Spring oats for forage production or as early spring cover crop
Spring oats have become popular as a fall or winter cover crop in Kansas. But they have other uses as well. When planted in late February or early March, cattle producers have found spring oats to provide excellent spring pasture and hay. They can also be planted about this time of year as a cover crop ahead of soybeans, sorghum, or a summer annual forage. In this situation, spring oats could be used either strictly as a cover crop, or as a combination cover crop/forage crop by grazing to capture some immediate economic benefit.
Figure 1. Sorghum growing in the residue from a small grain/winter pea cover crop. This illustrates the type of ground cover that can be generated with an ungrazed small grain cover crop. Photo by Kraig Roozeboom, K-State Research and Extension.
In either case, the key is planting as early as possible – any time now provided the soil isn’t too wet. If planning to leave oat residue in place for no-till planting of the next crop, be sure to terminate the oats before heading -- definitely before seed set. The more mature the oat crop is at termination, the longer-lasting the residue will be. Immature, vegetative oat residue will break down very rapidly. If planting a grass crop such as sorghum or a summer annual grass forage, consider banding nitrogen fertilizer or applying dry fertilizer. Broadcast applications of liquid fertilizer will likely be tied up in the oat residue, especially if it consists of a thick layer of relatively mature oat plants.
One caution: If you intend to follow the oats with a no-till summer crop, be aware that animal traffic might cause problems for the no-till seedbed, especially if the oats are grazed when the soil is wet.
If used as an early spring cover crop with some grazing, spring oats can provide some extra income. If used as a pure forage crop 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. Spring-planted oats can produce 1,500 to 2,000 lbs dry forage per acre if fertilized with about 75 lbs N /acre. Oat pasture should be treated the same as winter wheat pasture in terms of stocking rates and time to initiate grazing. Grazing should not be initiated before a well-established rooting system that provides good anchorage of young plants to the soil, which generally occurs when plants are 6 inches tall or more. One acre of spring-planted oats can provide about 60 days of grazing to a 750 lbs animal at a 1.5 animal/acre stocking rate.
Since grain production of oats 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, weather, and subsequent cropping plans. 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 was 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 total digestible nutrients (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 because few markets exist locally.
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 an 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, and should not be considered later than April 10. If planted after the optimal planting range, grain production will be limited most years. Adequate pasture is practical with later planting, but it is necessary to plant as early as possible to maximize pasture production potential.
It is important to ensure good seed quality, aiming for a minimum 85% germination to ensure adequate stand. Oat should be drilled at a seeding rate of 100 to 120 lbs per acre. Under good soil moisture or irrigation, rates can be pushed up to three bushels per acre for grazing. It is not recommended to cut down on seeding rate because spring tillering might be limited and oat forage yield may, in some cases, heavily rely on the production of main tillers.
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. Seeding depth can be as deep as 1.5 inches, but often depths of ½ to ¾ inch will increase the rate of emergence, stand establishment, and forage production potential. Oat seedlings are less vigorous than wheat and can experience difficulties emerging at deeper planting depths, especially after crusting rains.
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.
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.
Availability of seed from K-State Foundation Seed
K-State Foundation Seed has foundation seed of the spring oats variety “Jim” for sale. Plant Variety Protection has expired on Jim, so foundation seed is available for general use. Jim is often used as a forage-type spring oat, although it is primarily a grain variety. About 800 bushels are currently available from Foundation Seed. For pricing information, see: http://www.agronomy.k-state.edu/services/ks-foundation-seed/price-list.html
For more information on spring oat production in Kansas, see K-State publication MF-1072, Small Grain Cereals for Forage at: http://www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf1072.pdf
Romulo Lollato, Wheat and Forages Specialist
Kraig Roozeboom, Cropping Systems Agronomist
Alex King, Foundation Seed Manager