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Are spring oats worth the gamble for Kansas farmers?

Through the last several years, cattle producers have found spring oats to provide excellent spring pasture and hay. With the growing popularity of spring and fall oats, and thus supply and demand, oat seed might not be as inexpensive as it once was -- or as easy to find if you wait too long. Nonetheless, with reasonable fertilizer inputs, it can provide an excellent bridge for producers short on available pasture in the spring. Sure it has got to rain, and we all know that is a gamble, but farmers and ranchers have to gamble or they wouldn't be in the business.

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 easily are 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 might extend the window for effective pasture production. Oat pasture also is being used successfully in sheep production.

Properly stored, oat hay also provides a high-quality feed source. 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 percent with 10-percent 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 percent and 9-percent protein on a dry weight basis.

Cultural practices

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

Optimal planting date in northwest Kansas is from the first week of March through the end of March. For most of the state, planting is recommended from late February through mid-March. However, adequate pasture is practical after the optimum planting date. To maximize pasture production potential, it is necessary to plant as early as possible. The flip side to that is the potential of some frost damage to oats in the spring as well.

A seeding rate of two bushels per acre is recommended. Under good soil moisture or irrigation, three bushels per acre might be preferable for grazing. When grown for hay or silage, fertility recommendations are similar to those for grain production; however, oats can have a lodging problem with excessive fertility and precipitation, probably not a concern this year. This year, a more conservative fertility approach is probably best, maybe around 30 pounds per acre of N. If it starts to rain, more might be broadcast later. As always, a soil test is recommended.

Oats might be planted successfully no-till, and conventional till when moisture is adequate. 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 0.5 to 1 inch is preferable. Oats can be planted at depths greater than 1 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 burn-down herbicide prior to planting. Weed control is best achieved through a good stand with rapid growth.

If you need any further information on growing oats, contact your local K-State Research & Extension office.

Stacy Campbell is Ellis County agricultural agent with Kansas State Research and Extension.