If winter annual small grains were not planted last fall for spring forage, opportunities are dwindling to produce additional forage for grazing or hay. One option that remains for quick developing forage is spring-planted oats.
According to Daren Redfearn, Nebraska extension forage and crop residue specialist; Mary Drewnoski, Nebraska extension beef systems specialist; and Jay Parsons, UNL Biosystems agricultural economist, spring oats can improve a deficient spring forage supply. However, there are risks with using this strategy, primarily due to weather and diseases.
In the UNL extension newsletter, BeefWatch, they note that the typical planting window for spring oats in the western Corn Belt is between March 15 and April 1. Optimum planting time is during the third week in March.
If the weather is dry and above freezing temperatures exist in late February and early March, the planting date can be moved closer to March 15. However, if conditions are wet, damp, and cold, planting may be delayed until early April.
Spring planted oats do not produce many tillers. Therefore, a higher seeding rate and slightly shallower planting depth can result in quicker establishment and greater growth.
They note that growth typically improves when seed is drill-planted at a rate of 80 to 100 pounds per acre. In areas with lower precipitation, it is more common for seed to be planted at 40 to 60 pounds per acre. Seeding depth can be up to 1.5 inches, but planting at 0.5 to 0.75 inch accelerates emergence, establishment, and forage production potential.
The extension specialists do not recommend planting bin-run feed oats because these oats often are not tested, may contain weed seeds and other foreign material, and have unknown seed germination. Seed laws typically require that seed being sold for planting purposes have a tag with a recent test result for germination, weed seed, and foreign material.
In good growing conditions, forage production from spring-planted oats often ranges between 2,500 to 5,000 pounds per acre. Based on this amount, nitrogen (N) fertilizer should be applied at a rate of 60 pounds actual N per acre following establishment. When spring temperatures begin rising, oats can mature quite rapidly.
At the proper seeding rate for forage production, the establishment operation, including seed cost, will range from $30 to $40 per acre. Nitrogen fertilizer and application costs will be about $35 to $40 per acre.
Before grazing, oats should be a minimum of 6 inches tall. Each acre of spring-planted oats can provide between 35 and 60 days of grazing when stocked at one mature cow per acre. Growing cattle, up to 750 pounds, can be stocked at about 1.5 animals per acre for 60 days.
To make hay, cut spring-planted oats at early heading. When seedheads begin to emerge, there will be no significant additional yield. Also, nutritive value will decline substantially due to accumulation of stem tissue and leaf loss.
There are some risks involved with spring-planted oats due to weather, insects, and diseases. However, the oats may add forage to a short or nonexistent forage supply.
Sydney Sleep was the 2016 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern and is a junior at South Dakota University.