A year for fall oats

By Mike Rankin

Seeding spring oats for a fall harvest is a beautiful thing. It’s rare to hear about a bad experience with the practice. We’re now approaching the optimum time to seed oats for fall forage in the North, so this forage resource is worthy of discussion.

The latest Census of Agriculture pegs oat acres in the U.S. at a little more than 800,000 acres. By contrast, nearly 40 million acres of oats were grown in 1930. Though grain oats are becoming a rarity along most rural roads, forage oats — harvested as hay, oatlage, baleage, or grazed — are gaining in popularity.

Don't think of late summer-sown oats in the same way you think of spring-sown oats. They're two different forages when cut near the boot or early heading stages (if the fall oats produce a head at all).

Whereas spring-sown oats begin under cool conditions and finish under warm temperatures, it's just the opposite for late summer-sown oats. Oats harvested or grazed in the fall have significantly lower fiber levels, higher amounts of water-soluble sugars, and a much higher level of total digestible nutrients (TDN).

During a year like this one, when forage quality and quantity are at a premium and available land for planting is more available, spring oats that are seeded for fall harvest make a lot of sense.

Do it right

“We’ve found it’s not important to rush to get oats planted as soon as possible after wheat harvest,” says Stan Smith, an extension educator in Fairfax County, Ohio. “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,” he adds.

Oats will benefit from cool nights. Tom Kilcer, an independent crop consultant based in Kinderhook, N.Y., points out that aphids can be a problem if oats are planted too early.

“We planted oats once the end of July and by the end of August all the oats were dead because aphids had infected plants with barley yellow dwarf virus,” Kilcer notes in a recent issue of his Crop Soil News newsletter. “Aphids can infect the plant with the virus in less than 30 minutes,” he adds.

If aphids are a concern, Kilcer recommends using a neonic seed treatment to help thwart aphid damage.

Another potential risk with planting too early is that rust can infect the crop.

Both Smith and Kilcer recommend seeding 90 to 100 pounds of seed per acre. There are no benefits to higher seeding rates.

Some producers choose to save money and use bin-run seed from a previous homegrown crop. Though this can be successful, it also comes with the higher risk of unknown seed quality and seed germination percent. Investing in a germination test from your state’s seed lab is a good preseeding investment.

A surer bet is to plant certified seed. This approach offers the opportunity to select an appropriate maturity or plant a variety bred specifically for forage.

Ohio’s Smith also offers the option of planting feed grade oats as seed. He points out that feed oats are usually triple cleaned to eliminate weed seeds and provide horse-quality feed. Feed oats can be purchased in bulk from most local feed retailers, but make sure you’re purchasing spring oats rather than winter oats.

Fertility is key

To maximize both yield and quality, spring oats seeded in late summer will need nitrogen. This can be done with commercial fertilizer at the rate of about 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre, or with a preplant application of manure.

If using manure, Kilcer notes that because much of the nitrogen has to be readily available, higher manure application rates are needed. He also points out that manure-fertilized oats are not appropriate to feed dry dairy cows; the potassium levels in the forage tissue will often be excessively high.

Oats will generally be ready for harvest in 50 to 60 days after planting for early August seedings. To maximize quality, Kilcer suggests cutting when the flag leaf has emerged. Fall-harvested oats are exceptional quality forage. If this type of “rocket fuel” forage isn’t needed, waiting until boot stage or later will add yield and the quality will still be very good.

If the land is available and you’re in need of good to excellent quality forage with a plethora of harvest options, don’t discount seeding oats yet this summer. The time to do so in Northern regions is fast approaching.