Double-cropping can help lower winter feed costs

Aug 23, 2013
by DTN

With near-record-low hay stocks and impending high winter feed costs, some livestock producers are looking for alternatives to typical winter feed such as alfalfa hay. Double-cropping oats after wheat is an alternative some are trying this year.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. hay stocks on May 1, 2013, totaled 14.2 million tons, down 34 percent from a year ago. This is the lowest May 1 stocks estimate on record.

The ample rainfall some areas received this spring and summer is a double-edged sword, according to Stan Smith, an Ohio State University Extension program assistant in agriculture and natural resources.

Rainfall replenished soil moisture, but in some areas that rain delayed hay cutting until August. Those who were able to get hay on the ground saw quality suffer as baling was delayed by rain and damp weather.

Oats as an alternative

Double-cropping oats after wheat is not widely practiced, Smith said. The idea of using oats for forage is something that started at OSU about 2002.

Smith said the idea came from a colleague who took part in a grazing conference. The first trial was in a personal garden, where oats were planted in July and August to see if they would grow enough for forage. A beef producer later planted 30-40 acres on Aug. 5; by Thanksgiving he began to strip graze the oats to 35 pregnant cows.

“The guy was so intrigued with the volume of feed he grew and the way the cows ate, he continued to strip graze all winter,” Smith said. “The oats did not run out until the middle of March.”

Since then, a few farmers have experimented with planting oats after wheat harvest. Planting oats before the first of August is not recommended, Smith has learned, as the hot July weather causes the oat plants to grow too quickly and quality is lost.

“Those who desperately need forage as quickly as possible can get their best yields when planting oats in early August,” he said.

The no-till seeding rate for oats is generally between 80-100 pounds of oats per acre, Smith said.

He also recommended 40- 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre.

“We just haven’t seen any benefit to putting on more than 50 pounds.” Rates above that actually suppressed yield. “That may be because the oats spent so much energy metabolizing the extra nitrogen, they were unable to grow.

“Weeds will compete with oats, just like anything else,” he said. “Some guys have cheated a little if they didn’t see many weeds growing, and there was no question that weeds hurt their yield.”

Although every year is different, the growing season is between 60 and 75 days, Smith said.

Oats grown for forage should be harvested at the boot stage, just before the seed head comes out. Past that point the vegetative stage stops and energy is lost as the plant tries to fill the head with grain. “Once they make the seed head, quality quickly declines,” Smith said.

Oats planted this late in the year even look different from grain oats, he pointed out.

“They don’t even look like oats. If you are not experienced, you might not even recognize the plants in September or October as oats,” he said. “They look similar to foxtail late in the summer. They are dense and make good feed.”

The best use of double-crop oats is grazing, especially if the crop is planted later in August when it’s a risk the crop won’t reach high tonnage before frost.

“You can graze all winter long and eliminate harvest cost,” Smith said.

Beef grazing oats

Karla Jenkins, assistant professor and cow/calf range specialist at the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center near Scottsbluff, NE, has also researched double-cropping forage oats for beef cattle grazing. She said this option works well in the western Nebraska Sandhills where higher altitude and little rainfall are always problematic.

“Our native pastures are dominated by cool season grasses, so about August we’re always a little short on high-quality forage,” Jenkins said. “Our objective is to get as much use out of the cropland as we can. Oats are a pretty usable option.”

Wheat also comes out of the fields in Nebraska in July, so forage oats were planted in irrigated wheat fields, giving it a good start on moisture. Some fields were harvested in September after planting in late July/early August. Other oats were left as standing forage and harvested March. The oats harvested in September had total digestible nutrients (TDN) in the mid-60s percent. Oats harvested in March matured out nicely, maintaining about 64 percent TDN. Yield for the oats planted in July and August was between 1.2 and 1.3 tons per acre.

There was not a lot of snow that year, Jenkins added, and the oats could have been used as standing hay for winter grazing.

“Putting alfalfa on land with pivot irrigation takes a while to get established,” she said. “But oats are an annual forage, so if you want to plant something else next year, it is not a long-term commitment.”

She also said mixing oats in the rotation can also help with pest problems.

Forage oats are also a high-quality option if a producer has early-weaned calves.

“If you want to put weight on, fall oats make a good-quality forage for growing calves,” she said.

Harvest oats

The second-best option after grazing is to chop and ensile the oats. That increases costs significantly, but preserves quality, Smith said.

Forage oats should be harvested at about 60 days of growth. At that stage oats will have about 14 percent to 16 percent protein. Oats harvested at 75 days have protein levels between 9 percent and 11 percent, he said.

Smith said in his research double-cropping oats after wheat, yield has consistently been around three tons per acre, or as much as four or five tons per acre in good growing conditions. That yield is very close to what hay fields produce in a normal year, he said.

Other options are to either dry bale the oats, or wet wrap and ferment them.

Dry baling can be a challenge as late-fall harvest (between October and December) is not always conducive to drying the oats enough to bale. — Cheryl Anderson, DTN