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Spring Oats for Forage Production

Over the last several years, cattle producers across the state have found spring oats to provide excellent spring pasture and hay. With reasonable inputs, spring oats can provide a bridge for producers short on available pasture in April and May until perennial pasture or summer annual forage production becomes available. In addition, it may help fill some of the gaps producers have this year with the dry conditions.

In northwest Kansas, the optimal date is from the first week of March through the end of 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. 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.

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 firm seedbed is necessary for optimal production. Under adequate soil moisture conditions, a seeding depth of 1/2 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.

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 and production.

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.