As land rents rise along with corn and soybean prices, forage acreage may take a hit, which makes it tough on livestock and dairy producers to grow enough feed.
Ken Albrecht, an agronomist with the University of Wisconsin, spoke with the Crop Improvement Association members at their recent annual meeting about his continuing research into late planting of oats as a forage crop.
That research has become especially of interest to farmers who face forage shortages this year as the result of drought.
Albrecht started the research about 10 years ago and has been attempting to answer a number of questions about what planting date is optimal and "will autumn sown oats yield enough forage to make it worthwhile?"
The weather and changing temperatures are one focus of the research. When oats are sown in the spring temperatures are rising and daylight is increasing. In the autumn, temperatures start high and then fall along with decreasing daylight.
"We wanted to know what effect these conditions would have on the forage quality and feed value," he said.
Albrecht cautioned growers at the meeting against trying to harvest oats for grain in July and then turn around and use that seed to plant an autumn forage crop.
Because there is a dormancy response and because seed needs to go through a "vernalization" or cooling period to become fertile, that system doesn't work too well.
Trying that method will result in poor germination and poor stands.
While a fall planting of oats for forage isn't going to yield as much as a stand of forage oats planted in the spring, Albrecht has been measuring the value of it, especially as increasingly farmers have to push for extra forages from their cropland.
In trials with three varieties, "Jim", "Gem" and "Forage Plus" he found that digestibility is much greater in the autumn-grown oats as compared to summer-harvested forages.
"We see lower yields, but substantially better feed values. There is a greater accumulation of water-soluble carbohydrates in the autumn-planted oats. Those include sugars, fructans and other rapidly digestible carbohydrates."
The later maturing, leafy "Forage Plus" produced better quality forage in the autumn compared to the other varieties tested, he added.
Albrecht and his team also did trials to try to determine the optimum date for planting oats as a fall forage, and when it's just too late to try it.
They tried different varieties, including "Vista," "Badger," "Kame," "Esker," "Forage Plus," and experimental 8859-1 in four replications. They were planted on August 2, 16 and 30. The trial was conducted for three years.
All the plots were harvested on October 20. Albrecht said they tried to identify early and late varieties based on spring data.
What they found was very good yields on the August 2 planting. The August 16 planting depended on environmental conditions and the last planting date was "really a waste of time" he concluded.
"August 2 was by far the best of these three planting dates. Vista and Esker were the top yielders. The Forage Plus oat has more leaf than stem, which also affects tonnage.
The best planting yielded forages from 2.1 to 2.9 tons per acre. "These are pretty good yields. It's about half of what we'd expect from alfalfa but if we're putting this into land that would otherwise be lying idle at that time of year it may be something to think about."
The NDF (neutral detergent fiber) turned out to be the lowest (best) in the Forage Plus crop with digestibility that was quite high. "In vitro digestibility improved on later-maturing lines because there was less stem."
Seedsmen have the opportunity to open a new market for small grains like oats as farmers may increasingly want to consider using crops like this as a later-season forage. Increasingly many farmers are also growing crops like this to cover their soil for the winter.
Farmers in the group said Albrecht's study design has a flaw in it - the one-time-only harvest date on October 20. The results of the research would be a more valuable if oats for fall forage were harvested when they reached the optimal feed and tonnage value.
Rick Kratz said he has used this kind of small grain forage program on a number of farms and the forage can be harvested much later than mid-October and still yield substantial amounts of forage. Some small grains can even shake off frost and continue to grow.
"It can give you a couple more silos of feed that you wouldn't otherwise have," Kratz said.