If there’s a need to extend the grazing season or bolster stored forage inventories, oats may be your answer.

Late summer-seeded oats thrive in cool conditions, have high feed value, and can produce more than 2 tons of hay or pasture in the fall. The crop also dies out over winter, which protects soil without causing planting problems in the spring. It has found a niche as a fall forage crop for the north and central latitudes of the U.S. (or winter crop in the South).

“Oats may be one of our most under-used fall forages,” says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist.

In the extension newsletter, UNL BeefWatch, Anderson suggests planting oats in early August for maximum yield potential. The crop can be planted directly into wheat stubble or other crop residues. Avoid fields with herbicide carryover and topdress 40 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre unless there is adequate carryover N from the previous crop. With good moisture, oats will be ready to graze about six to eight weeks following emergence.

“It is critical to understand the differences between varieties when planting fall-forage oats,” says Wayne Coblentz, USDA-ARS agronomist, who has researched fall oats in Wisconsin. With early planting dates, late-maturing grain or forage-type varieties are preferred as they mature slower and respond better to late-summer rainfall. But as planting dates approach mid-August, early maturing, grain-type oats may become more desirable.

Fall-grown oats mature as temperatures drop, so concentrations of lignin are usually significantly lower compared with spring-grown oats. “While this improves digestibility, low lignin concentrations make oat plants susceptible to severe lodging during late-fall snows,” states Coblentz.

Also, fall-grown oats are typically subject to frost events before harvest. When the frosts coincide with the boot stages of growth, plant cells accumulate sugar, which stabilizes the energy density over a wide time interval for potential use. Energy density estimates after frost events are typically comparable to corn silage and may exceed 70 percent TDN. However, sugar accumulation declines significantly if frosts occur after the plants are headed.

The grazing season can be extended with fall-grown oats. “The most important grazing advice is limiting access to a short interval of time, such as one to two days, to limit waste,” says Coblentz. If planted in early August in northern regions, grazing can usually be initiated by October 1 and concluded by December 1.

Take caution to avoid grass tetany on lush oat pasture. Ask your veterinarian if you should supplement magnesium. Sudden respiratory problems may also occur if you turn livestock out on oat pasture after they have grazed short or dry pastures.

To machine harvest as oatlage, cut soon after plants start to dry out following a killing freeze or earlier if they reach a desirable growth stage. Oats can accumulate nitrates, so it is recommended to test the forage before feeding.

“If you have good soil moisture, give fall oats a try. Some of your best forage growth may still be ahead of you,” says Anderson.

Sydney Sleep

Sydney Sleep grew up on her family’s Angus operation outside of Spearfish, S.D. She is currently attending South Dakota State University where she is pursuing a degree in agriculture communications. At college, Sleep is an ambassador for the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, is a member of Sigma Alpha professional agricultural sorority, and works as the communications assistant for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. She is serving as the 2016 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern.