Earl Canfield and son Matthew
COMPANION CROP: Earl Canfield and son Matthew filled the grass box on their grain drill while planting oats with an underseeding on their farm near Dunkerton last April.

Choose the right oat variety for your farm

As with corn and soybeans, oat variety selection is critical.

For Iowa farmers looking to grow oats, planting season is only a couple months away. If you haven’t purchased oat seed yet, now is the time. As with corn and soybeans, selecting the right oat variety for the fields you farm is important.

Earl Canfield farms with his family near Dunkerton. He says the process of determining which oat variety to plant hinges on several factors. “One, if we're going to sell whole oats, it's got to have quality —nutrient content, test weight, etc. — so we’re buying certified seed,” he says. Canfield sells oats, hay and straw to nearby livestock farmers. “We want to produce good-quality grain, but also good-quality bedding as oat straw.”

Canfield evaluated variety trial data to help inform his decision-making process on picking an oats variety. While Iowa State University no longer has an active oat breeding program, it, along with Practical Farmers of Iowa, has been evaluating oat varieties developed in other states for their suitability in Iowa for the past few years. You can find the 2016 results by visiting the PFI website and searching for “Oat variety trials.”

Consider your end use
Kevin Smith is a professor of agronomy at the University of Minnesota, where he leads oat and barley breeding. “It’s important for farmers to consider how the crop will be used after harvest. Will it be destined for animal use as hay or straw, or will it be used for grain [milling]? These considerations will help a farmer decide which variety best suits their growing and postharvest needs,” he says. 

Mac Ehrhardt is the owner of Albert Lea Seed House in Minnesota, which sells many different varieties of organic and conventional oats (along with other small grains, corn, bean and forage seed). He agrees with Smith that the first step is determining your end use. “We always want to ask,  What’s the end use? Is the ultimate goal that they’re trying to grow it for a miller like Grain Millers?” For milling, he says high test weight oats are essential. After determining end use, variety selection also depends on geographic region and whether or not the farmer intends to underseed oats with clover or alfalfa.

Reins performs well in trials
For farmers looking to sell to a miller, Ehrhardt really likes Reins, a new oat variety released by the University of Illinois in 2015 that’s performed well in variety trials across the upper Midwest. “Reins is my favorite because it’s got great test weight, it’s early, good standing, and has good crown rust resistance, at least for the time being,” he says. “It kind of clicks all the boxes.”

He suspects that Reins will probably sell out quickly. If you can’t get a hold of Reins, its predecessor Saber, another Illinois variety, is still pretty good, he says. “Saber continues to look decent — little above average for yield, right at average for crown rust, and above average test weight.” He likes Saber a lot for underseeding because it’s relatively early maturing and good standing.

Oats with a legume
Canfield says although he did sell the oat grain to livestock owners for feed, he also wanted good forage establishment. “We wanted an oat variety that would be noted for being a good nurse crop. We found that characteristic in Saber,” he says. He planted Saber underseeded with an alfalfa-fescue-orchardgrass mix, and was pleased with the results.

For one field, Canfield planted the oats “naked” or without an underseeding, to see how it affected yield. Ehrhardt says for that, or for growers looking to produce cover crop seed, Deon can work well. “If you’re not going to underseed your oats with clover or alfalfa, Deon is an awesome choice because it’s extremely high yielding, still seems to be carrying some crown rust resistance, and has pretty good test weight,” he says. Ehrhardt doesn’t recommend Deon for farmers who underseed forages. That’s because the variety is later maturing; it makes establishment for the forage crop problematic.

Consider your region
Smith says lodging resistance is probably the biggest challenge facing Midwestern oat varieties, followed by resistance to crown rust. “If you could find varieties at least moderately resistant to those two stresses, grain quality and grain yield will be improved and fields will be easier to harvest,” he says.

But finding geographically appropriate varieties may require farmers to look through the university trials. “Look for varieties that have historically performed well in your specific region and for varieties that show resistance to diseases that might be more prevalent in your region,” he says. “Sometimes it could be barley yellow dwarf virus, smut or crown rust.” Evaluating oat varieties for susceptibility to disease is important because greater disease presence during the growing season reduces the potential for a higher test weight oat, which can limit the potential to sell the crop to millers.

Earlier-maturing oats for Iowa
Smith adds that maturity date is also important. “Earlier-maturing oat varieties should be targeted in more Southern regions to avoid the grain fill period overlapping with the hottest part of summer, something that drastically affects grain yield and quality.”

Ehrhardt agrees with Smith that Iowa farmers should, in general, look for earlier-maturing oats to plant. “The later the oats head, the higher the likelihood that it’s going to be heading at a time when there’s hot weather,” he says. “Late oats, in general, aren’t a great choice as you move them South.”

You can find the results of small grain variety trials from surrounding states on PFI’s small-grains page.

Spreading out oat harvest
Earl Canfield of Dunkerton in northeast Iowa says that an efficient oat harvest takes planning. The year 2015 was the first year he’d grown the crop on a larger acreage. “Harvesting and dealing with production of a field of oats is different from corn or soybeans,” he says. “You're able to harvest and process those grains much more quickly per acre than you can with a crop like oats. So we knew we needed to spread out our oat varieties, and that seemed to work out pretty good this year.”

By planting some fields to earlier-maturing varieties like Saber and other fields to later-maturing varieties like Deon, he was able to spread the oat harvest out over a period of about three weeks. “Because we sold both the grain and the straw that gave us the time we needed to swath and harvest the grain, and to bale and harvest the straw.”

Small-grains ‘learning project’
In 2016, Canfield and seven other farmers around the state new to small-grains production participated in a pilot project with Practical Farmers of Iowa and other partners. The project looked to examine and eliminate the roadblocks to growing more small grains in the Corn Belt, by working with farmers to improve production and with food companies to supply markets for their products. Farmers interested in participating in the next phase of the project can contact Sarah Carlson with PFI at 515-232-5661 or [email protected].

Editor’s note: Ohde writes for Practical Farmers of Iowa, based in Ames. Contact him at [email protected].



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