Spring Oats, the Missing Piece

By Paige Smart

A great challenge in cattle operations is needing forage…fast. In Bermudagrass based systems, the lack of growth between when Bermuda growth slows and cereal rye or ryegrass growth begins is an incredible challenge. A similar issue is found in fescue based systems- fall growth of fescue slows or nearly stops once the day length shortens and temperatures drop, leaving a lull in grazing. Spring oats fit very well into this lull, helping to bridge the forage gap.

Spring oats provide prolific growth, with grazing possible 45 days after planting. Oats are a large seed, so they should be planted 0.5” to 1” deep. They respond well to fertilization and typically just 40-50lbs of nitrogen per acre will produce a protein rich, dark green crop. While spring oats have phenomenal immediate growth, they cannot tolerate cold weather. On average, spring oats will winter kill if faced with 3 days of 20-degree weather or colder. For this reason, it is best to plant spring oats in accompaniment with a winter hardy annual, such as ryegrass or triticale. Planting these spring oats in a timely manner to allow for multiple grazings in the fall will maximize the return on investment.

The greatest risk involved with planting spring oats is timeliness. If spring oats are planted too late OR if conditions do not encourage growth after planting, the forage gap will still exist. Although not much can be done to encourage growth unless irrigation is an option, planting in a timely manner will greatly increase the opportunity for success. Spring oats should be the first winter annuals to be sown, although planting too early in the summer will typically not result in strong growth. The harsh winter weather will likely terminate the spring oats, but there is a trick of the trade that can extend the survival of spring oats. If you are expecting those 20-degree temperatures, go ahead and graze spring oats down to about 4” tall. This simply reduces the exposure of the plant and increases the likelihood of it surviving. This method is not fool-proof, and extended periods of cold temperatures can still result in heavy damage to the stand.

Spring oats are an excellent piece of the forage puzzle that can help bridge the gap between our perennial forage production and later maturing annual species, such as rye, triticale, or ryegrass. Weighing the risks and rewards should be done to evaluate if spring oats are a good fit in your operation.