2019. They’re growing for Oatly, which makes oat milk.

A.J. has experienced some weed issues in fields where he alternates corn and soybeans. He’s learned that including oats in a corn/soybean rotation “is a good way to break up that weed issue. You can go only so long with chemicals and making a rotation breaks it up. It’s a system with corn and soybeans and oats to hopefully benefit your corn and soybeans. You have to think three to five years down the road if you’re putting some alfalfa in there. If you put oats there, you have to use it to benefit the corn and soybean years.”

Should the couple’s oats not make the cut as food grade, Kellie has a backup plan. “We also have cattle so if we can’t take it to food grade, we have the cattle to fall back on for risk management,” she said.

They use a 7.5- to 10-inch drill, though Kellie said a lot of people broadcast and work in oats.

“The only problem with the 10-inch is weed control,” A.J. said. “As far as how to seed it with or without clover underneath, we plan on doing something in all our fields after harvest, so we seeded oats by themselves. We might seed after it’s done for a cover.”

The dry weather this spring aided the couple in planting early, which provided a good yield for 2020, though they gave up some straw yield to make the test weight.

“We did spray this year,” A.J. said. “We used dicamba last year; it was a little hard on the oats. This year we used Enlist. Marestail and thistles are common weeds.”

Their oats came up so early that they preceded the waterhemp variety of weeds. But the winter annuals did come up. They are considering a spring residual. They have not used fungicide the past two seasons. The dry weather was likely why they didn’t need to use fungicide.

A.J. said they gained half a pound of test weight harvesting with the vacuum.

“It helps if you’re on the edge,” he added. “We straight cut the oats as we don’t have a swath and a pick-up method. We put them in a bin on air.”

The couple windrowed and baled the straw, harvesting about a ton per acre.

“Grain millers typically get a lot of grain in August,” A.J. said. “It’s a good way to use storage that’s sitting idle. A field in oats is not in corn or soybean to store.”

The Blairs like the timing of oats and small grains, which spreads out their commodities’ harvests. Instead of farming all corn and soybeans, they have some of their harvest – oats – all done in the middle of the year.

“Right after the Fourth of July, we’re out combining and getting the straw baled and once they’re off, we’re putting in a cover crop,” Kellie said. “As a young family, spreading out that labor is important to us so we can spend time with the kids.”

A.J. said that although they have a limited history with oats, they have learned that planting as early as possible means better yields.

“I don’t think you can plant them too early,” he said. “If you can get them in before the first of April, that will help you the most. The later you get, the more you drop your yields.”

They’ve found that going no-till works well for them. “A lot of people try to scratch the ground to get the ground dry, but for us, tillage is another pass that takes another day,” A.J. said. “We’d rather use the drill.”

After harvest, they have three different options: grazing as a cover crop, planting the field with sorghum and sudangrass for baling or a cover crop to graze.

“We were excited about getting the cover in early, but we’ve had a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch on the cover crop for rain,” Kellie said at the time of the webinar. “We have to be patient.”

The couple also did a nitrogen trial on their oats with 50 pounds of nitrogen versus no nitrogen. They experienced a height difference between the crops, with the treated areas showing an advantage. The treated field produced 112 bushels per acre; the control field, only 84. A.J. said that nitrogen is not something they will leave off again. They also plan to continue to plant early to improve their chances of a bountiful oat harvest.

“Oats fit in pretty well,” Kellie said. “It spreads out that labor over time. It’s not so much lumped into one. I think we’ll plan on continuing to do it.”

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