Could oats hold the answer the Corn Belt is looking for?

oatsBefore corn and soybeans almost completely covered Iowa’s landscape, most Corn Belt farmers also grew oats or alfalfa. As pressure to produce the most profitable crops grew each year, however, many farmers decided to forgo oats and alfalfa and ended up sticking with a strictly corn and soybean rotation year after year.

While this has presented the opportunity for the most profit, a strict corn-soybean rotation is hard on the soil, and in many fields has led to persistent weeds and pests. In addition, corn and soybean prices have fallen to frighteningly low levels as of late, and pressure has been mounting to curb the runoff of agricultural chemicals into streams and rivers. This mix of events has caused some farmers to take a closer look at re-integrating oats or alfalfa into their operations.

While a year spent without harvesting corn or soybeans has the potential to result in the loss of income for farmers, it offers others potential solutions to the problems mentioned above. It has other benefits as well, particularly when viewed across several years, an article explains. For example, one farmer who has recently transitioned into planting oats usually deals with flooding during the corn/soybean growing season — often resulting in loss of product. By deciding to use the field to grow oats prior to corn or soybeans, however, he has time to make improvements to drainage on the field.

The article explains that the farmer hopes updating the tile lines to drain off excess water will translate to more profit from the money-making crops in the future. Simply leaving the field fallow so they could do maintenance would have been a clear money-loser. Growing oats is the middle ground, he said.

“Having land open for some sort of maintenance in August is a really great idea,” said Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa. “That maintenance might be physical, dozer-maintenance, but that maintenance might also be soil health improvements or breaking pest cycles.”

Oats already are a popular cover crop, something farmers put on their fields to keep them green in late fall and early spring, the article explains. Cover crops prevent erosion and keep nitrogen in place. They are typically killed though when it’s time to plant the cash crop. Giving oats a full season still offers farmers a product to sell, two if they can sell the grain and the straw, and that early harvest means oat fields are available for more diverse cover crop mixes, which Carlson says will further enhance the soil for future crops and environmental benefits.

“In our oat pilot project, I have some farmers that are really excited about the soil health idea,” Carlson said, “and planting these crazy-sexy large cover-crop mixes.”

Those “sexy” mixes can include as many as 12 plant species, Carlson added, such as sunn hemp and clover, which are legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, keeping it out of streams and available to the next year’s corn.

Matt Liebman at Iowa State University has studied the impact of oats in the corn-soybean rotation. He says the sale price of oats can make them look unprofitable, but when they are “companion cropped” with these nitrogen-fixing plants —a year of oats plus a red clover cover crop inserted between soybeans and corn, for example — it’s a lot cheaper to grow corn the following year.

“The production costs for corn within that whole rotation system can drop substantially,” Liebman said in the article, “so that the overall economics of the rotation are favorable.”

In other words, a farmer can spend a lot less on fertilizer for corn in the year following the oats, which can make a big difference to the bottom line. In addition, Liebman’s research found the addition of the oats and clover in the system reduced erosion and nitrogen runoff compared to a traditional corn-soybean rotation.

Because of this Carlson is trying to shift the conversation so farmers focus on this investment side of oat-growing, rather than being preoccupied by the low profit-potential of oats.

“We need to think of oats as a way to grow cheaper nitrogen,” she said. And then, secondarily, oats might bring in some cash, as cover-crop seed or livestock feed.

The article explains that Midwest farmers won’t be growing your breakfast oatmeal any time soon, but Carlson hopes eventually that market will open up to them. She’s exploring ways to make that happen, and the early adopters who are already growing oats could help make that possible.

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