Seeding oats in late-July or early-August following wheat for an early-October harvest can be a useful low-cost option for extending forage supplies. Oats can make good feed when harvested at the correct stage of maturity and made into “oatlage” or baleage. Oats are more frost tolerant in the fall than sorghums, and can continue growth after some frost. The challenges can sometimes be lack of adequate moisture in August, and having dry enough weather in October for adequate wilting. Oats can also be pastured if fence is available.
Oats normally require about 60 days of growth following germination to reach the boot-stage. However, summer seeded oats tend to mature more slowly as days shorten in the fall, so may require an additional 10 days or so. Oats seeded on August 1st would typically be ready to harvest in early-October.
Many prefer to no-till drill oats into wheat stubble to save time and moisture. Volunteer wheat will also provide forage, although winter wheat will not form a stem in the fall to provide significant growth. Alternative seeding methods are to broadcast the oats and then incorporate them with a light disc or cultivator, or to seed into a prepared seedbed using a conventional drill. Summer seeded oats are commonly seeded at about 100 lbs per acre (3 bu/ac).
There are oat varieties specifically marketed as “forage” varieties. They tend to be higher yielding, later maturing, and with less disease resistance. However, Ontario does not have a third-party forage oat variety testing program to evaluate variety performance and seed company claims. Many producers use double-cleaned or weed-free bin-run oats to minimize costs.
Stage of maturity for optimum forage quality is at the “boot-stage” (head beginning to emerge from leaf whirl). Harvested at the boot-stage, fall grown oats are highly digestible and palatable. With cooler temperatures and shorter days, fall grown oats often have higher digestible energy than spring seeded oats. Boot-stage oatlage is excellent feed for dairy heifers and beef cows, but may not be adequate to include in high producing dairy cow rations. At the boot-stage, cereals are typically about 16.5% crude protein and 54% NDF with good fibre digestibility. Once headed, nutritional quality declines rapidly. Harvesting at the headed or early-milk stages will provide more yield, but will have much lower digestible energy and protein. Wet chemistry rather than NIRS laboratory analysis of cereal forage is recommended.
Drying oats to the desired harvest moisture during October weather can be challenging. Days are cool and short, dews are heavy, and “rain delays” while lying in a swath can be significant.
Oats, Barley, Triticale, Peas?
Many find that oat forage is the most palatable of the cereals. Some producers avoid barley and triticale because of concerns about feeding the awns. Oats tend to out-yield barley when establishment conditions are poor. Triticale seed is expensive and hard to source. At the same stage of maturity, oats, barley and triticale are very similar in feed quality.
Cereal-pea mixtures are popular as a spring seeded companion crop. Peas added to cereals improve forage quality, but do not necessarily increase yields. Summer seeded peas dislike hot, dry conditions even more than cereals. Pea growth is often quite variable depending on moisture. Peas are more succulent and higher in moisture than oats, and can be very difficult to wilt in the fall. Pea mixtures may lie in the swath for an extended period of time with the risk of being rained-on. Lush cereal-pea mixtures can be difficult to cut. Seed is more expensive. Despite these concerns, peas improve forage quality where meeting high nutritional requirements is a priority, such as for high producing dairy cows. If a cereal-pea mixture is sown to improve feed quality, at least 50% should be peas, with a total seeding rate of about 110 – 120 lbs/ac. This will typically increase crude protein by 2 – 4% and decrease NDF by 2 – 4.5% over straight cereals.
Fertilizer, Insects and Disease?
Nitrogen (N) is essential for reasonable forage yields. Manure or fertilizer can supply N, but growth without nitrogen will be very disappointing. Apply 50 lbs/acre of actual N for adequate growth before tillering (3 weeks after germination). P and K will be removed in the forage, but it is not essential to replace or add any P or K during the growth of the emergency forage crop.
Crown rust is a potential problem in summer seeded oats. Crown rust can defoliate the oat crop and decimate yields if infection is severe. Monitor and apply a fungicide if disease levels warrant. Refer to OMAFRA Publication 812, Field Crop Protection Guide www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/pub812/4ocrust.htm.
Summer seeded cereals are more susceptible to aphids, which in turn vector the disease Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV). BYDV can severely stunt the crop, and dramatically reduce forage yields. Cruiser seed treatment offers early-growth control of aphids.
Fall Rye, Winter Wheat or Winter Triticale?
If forage is needed next spring rather than this fall, winter cereals are an option. These winter-annual crops will out-yield summer seeded annual cereals harvested in the fall. Fall rye grown for silage can provide a significant amount of feed, but must be harvested at the correct stage of maturity for forage quality (flag-leaf to boot-stage). This will typically occur in early-May, and then another crop can be planted. (Fall Rye For Silage www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/fallrye.htm) Little research data exists for winter triticale grown as a forage in Ontario. Some New York research suggests winter triticale yields can be higher than rye or wheat.
Other Forage Options?
Do not ignore wheat fields that have red clover underseeded. Red clover makes excellent feed for high producing dairy cows. Refer to “Red Clover Haylage” www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/info_redclover_haylage.htm.
Other species, such as annual ryegrass or sorghum-sudan grass, have not had good success under Ontario conditions when planted after wheat harvest.
Yields Highly Variable
Winterkill, frost damage, insect damage and dry weather have all taken the toll on forage production this year. Forage yields are expected to be significantly reduced, and many farmers are concerned about having adequate forage supplies to meet the needs of their livestock. Yields of summer seeded cereals are highly variable, but under good conditions dry matter yields are typically in the 1 – 1.75 tonne/acre range or more. In years of tight forage supplies, every bit counts. Cereals can be a good low-cost emergency forage option if timely rainfall is received for germination and growth. Of the cereals, oats are the most readily available, and give the best yields and returns for the dollars invested. Peas can be added where higher forage quality is required.
Also refer to “Forage Production From Spring Cereals and Cereal-Pea Mixtures”