Memories of Sowing Oats

Husker Home Place

Although largely forgotten, oats remains one of the most flexible and useful crops on the farm in the Great Plains.

Published on: April 23, 2013

I know. I know. Corn and soybeans are the way of the future. You don’t want to read about anything else. But, this time of year, I have to mention one of my favorite crops – oats. Yes, you read it correctly.

Decades ago where I live, if corn was King, oats came in a close second. Sure, it doesn’t have the traditional significance of wheat. Never considered a major crop, it has wallowed in the large shadows of staple row crops. But, long before soybeans were grown in extreme northeast Nebraska, oats was planted instead of winter wheat as a rotational cereal grain, largely because it does so well, is forgiving in the face of late season frost and it is useful as a forage, grazing and cover crop, as well as providing grain and valuable straw bedding for livestock.

THE OLD SEEDER: The paddles on the oats seeder did good duty, spreading seed over hundreds of acres every Spring.
THE OLD SEEDER: The paddles on the oats seeder did good duty, spreading seed over hundreds of acres every Spring.

Only two decades ago, several thousand acres of oats were planted in the three county area where I live. Our local grain elevator did major business seeding, fertilizing and marketing oats. There were long lines of farmers dumping oats during mid-July harvest.

When I was in school, my parents rarely allowed me to skip classes for any reason. But during oats seeding, I was afforded that opportunity to ride (actually bounce would be more accurate) in the rear of our seeder wagon, scooping oats seed into the hopper. My Dad always picked one of the coldest, windiest days in April to seed oats. After a day or two riding over hundreds of bumpy acres in the rear of that wagon, I literally had to scrape the oats chaff and dust from my eyes. Seeding oats was as much a part of Spring ritual as Easter Sunday and calving time. And most of the time, we experienced a late season, wet snowstorm after seeding that actually seemed to help our stand.

Oats usually disappears from the landscape when corn and soybean prices rise, as they have in recent years. But the crop typically reappears in the fields of our region when commodity crop prices fall, or when there is a shortage of forages and hay, or when farmers need bedding.

One of the best attributes of oats is flexibility. It can be raised for grain, for straw, for a cover crop, as grazing forage, to thicken a thinning pasture, for silage, for hay and to provide forage in a weedy alfalfa field.

In our area, we usually windrowed ripened oats, because this practice allowed us to harvest sooner and dry out any weeds that were growing in the stand, making harvest easier, especially for the earlier combines that didn’t have much capacity. After combining oats in July (and suffering through itchy chaff down our backs) we usually disked the stubble to seed the lighter oats that had escaped harvest. Late summer rains germinated the seed and our cows enjoyed early September or October grazing on lush, green oats pasture. With lots of livestock around, the oats stubble also provided a place to spread manure. The crop worked well into almost any rotation, built up the soil with ample roots and stubble, broke the typical weed and insect cycles of row crops, and allowed for plenty of flexible uses, depending on your needs.

Today, I know oats is still being planted by a few farmers in my area for seed, going into cover crop mixtures, or into the horse feed market. Back in 1960, U.S. farmers harvested 26 million acres of oats, according to NASS. Last year, only 2.7 million acres were planted to oats, with half of those acres harvested for hay or a use other than grain. I’m sure there will again come a time when farmers will recognize the important utility role of one of my favorite crops. I even miss riding around in that bumpy old seeder wagon, but I don’t miss scraping the dust from my eyes or the itchy oats dust at harvest time.

Here is this week’s discussion question. Have you ever planted oats on your farm and what did you use the crop for? Grain, hay, oatlage, cover or companion crop, plowdown crop, grazing? Let us know your farm’s oats history.

Be sure to watch Nebraska Farmer online and read our current April print issue of Nebraska Farmer for the latest farm and ranch news for our region. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at Dateline Drought. And watch this blog this upcoming Friday for my new “Field Editor’s Report” featuring the positive stories about the families who raise our food, like Iraqi war veteran, Garrett Dwyer. Pass it on!