Mission Impossible? Growing Quality Oats
By Mac Ehrhardt, President and Co-Owner
Matt Leavitt, Organic Lead/Agronomist
Oats can help farmers spread their workload across a season and provide a crop for on-farm feed and straw and an off-farm crop for the food ingredient market. Livestock producers can feed oats at a variety of maturity stages and quality levels, but for producers growing food-grade oats, quality is king, and low quality grain (i.e. light test weights) can reduce a grower’s marketing options.
For food-grade oats, supply-chain companies, like Grain Millers, will look for oats that are clean with plump, high test-weight kernels.
Occasionally we hear concerns that raising oats is too challenging in certain areas, like southeastern Minnesota, Iowa, and Southern Wisconsin. Raising good quality oats with test weights over 32 lbs. can indeed be difficult if planted late or if weather conditions do not cooperate.
While it’s true that the climate in certain locations is less conducive (too hot, too wet) for producing high-quality, small grains when compared to the traditional “grain belt” areas of the central Plains, farmers in the Upper Midwest still produce oats with test weights greater than 32 lbs. every year – even in 2018, which was a terrible oat year.
Essentially, oats and other small grains quality is tied first to early planting and establishment, and then to weather during pollination and grain fill. Other factors come into play, of course, such as disease and pest damage and fertility.
While conventional producers routinely spray fungicides over the top to maintain quality, organic farmers face a real challenge: getting oats with test weights greater than 36 lbs., which is the magic number for milling oats. Because they cannot use fungicides, organic growers achieve acceptable milling test weights roughly 50 percent of the time. (Some of our growers have tried OMRI-listed over-the-top fungicide or plant health sprays, but with limited success.)
We recommend that organic operations remain flexible, even before planting. [See our article: When is it ‘Too Late’ for Planting Spring Oats, Spring Barley, and Spring Wheat?]
Here are some key production pointers for growers in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa:
- Plant as early as you can to provide a head-start against weeds, preferably before April 15 in southern Minnesota, and as early as mid-March in southern Iowa
- Plant a newer variety that has proven heavy test weight
- Plant a newer variety with good resistance to Crown Rust (this changes each year, as Crown Rust can out-mutate resistance). Check recent trials for latest resistance information, such as our 2018 Small Grain Trial Data
- Make sure that fertility is adequate (a 100 Bu. oat crop requires 73 lbs. of available nitrogen), but don’t overdo it: N fertility rates above an optimum level can actually decrease yields and promote lodging.
- Choose fields for planting that are relatively free of wild oats with minimal to no herbicide carryover.
- Avoid rotating oats immediately following other cereal grains
- Seed oats for grain at a rate of 80 and 130 pounds per acre (depending on variety / seeds per pound).
Figure 1. Grain Millers’ recommended oat variety list by location map.
We also recommend that growers check out The Growth of Oats: A Production Handbook from Grain Millers.
…And organic grain growers: do yourself a favor and subscribe to the University of Wisconsin’s OGRAIN list send. The topics and members are from all over the Midwest, not just Wisconsin. It’s packed with knowledgeable researchers and experienced producers. To join, just send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org