Spring oats for forage production

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Over the last several years, cattle producers have found spring oats to provide excellent spring pasture and hay. With reasonable fertilizer inputs, spring oats can provide an excellent bridge for producers short on available pasture in April and May until perennial pasture or summer annual forage production becomes available. 

Oat pasture should be treated the same as winter wheat pasture in terms of stocking rates and time to initiate grazing. Since grain production is not practical or recommended under grazing, producers should treat oat pasture as a graze-out program or remove it when ready for the next crop. Oats are easily controlled by a variety of herbicides, such as glyphosate and atrazine. The length of effective grazing is a function of stocking rate and weather. Rotational grazing may extend the window for effective pasture production. Oat pasture is also being used successfully in sheep production.

Properly stored, oat hay also provides a high-quality feed source. Studies at the South Central Experiment Field near Hutchinson indicate hay yields on a dry weight basis of three to five tons per acre are typical under average weather conditions. The average yield across 20 varieties at the Experiment Field is four tons per acre. Hay yield was determined at late milk/early dough stage, with an average moisture content of 60%. 

These hay yields were obtained with 75 lbs/acre of nitrogen (N) applied preplant and an additional 50 lbs/acre N broadcast approximately six weeks after emergence. Lower total N rates will result in adequate forage production, especially hay. However, to maximize grazing opportunities, it is important to supply adequate N. 

For hay, late boot to early heading is the optimal timing to balance quantity with quality considerations. Harvested at the dough stage, hay should have an approximate TDN of 56% with 10% protein, both on a dry basis. A nitrate test is recommended. Prussic acid levels should not be a concern.

Silage is another option for spring oats. Oats should be harvested for silage from late milk through early dough stages. Expect silage with a TDN of approximately 60% and 9% protein on a dry weight basis.

Finally, oats in Kansas may be planted for grain with expected yields of 50 or more bushels per acre most years. However, typical growing conditions during grain fill normally result in low test weights, making the grain unsuitable for food use. Grain from oats is acceptable as livestock feed; however, a market should be identified prior to planting since few markets exist locally.

Cultural practices

Before planting oats, check the herbicide history of the desired field.  Oats are especially sensitive to triazine herbicides. Also, if producers are planting oats for pasture and are considering applying a herbicide for weed control, carefully check the pesticide label for grazing restrictions.

The optimal planting date depends on location. In southeast Kansas, the optimal date ranges from February 20 to March 15. In northwest Kansas, the optimal date is from the first week of March through the end of March. For most of the state, planting is recommended from late February through the mid-March. After the optimal planting range, grain production will be limited most years. However, adequate pasture is practical after the optimum planting date. To maximize pasture production potential, it is necessary to plant as early as possible.

A seeding rate of two bushels per acre is recommended. Under good soil moisture or irrigation, three bushels per acre may be preferable for grazing. When grown for hay or silage, fertility recommendations are similar to those for grain production: 75 to 125 lbs N per acre. When planted for grazing, an additional 30 lbs N per acre is recommended. As always, a soil test is recommended.

Oats may be successfully planted no-till, however, growth and vigor are typically greater when pre-plant tillage is used. No-till is more successful in fields that have been under no-till for a period of years, and riskier in “opportunistic” no-till situations. In either case, a fine, firm seedbed is necessary for optimal production. Under adequate soil moisture conditions, a seeding depth of ½ to 1 inch is preferable. Oats may be planted at depths greater than one inch under dry conditions; however, oat seedlings are less vigorous than wheat and can experience difficulties emerging at deeper planting depths, especially after crusting rains. 

To facilitate planting and maximize forage production, winter annual weeds should be controlled either mechanically or with a burndown herbicide prior to planting. Weed control is best achieved through a good stand with rapid growth. Before using any herbicides consult the label.

For more information, see K-State publication MF-1072, Small Grain Cereals for Forage, at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/MF1072.pdf


 Jim Shroyer, Crop Production Specialist