If you haven't looked at oats for a while, you may not recognise the crop, says one researcher.
"Thanks to genetic improvements, growers now have a flexible and practical low-input break crop with a strong marketable potential, explains Sandy Cowan of Aberystwyth University, who co-ordinates the HGCA-funded Quoats LINK project. "We are not just talking traits that affect saleability, such as grain yield and quality, but also sustainability, such as nitrogen-use efficiency."
Varieties that can tolerate a future with fewer inputs, perhaps as a result of more fibrous roots or better uptake and utilisation of nitrogen, could also help to reach lower greenhouse gas emission targets, he hopes.
"We know that the RB209 (DEFRA Fertiliser Manual) recommendation for oats is typically 110kgN/ha, whereas 200kg/ha is required in wheat. We have long realised the benefits of take-all reduction and increased biodiversity in rotations with oats. So the crop is appealing on more than one level," explains Dr Cowan.
Growers are registering both this and the rise in the crop price, judging by the HGCA winter planting survey for England and Wales. This season, estimated winter plantings have increased by 13%, reversing the downturn in oat production since 2005.
Things can only get better, he believes. The five-year project is highlighting and developing a range of genetic markers to enable the integration of useful genes into conventional breeding programmes, for markets old and new.
One of the most exciting is high grain oil content, for both human consumption and animal feed. Consumers value oats as a healthy dietary aid, while feed manufacturers see a high-energy cereal alternative.
Typically, 11% oil is achievable with new winter varieties, though some can produce 15% under the right conditions. However, levels and profiles must be assessed for processing. Nairns Oatcakes, for example, is currently testing the shelf life of products made from oats with different oil contents.
Similarly, oats for animal feedstuffs must be reviewed. While the agronomic and nutritional benefits of new varieties such as Rhapsody and Mason should allow oats to compete against other cereals on the market, we could go even further, hopes Dr Cowan.
"Methane production by ruminants fed on the crop is coming under the spotlight. We are trying to design a husked oat with a high feed value and a low carbon footprint."
So far, the team has produced a low-lignin, high-oil, husked oat giving a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emission in laboratory tests. The husk digestibility has improved from 3% in conventional husk to 60% in low-lignin husk. It remains to be seen whether it can offer the same benefits in sheep feeding trials and be a practical proposition for the field.
"The breeding line we are currently testing still needs further selection to combine these low-lignin high-oil traits in a suitable high-yielding agronomic background. However, the principles can be used to develop new feed varieties for the future that can compete well with other ingredients," he stresses.
So forget oats as a long-strawed, lodging susceptible crop, offering little in the way of energy, urges Dr Cowan. For £225,000 of levy funding alongside £4.35m of government and industry sponsorship, growers will witness the arrival of a new crop with new opportunities, he concludes.
Project no 3556: Harnessing new technologies for sustainable oat production and utilisation; Aberystwyth University (IBERS), ADAS, Bernard Matthews, British Oat and Barley Millers' Association, Du Pont, Felin Ganol, Watermill, GB Seeds, Harper Adams University College, James Hutton Institute, Mole Valley Feed Solutions, Nairns Oatcakes, Oat Services, Organic Research Centre, Phytatec, Poultry Xperience, Senova, Dairy Co, EBLEX, BBSRC, the Welsh and Scottish governments and DEFRA through the Sustainable Arable LINK Programme; from September 2009 to September 2014.
• Optimise value of oats and reduce input costs to improve the profitability of this low-input break crop
• Develop exciting nutritional traits to provide real benefits to consumers and the opportunity to promote UK oat production
• Help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for more than one industry sector
Interim report available on the HGCA website. See also www.quoats.org
Visit HGCA on stand J1003 at Cereals 2012 on 13 and 14 June to speak with the researchers involved in Quoats.
Forget what you know about oats and consider it a new crop. This five-year project should help growers and end-users benefit from the added value offered by newly discovered and traceable genes, and allow oats to compete with other cereals.
Catch up with previous Research in Focus articles online