If you're looking for a dependable cash crop, or are lean on forages for your own animals, try growing oats for hay.

Oat hay is a “very viable option” for farmers needing early season forages, says Gary Kilgore, Kansas State University extension crops and soils specialist. He has gotten a number of calls from farmers about oat hay this winter.

“I think that has everything to do about last summer's drought,” says Kilgore. “They want to get a crop early, so if they need hay this summer, they'll have something to feed.”

“I recommend that people take a look at oat hay if they're short of forages,” concurs Tom Morgan of Morgan Consulting Group, Olathe, KS.

Oats can be seeded early — between Feb. 15 and March 15 — in Kansas, Morgan says. “They can be harvested as early as mid-May, leaving producers time to go back in and plant something else, such as soybeans, grain sorghum or sudangrass.”

Of course, the lion's share of oats are grown for grain, but Morgan has seen more oat hay being produced the past few years.

“In 2001, we actually ran out of seed because demand was so high,” he says. “I think we'll grow more this year than we did last year and more than we did two years ago.”

Oat hay is nutritious enough for dry dairy cows, mature horses and beef cattle, says Morgan. And, if harvested in the dough stage, it has enough energy for lactating dairy cows, although sufficient supplemental protein must be fed, Kilgore adds.

Dairy producers buy a lot of oat hay for their dry cows, says Greg Cook, a Hermiston, OR, hay producer and broker.

“It can replace some of the lower-quality feeds such as grass hay, and higher-priced feed such as alfalfa,” says Cook. “It's also more efficient for dry cows, because producers aren't paying for high protein levels that they don't need.”

While more oat hay is being fed in this country, export demand is high, too, especially from Japan, says Cook.

“When demand goes up, it's hard to find enough,” he adds. “When demand is stable, there's usually enough around. Right now, there's a surge in the market for it and there isn't enough.”

The current price range in the West is $70-85/ton, says Cook.

At times, about 10% of his 2,000 acres at Circle C Farms is devoted to oat hay production. Like many hay growers in the Pacific Northwest, he uses oats as a rotation crop for alfalfa.

“By planting the oats and harvesting them as hay vs. grain, we can use our own equipment. We're not set up here for grain harvesting.”

Cook, who farms with his dad, Ivan, seeds the crop in March and cuts it in early June. “We either reseed alfalfa right after the oats come off or later in August, after temperatures cool down.”

Kansas State's Kilgore has advice for growers who want to try oat hay: Don't till the soil more than once before seeding. “It's a crop that will follow last year's soybeans very well without any additional working of the ground,” he says.

He recommends a 2½-bu/acre seeding rate. “Seed costs should run about $10/acre.”

Depending on your location, nitrogen and/or phosphorus fertilizer may be needed, he stresses.

Time your cutting according to the hay's intended use.

“If you need energy, cut it in the dough stage, when the crude protein level is 10-12%,” says Kilgore. “If you want it as a protein source, cut the oats as they're starting to head out, when the crude protein level is 14-16%.”

One final caution: “Before deciding to plant oats, consider which herbicide was used the previous year. If atrazine was used on corn or grain sorghum, there might be carryover — particularly because it was so dry in this region last year — and that will nail the oats. With soybeans, there shouldn't be any carryover.”

Oat Hay Shines As Rotation Crop

Steve Dobson can't think of a single disadvantage to raising oat hay.

“Oat hay production works very well for me,” says Dobson, who grows oats between alfalfa crops. “With many rotation crops, you need a whole new set of machinery, but I can put up oat hay with the same equipment I have for alfalfa.”

The Horseshoe Bend, ID, farmer has seen steady demand for oat hay the past 15 years. “I sell a lot of it to local horse owners and feedlots,” says Dobson, who also uses some of it in his cow-calf operation.

He harvests 4-5 tons/acre and gets $70-75/ton.

The oats are seeded at a rate of 100 lbs/acre in early to mid-April with a conventional drill. They're cut in early July and the windrows dry for up to five days before they're put up in 95- to 100-lb bales.

After the hay comes off, he irrigates the field the rest of the summer. “If some oats sprout, I'll disk in the fall and then work the ground again the following spring before reseeding alfalfa.”