Oats could address forage shortage on prevented planting acres

By Allen Gahler and Stan Smith, Ohio State University Extension

Last week, USDA released the declaration that a cover crop planted onto prevented planting acres can now be harvested as a forage after Sept. 1, rather than the normal date of Nov. 1, which provides a small glimmer of hope for some livestock producers and those equipped to harvest forages. While Ohio is experiencing a severe shortage of forages for all classes of livestock, weed control on prevented planting acres is also a major concern. With USDA’s declaration, we can now address both problems in one action — seeding cover crops that will be harvestable as a forage after Sept. 1.

As with everything else this season, however, patience is the key. Although an ideal situation would be cover crops that can be put out immediately and reduce the need for tillage, chopping, or spraying of weeds already present, there are unfortunately not many species of cover crop that will accomplish this and still provide significant tonnage or feed quality as a forage in September. Sorghum/Sudangrass seed is in very tight supply, soybeans as a cover may not be ideal for making hay or producing desired tonnages, and corn as a cover crop is still questionable in terms of insurance payments, and whether or not we can get it dry enough to make good silage. Teff grass, pearl millet, and Italian ryegrass may be good options if you can locate seed and get them established, but if planted now, they may be ready for harvest prior to Sept. 1, and quality will be sacrificed. Most other species of crops that fit the bill for making a good forage simply won’t work well at all if planted right now. So, again, we wait. But once we get to late July or early August, our options begin to open up.

Our traditional cover crops of cereal rye, annual ryegrass, oats, peas, turnips, and other brassicas have been used by livestock producers for many years with good success at producing forages. There are several good articles, fact sheets, and recommendations on these crops used as an annual forage following a wheat crop, or even aerial seeded into standing soybeans and corn acres available in our library at www.u.osu.edu/beef, and on the OSU Extension forage site at www.forages.osu.edu. With over 15 years of experience with summer planted oats under our belts, preceded by and intermixed with several years of experience with cereal rye, brassicas, and grasses, we know there’s still plenty of time to “create” anywhere from one to five tons of forages in wheat stubble or prevented plant fields. From our experiences with many operations in all parts of the state, and on our own farms in Northwest Ohio and Southeastern Ohio, oats would be the species of choice to provide the lowest input, most readily available forage, with the best chance for significant tonnage this year.

The ideal situation is planting oats into vacant fields resulting from Prevented Planting or harvested wheat on or around Aug. 1. Existing weeds must be controlled prior to planting with a herbicide application. With just a little moisture (no pun intended), and a small amount of nitrogen, you might be surprised at the growth you can get out of oats planted in late July or August.

Oat hay is an acceptable forage for all classes of livestock, and while nutrient content will vary depending on maturity at harvest, we have repeatedly seen oats harvested at 60 days of growth with crude protein levels from 12% to 19%, and digestible organic matter as high as 65%. If you are looking to make dry hay, it can be a challenge in late September or October, often requiring 5 to 7 days after being cut, but it is certainly possible, and small amounts of rain during the dry down process will not deteriorate this forage nearly as rapidly as alfalfa and other grasses. If you do not get that window to cut them for dry hay, it may cost a little more, but having the oats wet-wrapped beats the alternative of having no hay available. Your cows, goats, and sheep will literally run you over to get to it once you start feeding it.

There are some options on oats as far as what to plant, including forage type oats that are bred specifically for forage production, bin run oats that may be harvested locally or around Ohio yet this summer, or feed oats that are likely shipped in from Canada and used in many of our livestock rations at co-ops all around the state. Depending on your goal, all three sources of seed will work. If you are feeding dairy cows or maybe even looking at horse quality hay, forage oats will be more expensive, but are likely the best option, as nutrient levels tend to be higher, given the later maturity of the plant and the lower likelihood of the plant trying to form a seedhead. Fungus issues in the form of rust are about the only major issue we see in any type of oats seeded for forage, but the varieties bred for forage production are generally less susceptible, helping keep these more palatable as hay. If you plan to use this option, contact your seed dealers ASAP to check on availability.

If you are simply looking for the cheapest and easiest source of seed, and are not as concerned about germination, seed quality, or foreign material in your seed, then locally produced oats are your best option. Be aware that many oats were planted late this year, may not yield as much as needed, and likely will have significant weed seed in them at harvest, so cleaning would be a must, or we lose sight of the original intent of covering the ground on prevented plant acres.

The final option of utilizing feed grade oats as the seed is likely the most realistic and economical option. First off, most feed oats have come from Canada, where production has not been an issue, and we have not talked to any co-op or feed mill that has any indication of a tightening supply or major cost increase. Feed oats are usually triple-cleaned to provide horse quality feed, so weed seeds should not be present, and you can likely buy these in bulk from your local co-op for $15 to $22 per hundred weight.

Once you have obtained a source of seed that is right for you, the establishment is usually pretty simple: no-till 60 to 90 pounds into harvested wheat fields, or prevented plant fields anytime from late July up until early September. It appears that late July or early August may be the optimum time to plant oats when high-quality forage is the goal. “Spring” oats seldom make seed when planted after the days begin to shorten in July, but will continue to grow leaves until Thanksgiving or after in Ohio. Consider applying 40-50 units of nitrogen about 60 days before you plan to harvest them, regardless of the harvest method for optimal nitrogen use. Common scenarios for this include broadcasting urea ahead of the drill, mixing UAN 28% with Roundup if a burndown is needed, or applying ammonium sulfate after germination. Conventional till planting scenarios have worked as well and could be required this year depending on weed control up until planting time, but typically drier conditions make germination and early growth slightly less productive with oats.

While many of the hardest hit portions of Northwest Ohio may not even have their own livestock or be considering grazing options, it could be relevant in some areas where fences exist around prevented plant acres, and some of these areas could also have the need for spring forages.

If your primary needs are forage for grazing, hay, or silage next spring, cereal rye appears to be the best alternative. The opportunity exists to graze it in the late summer and fall, however, the most abundant tonnage will come in the spring. In addition to planting it with the options mentioned above for oats, you may also no-till it after row crop harvest — particularly soybeans and silage corn — this fall.

If your primary needs are grazeable forages as soon as possible, consider turnips or a combination of oats and turnips. Previous summers we’ve seen good results locally when planting a “grazing turnip” such as Appin in combination with oats. If some precipitation is received shortly after planting, this combination could be strip grazed as early as 5 to 6 weeks after planting. The oats will provide some additional fiber in this grazing mix, and the Appin turnips will continue to regrow after being topped off with early grazing.

As you review your options, realize that at times seed oats are difficult to purchase this time of year. Contact the Ohio Seed Improvement Association or visit http://www.ohseed.org for a list of growers who may have seed oats available.

If you take the opportunity to try any of these extended grazings or forage production alternatives, please keep us updated on your progress and success. We hope to be able to follow along with some real-time updates through the summer and fall with the status of cover crop forage plantings, and we also have plans to seed trials at the North Central Agricultural Research station near Fremont that will evaluate seeding dates, variety of oats, and possibly the benefits of a fungicide application on oats planted for forage. Many fact sheets and articles are available on these forages at your local extension office, the OSU Beef team website, the OSU Forage team website, or at www.ohioline.osu.edu

If you have questions or would like further information, feel free to contact Allen at the Sandusky County office 419-334-6340 or gahler.2@osu.edu, or Stan at the Fairfield County office 740-653-5419 or smith.263@osu.edu.

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