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More than a rotation crop for feed

Demand is increasing for this officially ‘heart healthy’ crop, but growers need to pay attention to quality

New varieties that consistently yield 120 to 140 bushels per acre. Increasing demand, with buyers paying a premium. Competitive against weeds, with good resistance to fusarium. That hardly describes a feed crop you seed last because you need it in rotation.

Demand for milling oats is on the rise and processors have announced expansion. Some millers have been aggressive in pricing over the last few years, making oats an attractive proposition, especially over wheat in the fusarium-plagued eastern Prairies, and oat growers are getting a good return on investment with newer varieties.

More growers are getting that message. Statistics Canada says Canadian oat growers seeded 13.6 per cent more acres in 2017 than the previous year, with Sask­atchewan up 20.3 per cent to 1.7 million acres.

With up to a third of Prairie oat production destined for human consumption, more growers are growing high-quality milling varieties. In response, oat agronomy research has picked up over the past few years, resulting in this year’s update to the Prairie Oat Growers’ Manual, available via the Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA) website. One of the changes in recommendations is that growers target a plant population of 20 to 30 plants per square foot rather than the previous 18 to 23.

“The new plant population recommendation ensures that growers have the right amount of seed so plants don’t compete with each other, but they can compete with wild oats, and get the best yield and quality they can,” says POGA executive director Shawna Mathieson.

The new grower manual has recommendations on everything from fertilizer application to insect, disease and weed control, and POGA’s website also lists about 30 marketing and research projects the organization is currently working on.

What millers are looking for

The No. 1 consideration for oat millers is consistency. “If we have a tight range of weights and plumpness as well as moisture, we can mill efficiently at a consistent pace,” says Scott Shiels, grain procurement merchant with Grain Millers in Yorkton, Sask. “Moisture is a huge factor. The maximum moisture level is 13.5 per cent for the mills to be able to dehull the oats properly. If they’re tough, they don’t dehull properly and we end up with hull slivers in the oat groats, which can end up in the finished product, and nobody wants pieces of oat hulls in their morning cereal.”

Oat millers have specific quality requirements, so when choosing varieties, a good place to start is the millers’ preferred oats list, available at grain terminals and milling locations. These lists set out the milling characteristics they are looking for, which varieties best suit them, and which grow best in specific areas.

“Growers want to make sure they are picking a variety that their targeted oat miller is buying, as well as a variety that is good in their area,” says Shiels. “I always recommend that our growers take our list and go talk to their local seed growers. Generally, they will be able to tell them what works well in the area.”

Variety selection has to work for both the miller and the farmer. “There has to be balance,” says Shiels. “An oat variety has to have good agronomics and produce a good yield for the grower, and we need them to work for us in the mill, and they need to have good nutritional levels, so low in fat and high in beta glucan. Part of the resurgence of oats has been the heart-healthy claims that we’re able to put on them.”

Oats contain beta glucan, a fibre that has been shown to have many health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Breeding programs have focused on increasing beta glucan levels, and most varieties, especially newer ones, have beta glucan levels that meet millers’ specifications.

Managing for yield and quality

After variety selection, it’s up to growers to use the best agronomic practices to obtain high-quality milling oats. That starts with a change in mindset, says longtime grower Geoff Young, who farms near Manitou, Man.

“For many years oats were seen as a second-class crop. They were feed grains, so growers didn’t put a lot of thought into choice of varieties or seeding rate and didn’t use a lot of crop protection products,” says Young. “When I grow oats I am trying to produce a high-quality, human consumption-grade product.”

Young follows all the best practices he would for any other high-quality crop. He does a pre-seed cultivation to remove the first flush of wild oats and tries to seed as early as possible — the first week of May is ideal, weather permitting. He uses thousand kernel weight to calculate the seeding rate so he can target 20 to 30 plants per square foot as recommended in the new POGA manual. He soil tests and pretty much finds the POGA fertilizer recommendations — around 100 lbs./acre of total N, taking into account soil residuals — to be spot on for his farm. The biggest change Young has implemented in the past few years has been a seed treatment to prevent soil-borne diseases, and an annual fungicide application to control rust.

“I used Twinline (a BASF fungicide) this year, and on the yield map you can clearly see the difference where we didn’t spray the last 30 acres of the field,” Young says. “A few years ago it was not economically viable to do it and now it’s part of the package. It’s an insurance policy to try and protect the yield and quality.”

This was a great year for oats, and Young was able to take them off nice and dry, but he’s often had to dry oats down to the minimum 13.5 per cent moisture level in the past. He says it comes down to a choice about having good or poor quality.

“When I’m trying to meet quality specifications, it’s easier for me to take them off to make sure they are good quality and if I have to dry them I do. Our farm is set up to do that, but not everybody has that option.”

Skip the glyphosate

Grain Millers will not accept any oats that have received a pre-harvest glyphosate application, because the company has discovered that it causes problems during the milling process.

“Evidence by sample and grain deliveries, followed by research that we did in partnership with AAFC and the University of Minnesota, showed us that if a glyphosate application is made too early, it damages the starches in the oat groats causing them to become brittle. As a result, they lose their integrity when they are milled, packaged, and further handled or processed by our food company customers,” says Shiels.

“Unfortunately, this damage isn’t detectable ‘at the pit’ and the glyphosate application only needs to be a bit too early to cause a problem. So for us it was a choice between an outright ban on glyphosate pre-harvest application or walking out into every field and telling guys when to spray, which is obviously not a viable option.”

Swathing is a good way to ripen oats quickly as long as it’s dry, and is still by far the most common harvest method with or without a glyphosate burndown. Alternatively, a few growers are starting to straight cut oats to help minimize the risk of leaving it in the swath, especially if they are growing newer varieties bred to be shorter with stronger straw.

Lots of potential

Canada exports much of its oat production to the United States, and the North American market continues to grow steadily at around two to three per cent a year, but international markets are growing much faster. POGA is working with the federal government to try and gain market access to both China and India.

“The potential yearly growth rate in these markets is in the double digits,” says POGA’s Mathieson. “There was more than a 200 per cent increase in Canadian oats going into Mexico in the last two years because of a POGA marketing project there. We are working hard to gain access to export Canadian oats into new markets and to get into some of the bigger markets, which will help increase the market opportunities for our growers.”

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