Oats as Emergency Forage

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

Oats, while traditionally grown in the spring as a grain crop, can also be planted in the summer as late season forage, providing a feed alternative for livestock producers short on hay or pasture.

Based on research at The Ohio State University, oats planted in late July or early August can be grazed well into winter. With high yield and quality, and low cost, oats could turn out to be one of the best forage crops available to producers.

Dry matter yields can approach 4 to 7 tons with an average of 18 percent protein. With forage production down this season due to a late spring freeze, and ongoing dry conditions, alternative forages that are easy to establish and won’t break the bank, are of great importance to producers.

Unlike spring oats, planted in March or April, head out in June and die soon after maturing, late season oats no longer produce seeds. As a result, all of the energy is put into leaf production. Oats will continue to grow until a significant freeze stops them, which in some cases can be as late as the end of December.

Late-season oats can be grazed in the field, baled like hay, or ensiled.

Oats can be a viable forage alternative to sorghum-Sudan grass hybrids, cereal rye or annual rye grass for a number of reasons:

When oats are planted after July 1, variety has no impact on forage yields. Bin run seed, certified seed, treated seed, U.S. grown feed oats and Canadian feed oats were used in trials, with essentially no difference in forage production found. So producers can plant the cheapest oats they can find and still get good yields.

Oats will scavenge for nutrients and require little additional fertilizer. In trials, 18 to 50 units of supplemental nitrogen were applied to July and early August planted oats and yields bore little difference. Fertilizer demand of sorghum-Sudan grass hybrids is 3 to 4 times that. Oats tend to tolerate dry conditions better than other alternatives. In fact, some of the best yields generated have been in July, August and September when precipitation was below normal.

For producers whose primary need is forage for late summer and winter, oats are a better option, as opposed to cereal rye or annual rye grass. Cereal rye and annual rye grass, will grow in the fall, but will not reach the height that oats will, before going into winter dormancy. Cereal rye and annual rye grass are excellent when producers need forage for next spring. Oats do not need to go dormant to elongate. They achieve maximum height and growth about 75 days after planting.

Late-season oats are a forgiving crop, and tend to re-grow top growth if grazed before reaching maturity. Researchers tested fescue along with oats and found that the protein content of oats was anywhere from 4 to 10 percent higher, depending on the month harvested.

With the drought and scalding temperatures, the cool-season grasses have shut down, and they won’t come out of dormancy until it gets cooler. And once they do break dormancy, there won’t be enough grass available for grazing, so oats grown on dormant pastureland may be a viable option, provided we get some fall moisture.

Damon Pollard
Extension Agent