Versatile oats need lots more publicity
By John Burns
ENORMOUS potential for oats in western Britain is not being realised, claims cereal breeder John Valentine.
Addressing the Westward Arable Centres annual conference in Cornwall, he said there was nothing feed barley could do that top oat crops could not do better. But the industry needed to work together to promote the crop and overcome some unfair prejudices.
In 1994 oats outyielded barley in England and Wales for the second year running, and were cheaper to grow, he said. But in 1994/95 supply exceeded demand, dropping prices until recently and so threatening confidence.
As head of oats breeding at the Institute for Grassland and Environment Research, Aberyst-wyth, Dr Valentine believed there were many opportunities and outlets not yet developed.
Emphasising the improvements in yield, disease resistance and standing power of the newer varieties, he promised continuing improvements, including varieties with a dwarfing gene "which could have the same effect on oat yields as in the wheat crop in the 70s".
But growers needed to know what constituted acceptable and premium quality, and to be rewarded accordingly, he said.
"Plant breeders and recommen-ding bodies must act responsibly and not release varieties with poor grain quality, such as thick husks." There was also a need for better quality measurements, he added. For example, the specific weight of an oat with good, plump grains might not be very high because the grains did not pack together well.
Apart from developing human food uses there is scope for extending their use in livestock feeds. ADAS Bridgets is looking to see whether milk from cows fed oats makes butter which spreads easily straight from the fridge. Oats could also be developed to cut soya and maize gluten imports.
He also saw enormous potential for industrial uses.
Oats contain valuable forms of starch, unsaturated oils with high levels of antioxidants, a unique emulsifier which could be used in chocolate, and high beta-glucans which have health-promoting, fat substituting and moisturising properties.
• Good oats beat feed barley.
• Low prices now but good potential for improvement.
• Dwarfing gene may give same yield lift as seen in wheat.
• Feed value under test.
• Numerous industrial uses.
• Better variety advice, quality testing and industry "push" needed to seize markets.