3 July 1999

Making a meal of oats

Oats are proving a valuable break crop on one Herefordshire farm, reports Lucy Stephenson.

HORSES love them but farmers arent too sure. Many have lost faith in a crop that was once common across Britain. Herefordshire farmer Stuart Hutchings believes they are missing out on a good thing.

Oats are a low-cost crop. They are disease-resistant, outgrow weeds, take nitrogen efficiently from the soil, ripen earlier and drier than wheat, and return healthy gross margins. Mr Hutchings is growing his fourteenth crop of oats this year on Gatley Farms estate in Herefordshire.

"Oats are a traditional crop in this area – much more established than rape," says Mr Hutchings. "Our best year was 1996 – we had a bumper yield of 7.7t/ha, the price was the same as barley at £100/t and our gross margin was £898/ha. But in 1997 the price fell to £70/t, and our yield was 6.5t/ha. All our oats have been grown on a fixed price contract since 1998. We had a fixed price of £100/t, so yield was secondary to meeting the standards."

The oats are grown to conservation standards for Jordans, so Mr Hutchings keeps inputs to a minimum. But finding the right balance isnt always easy. "Last year we finished up with 5.8t/ha which wasnt good enough. This year the price is £5/t over wheat: £80/t, so well go for yield. Were growing Jalna for the first time, which yields 5% over Gerald. But if you try to push oats for yield you run the risk of a flat crop," he says.

So the crop has all its nitrogen in one dressing, on 20 April. "I dont want to encourage too much early growth, to keep it on its feet," he says. "The crop received two doses of Atlas 3C Chlormequat 1.25 litres/ha on 26 March and 1 litre/ha on 15 May." If we werent constrained by the conservation grade rules the crop would have had Moddus growth regulator with the second application."

This year the oats had 115kg/ha nitrogen – more than last year. "The crop will be denser and the microclimate damper so theres a greater risk of mildew. But this year we were allowed to use an extra input – quinoxyfen," he explains. The crop had two doses of Dow Fortress (quinoxyfen): 150ml/ha on 16 March, and 120ml/ha on 15 May, which has given good mildew control.

An offlying block of 44ha is split between oats and wheat each year in a simple alternation. The crop also keeps the rotation on the estate wider, and some years Mr Hutchings will grow 30ha on the main estate as well as on the offlying land.

Margins

His calculations on at gross margins for 2000 compare very well with other crops and oilseed rape will be dropped in favour of more oats. "You can have too much of rape; it shouldnt be grown more than one year in six, and it wants to be in the ground in the first week of September which can be a problem following wheat. Ideally rape should follow winter barley – a low margin crop," he adds.

Only first wheats are grown, and oats are a take-all break. No P or K is applied to oat crops following wheats, which have a dressing of poultry manure. Oat germinators in the wheat crops were taken out with Encore (pendimethalin plus isoproturon). The conservation grade rules mean no residual herbicides can be used, but cleavers and other broad-leaved weeds in the oat crop were controlled with Eagle (amidosulfuron) at 30g/ha on 26 March.

The oat/wheat rotation on the offlying land means only one trip for the drill and the combine. Oats are drilled at the beginning of October, and then wheat is planted. The oats are drilled at a low seed rate. This has been as low as 200 seeds/sq m, but this year will be 300 seeds/sq m, aiming for 240 established plants/sq m.

The oats come to harvest earlier too, in the first week of August, so the combine finishes with them before the wheat is ready. The early harvest for oats has benefits on the main farm too. Beans are harvested in mid-September and a large area means some is harvested late and the combine ends the season in wet conditions, points out Mr Hutchings.

And theres often no need to dry oat grain. "The grains are javelin-shaped and so dry out faster than wheat. Im able to harvest at 15% moisture, whereas I often have to dry wheat from 19%," he says.

Last year 5% of the oat yield was taken during cleaning for the grain to make the grade. This fraction – about 10t – went into the animal feed. "The most difficult thing is getting the hectolitre weight right. Millers demand 50kg/hl as a minimum and you get penalties for less. Some years its fine but last year I hadnt used enough nitrogen and we also had crown rust which affected the specific weight of the crop as well as the yield," Mr Hutchings explains.

Its humans rather than horses that eat Mr Hutchings oats, but the crop also yields about 5t/ha of straw – on a par with wheat. "Its better than wheat or barley straw as feed and it goes to our suckler herd, so theres added value from that too," he says.

TWO research projects and new varieties could breathe new life and profit into oats. The ultimate aim is a fractionation plant and a market for an extra 50,000t of UK oats every year.

The Innovation project is developing oat-derived food ingredients such as thickeners, emulsifiers, starch, oils and antioxidants. Sweden has already seen the launch of a hunger-suppressing yoghurt containing oat oil. The research arm of Cadbury Schweppes has patented an oat emulsifier – but markets need to be found for other oat products before its extraction will be viable commercially.

The Oatec project is finding industrial uses for oat products. Oat starch is already used in the pharmaceuticals industry. It has uniquely small granules and about a third of all surgical gloves used in the USA are dusted with it. Oat starch can also be used for fine quality paper. And there are opportunities for other oat-derived ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries.

Oats are becoming a more attractive crop in conventional markets with the launch of new varieties with improved quality for both feed and milling, says Julian South of ADAS Rosemaund. Although the area of oat production has been declining, winter oats have out-yielded barley for five of the past six years. "Oats could become more competitive as a break crop as the payment for oilseeds comes down because they are resistant to take-all," says Dr South.

The breakthrough from breeders at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research has been to produce a dwarf naked variety. Oat husk makes up a quarter of the weight of the grain, and its high fibre content limits its use in poultry and pig diets. Naked oats arent new, but until now protein content has been restricted because of the risk of lodging as nitrogen inputs are increased.

Existing naked varieties have protein contents of about 10-12% but this can be raised to 14% by putting more nitrogen on dwarf and new stiffer-strawed varieties. "These oats are a suitable source of protein in animal diets. About two-thirds of the 600,000t UK crop already goes for animal feed – most doesnt leave the farm," says Dr South.

"Unlike other cereals, the protein quality of oats does not decline as the amount increases. It is in a globular form that is more available to animals." he explains.

Dr Souths fertiliser policy is about 160kg/ha of ammonium nitrate; a late dressing of 60kg/ha foliar urea is being experimented with. "The foliar urea gives a double benefit because it increases grain protein by 1% again to 15%, and keeps yields up by enabling the crop to remain photosynthetic for longer." The dwarf naked variety Icon, available in autumn 2001, yields 4-5t/ha of groat (de-husked grain) – on a par with conventional oats.

New for autumn 2000 come Millennium and Grafton. With a large grain and a thin husk, Millennium has promise for feed and milling. This variety is not a dwarf, but is as short as Gerald. It is resistant to crown rust and yielded 6% more than Gerald in trials. Grafton is a winter naked oat which yields 2% more than Lexicon. With shorter and stiffer straw than Lexicon, this variety will also be easier to grow.

Future prospects


Year/ Oats Oilseed Beans Peas Set-aside/spring

Break crop £/ha rape £/ha £/ha £/ha rape £/ha

1995 710 434 752 – –

1996 898 – 679 – –

1997 568 – 687 614 –

1998 682 660 601 – 527

Budget 2000 562 457 534 – –

Break crop gross margins at Gatley Farms