LANCASTER, Ohio -- Oats, traditionally grown in the spring as a grain crop, can also be planted in the summer as a late season forage, providing a feed alternative for livestock producers short on hay or pasture.
Based on five years of Ohio State University Extension research, oats planted in late July or early August can be grazed well into winter. With high production and feed quality, and low cost, oats are turning out to be one of the best forage crops available to producers.
"We have consistently experienced production of 4 to 7 tons of dry matter with an average of 18 percent protein. In some trials we were still getting 11 percent protein with oats grazed as late as March," said Stan Smith, an OSU Extension program assistant in Fairfield County. "The average production of hay harvested from perennial forages in Ohio is less than half of that. Without including land or harvest costs, the oats produced at that tonnage come at a total cost of less than $25 per ton, even at today's fertilizer prices. Hay, by comparison, is presently valued at $60 to $70 or more per ton."
With forage production down this season due to a spring cold spell and ongoing dry conditions, producers are desperately searching for alternative forages that are easy to establish and won't break the bank.
Planting oats in the summer with the idea of grazing the crop was never thought of as an option in Ohio until Fairfield County Soil and Water Conservation District engineering technician Curt Stivison made a trip to the Heart of America Grazing Conference in 2001. There, Stivison learned about late-planted oats research through the University of Illinois and decided to bring the concept back to Ohio.
"I planted oats in my garden that summer. By Christmas the oats were still growing. At the time I didn't know of anyone else in Ohio growing late-planted oats," said Stivison. "In 2002, I moved the trials to a crop field, with similar results, and through collaboration with Stan Smith, we've been conducting late-planted oat trials ever since."
Unlike spring oats, which are planted in March or April, head out in June and die soon after maturing, late season oats no longer produce seeds. As a result, all of the energy is put into leaf production (the source of dry matter protein). Oats will continue to grow until a significant freeze stops them, which in some cases can be as late as the end of December.
Late-season oats can be seeded after wheat harvest, or interseeded with corn or soybeans.Though oats won't grow as tall in the presence of other crops, they can increase the overall quality of crop residues because of their high protein content, making corn fodder and soybean stubble more nutritional for livestock. Late-season oats can be grazed in the field, baled like hay, or ensiled.
Smith said oats are a more attractive forage alternative than sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, cereal rye or annual rye grass for a number of reasons:
• When oats are planted after July 1, variety has no impact on forage yields. "We've used bin run seed, certified seed, treated seed, U.S. grown feed oats and Canadian feed oats and found essentially no difference in the resulting forage production," said Smith. "That essentially means that producers can plant the cheapest oats they can find and still get good yields." By comparison, sorghum seed costs 2 to 3 times more.
• Oats are a "scavenger" for nutrients and require little additional fertilizer. We've applied 18 to 50 units of supplemental nitrogen to July and early August planted oats and experienced similar yields with each rate," said Smith. "Fertilizer demand of sorghum-sudangrass hybrids is 3 to 4 times that."
• Oats tend to tolerate dry conditions better than other alternatives. In fact, some of the best yields generated have been in July, August and September when precipitation was below normal.
• If a producer's primary need is to provide forage for this summer and winter, oats are their best option, as opposed to cereal rye or annual rye grass. Cereal rye and annual rye grass, while both will grow in the fall, will not reach nearly the height that oats will before going into winter dormancy. "Cereal rye and annual rye grass are good crops if producers are looking for feed for next spring," said Smith. "Oats don't need to go dormant to elongate. They will reach maximum height and growth about 75 days after planting. Also, late-season oats do not need to be killed in order to plant a spring crop because they will eventually die over the winter. "
Late-season oats are also a very forgiving crop, and tend to re-grow top growth if grazed before reaching maturity.
"We used to think that fescue was the best crop you could grow as a winter forage, but that's turning out to not be the case," said Smith. Researchers tested fescue along with oats and found that the protein content of oats was anywhere from 4 to 10 percent higher, depending on the month harvested.
Stivison recently seeded his now dormant pastureland with late-season oats, in the hopes of adding to his forage production options.
"Because of the hot weather, the cool-season grasses have shut down, and they won't come out of dormancy until it gets cooler. And even when they do break dormancy, there won't be enough grass available for grazing," said Stivison. "There's no reason to think that oats grown on dormant pastureland can't produce the same results we've seen in crop fields."
OSU Extension will be offering field days in July and August to provide producers more information on forage options and the late-season oat trials. For more information on upcoming field days, visit the OSU Extension Beef Team web calendar at http://beef.osu.edu. For more information on the late-season oat trials, log on to http://fairfield.osu.edu/ag/graze/wntrgraz.htm.