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Drought conditions that stretched through the Plains for several years cut hay and forage supplies for livestock. A Kansas State University agronomist says spring oats, managed properly, can help ease the tension of tight hay supplies.
"With the conditions of the last several years, many producers have had problems getting adequate hay and grazing production from pastures," says K-State Research and Extension agronomist Vic Martin. "Recent winter precipitation provides an opportunity for producers who need a quick supply of forage from spring pasture, silage, or high-quality hay for next fall and winter. Spring oats may be an option for producers in this situation."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that U.S. hay stocks had dropped to an 18-year low of 96.4 million tons as of December 1, 2006. Stocks fell by eight percent since December 1, 2005.
The Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service rated hay and forage supplies at 51% very short to short, 48% adequate, and one percent surplus as of February 4, 2007. Hay was in short supply throughout the state and feed supplies were short in western and southern areas.
But Martin, who is a grazing systems specialist based at K-State's South Central Experiment Field in Hutchinson, says that while best suited for hay or silage, oats can also provide high-quality pasture in April and May, until other grazing sites are available.
When properly stored, oats can also provide high-quality hay for next fall and winter.
Martin provided tips for producers who are considering using oats as pasture:
Treat oat pasture as you would winter wheat pasture when determining stocking rates and when to place cattle in terms of vegetative growth.
Grain production is not recommended under grazing oats, so the length of pasture production will depend on stocking rate and weather.
Oats should be harvested for silage from late milk through early dough stages. Expect silage with a TDN of about 60%, and 9 percent protein on a dry basis.
Oats should be harvested for hay in the late boot to early heading stage. Harvested at the soft dough stage, hay should have an approximate TDN of 56% with 10% protein, both on a dry basis. A nitrate test is recommended when harvesting oats for hay.
Before planting oats, check herbicide applications on the field. Oats are especially sensitive to triazine herbicides.
The optimal planting date varies, depending on the area of the state. In southeast Kansas, the optimal range is February 20 to March 15, and in northwest Kansas, March 1 through March 31. The ideal planting date in most of the rest of the state ranges from late February through mid-March. After the optimal planting dates, production will typically be limited.
To maximize pasture production potential, plant toward the early side of the optimal range of planting dates.
Test the soil.
Seed at a rate of two bushels per acre when planting for pasture, although under good soil conditions, three bushels per acre may be preferable for grazing.
When grown for hay or silage, fertility recommendations are similar to those for grain production -- 75 to 125 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but when planted for grazing, an additional 30 pounds per acre of nitrogen is recommended.
"Oats may be successfully planted no-till," Martin says. "However, growth and vigor are typically greater where pre-plant tillage is used."
In either case, a fine, firm seedbed is necessary for optimal production and winter annual weeds should be controlled either with tillage or with a burn-down herbicide prior to planting.
"Herbicides are available, although many are not permitted under forage production," Martin says. "Before using any herbicides, producers should always check the label."