Oat production in Canada increased 21 per cent between 2018 and 2019, according to Statistics Canada. This increase is due, in part, to higher harvested area, but also to record yields. And since markets remain stable and strong, and the average provincial price of oats in the Prairie provinces is currently strong, interest will likely continue to grow.
To improve yields, good agronomy is key, says Manitoba Agriculture cereals specialist Anne Kirk. Good crop rotation is crucial, and farmers should avoid planting cereal on cereal, she says.
Good weed management is also important to ensuring high yields. Growers should assess fields carefully to determine where wild oat pressure is most prevalent, says Kirk. Avoid planting in fields with wild oat hotspots, she adds.
Producers who are growing milling quality oats should make sure they are choosing miller-recommended varieties. Grain Millers Canada, a Saskatchewan-based oat processor, for example, has created a recommended variety list to help producers choose varieties that will give them the best chance of meeting their specifications.
Watch nitrogen rates and lodging
Lodging can reduce the movement of carbohydrates in the plant, which results in decreased test weight. Therefore, not as many carbohydrates make their way up to the seed, Kirk explains. Excessive nitrogen can lead to lodging, as can poor variety selection. If farmers are worried about lodging in oats, Kirk suggests choosing a shorter variety.
Fertility is also critical in oats. Growers should make sure they are not over- or under-fertilizing.
“If the nitrogen rate is too high, it can increase lodging and also decrease test weight and the amount of plumps,” says Kirk. “One of the big tips for farmers is to manage lodging, as that is one of the primary factors for poor-quality oats.”
The recommendation for oats is 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. “You’d have to consider what’s currently in the soil and available for the plants, and then top up to equal 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre,” she says.
For oats, plant population is important, too. Kirk recommends farmers aim for 18–25 plants per square foot.
“Calculate seeding rates to take into consideration the germination of your oats,” she says. “Also, estimate seedling mortality, and then know how big that seed size is. Seed size can vary a lot. It’s important that farmers include seed size in their planting calculations.”
Finally, Kirk recommends looking closely at disease resistance, particularly varieties with resistance packages for crown rust, which can be devastating in a bad year.
Balance yield and test weight
Mitchell Japp, a cereals specialist for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture says Bill May’s work at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been integral to helping growers optimize yield while meeting test weight requirements.
“Generally, I think test weight is able to be maintained fairly well, but as nitrogen rates climb, test weight decreases,” says Japp. “It’s trying to find that balance between the high yield you’re looking for and maintaining the test weight you need to be able to get milling quality.”
Finding that sweet spot is dependent on a number of factors, including what crops were previously in the ground, fertility and tillage practices.
In terms of improving quality, Japp says variety selection is key. And improving quality goes hand in hand with improving yield. Better straw strength, for instance, reduces lodging incidents and allows growers to push nitrogen a little bit higher, which could push yield.
Research shows early seeding will increase yield, test weight and plump, says Japp.
May’s work also shows that bumping the seeding rate to 350 plants per square metre could help suppress wild oats, says Japp.
“But you’re better off to do good field selection at the start, choosing one where wild oats are well managed, for growing milling oats,” he says.
Because growers get increased yield, test weight and plump at the earlier seeding date, they are able to apply more nitrogen, says Japp. Doing so can boost yield without sacrificing too much on test weight and plump, he says.
Fertility beyond nitrogen is important, too. To get an idea of what’s already in the soil, Japp suggests getting a soil test. Oats are big sulphur users, and potassium is important for adequate plant growth, especially for supporting straw strength. Low potassium increases the likelihood of lodging.
Finally, for milling quality, millers want sound oat kernels that aren’t de-hulled. For this reason, come harvest, it’s important to ensure combine settings aren’t too vigorous for handling the crop.