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Wheat’s Early, Are Oats a Doublecrop ‘Forage’ Option?

By Stan Smith

With Ohio’s wheat crop coming off early this year, those who may need additional forage have an excellent opportunity for acres to be available where annual forages can be planted and grazed or harvested yet this year. For those wanting acres available for multiple grazings or cuttings later this summer, a summer annual such as sorghum-sudangrass may be the logical choice. However, if the forage need is not immediate, but rather a single grazing or cutting in late summer or fall is preferred, based on our experience in Fairfield County with oats planted after wheat harvest over the past 20+ years, oats are a low cost yet high quality feed alternative. In fact, if planted most any time in July or August, there’s an opportunity to grow anywhere from two to five tons of forage on a dry matter basis while investing little more than the cost of 80-100 pounds of oats, 45+/- pounds of nitrogen, and some time and labor.

With wheat harvest so early this year there may be the urge to get a second crop forage planted immediately. If planting a summer annual such as sorghum-sudangrass an earliest possible planting date is important. However, over the years we’ve found it’s NOT important to rush to get oats planted as soon as possible after wheat harvest. In fact, since oats typically result in a single cutting and offer little regrowth potential, 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. Without getting into a science lesson, it seems the oats prefer the cooler average daily temperatures we typically experience beginning in August, and they are less likely to push out a seed head, but remain vegetative until extremely cold temperatures shut them down completely sometime in December.

Not only does an August 1 planting date seem to offer more yield and higher quality oats, but it also allows ample time to complete harvest, apply manure, and control any perennial weeds and volunteer wheat that might be present. Considering the continuing challenges with marestail, the time and effort spent post wheat harvest and pre-oat planting would be valuable for controlling this and other weeds.

Based on experiences with summer planted oats since 2002, consider these management suggestions:

  • Optimum planting date for oats from the perspective of yield is not until late July or the first of August. Early August plantings also have resulted in the highest total amount of TDN produced per acre. Later plantings will be slightly higher in quality, but typically not enough so to offset the yield advantage of an August 1 planting. While being more conducive to a mechanical harvest in early Fall, planting in early to mid-July reduces both yield and quality. The earlier oat plantings also have exhibited more susceptibility to rust.
  • Since fall harvested oats for forage have shown susceptibility to crown rust. A timely application of fungicide can prevent crown rust and improve oats digestibility.
  • Regardless the planting date, or variety, no-tilled seeding rates of from 80 to 100 pounds of oats have consistently resulted in optimum forage yields.
  • Optimum nitrogen application rate has been 40 to 50 pounds per acre. This application not only produces the highest yields, but at current values of nitrogen, it’s also the most cost effective rate. Higher rates of nitrogen actually depressed yields in our 2008 plots.
  • Over the years, many growers have been successful using bin run ‘feed’ oats originating in Canada. Most of the concerns with utilizing ‘feed’ oats are obvious: no germination test, and the potential for bringing some weed seed onto the farm. Another problem we experienced once was that a few of the Canadian oats in the “feed bin” were apparently winter oats. After getting started in the fall, they went dormant over winter, and then elongated in the spring much like winter wheat does after breaking dormancy.
  • The optimum combination of productivity and quality of August planted oats arrives 60 to 75 days after planting. Apparently due to the heat, oats planted in July mature more quickly and thus, rapidly decline in quality beginning 50 to 60 days after planting in most years.
  • Oats harvested 50-60 days after planting and while still in the boot stage of maturity may offer some regrowth that could be grazed.
  • A weed control application of glyphosate is a necessary and cost effective practice prior to oat planting. If glyphosate resistant marestail is present, a broadleaf killer needs to be included and the proper delay in planting according to the label of that product observed.

An additional advantage observed when using oats for an annual forage crop is the opportunity to capture the total tonnage produced with a single cutting harvest if grazing is not an option. Crops that require multiple mechanical harvests increase costs of production significantly.

If mechanical dry harvested forage is the goal, oats can be planted in early July, and have produced 2.5+/- tons DM by mid September.

As oat forage harvest options typically beginning by November are considered, grazing provides the most effective and affordable alternative. In 2002 one Fairfield County producer strip grazed oats all winter and actually began the calving season on them before the oats ran out in mid-March.

Dry baling oats in the fall has been done around Ohio, but it’s a challenge considering that once cut, oats will dry less than half the rate of grass hay. Cut in November, it typically means at least two weeks or more required to cure them for dry hay harvest. Wet wrapping them is an expensive alternative. Using an in-line bale wrapper/tuber is a less expensive per ton than individually wrapped bales if the equipment is available locally.

Oats won’t die until temperatures have been in the mid 20’s for several hours. That means they’ll still be green and alive in December most years in Ohio. When they finally freeze, and if it’s not a wet winter, growers may be able to let them die and dry while standing, get a few days of dry or frozen weather in January, mow them, rake them, and quickly bale them after they’ve essentially cured while standing.

In Canada, growers have sprayed their oats with glyphosate and let them begin to dry while standing. After a few weeks and at a time when they get a dry week, they mow, rake and bale them all in a day or two. Locally, that’s been done once that I know of which allowed the oats to be baled in late December and January.

If grazing the standing oats is not an opportunity, perhaps chopping and ensiling oats is the best alternative for harvest. This offers several advantages over baling or wet wrapping. Obviously, the issue of curing the plants for dry harvest becomes a moot point. Chopping and ensiling in either a permanent structure or bags is also likely less expensive than wet wrapping individual bales. Perhaps even better, as detailed in the past in this publication, chopped forages are 30 to 60% more digestible than long stem forages.

Admittedly chopping and ensiling is likely more expensive than rolling dry hay, but when you consider you get essentially no storage losses, the timeliness of harvest that is afforded, and the more digestible feed that results, it’s a good alternative. And if you’re able to bunk feed the chopped and ensiled oats, there will be minimal “bale ring” feeding losses experienced.

During the winter of 2013 Ohio Forage and Grassland Council Annual Meeting, I was invited to share the following presentation that includes a number of photos about our past experience of growing oats late in the summer for forage. Oats, planted after wheat harvest, into the stubble, are indeed, a consistently productive and high-quality forage alternative!

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