Where do oats grow?


oatTime-lapse video, filmed over a three-week period, of oat (Avena sativa) germination and growth.Video by Neil Bromhall; music, Aaron Prillaman/Musopen.org (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

Oats, (Avena sativa), domesticated cereal grass (family Poaceae) grown primarily for its edible starchy grains. Oats are widely cultivated in the temperate regions of the world and are second only to rye in their ability to survive in poor soils. Although oats are used chiefly as livestock feed, some are processed for human consumption, especially as breakfast foods. The plants provide good hay and, under proper conditions, furnish excellent grazing and make good silage (stalk feed preserved by fermentation).

Mature oats (Avena sativa).Grant Heilman PhotographyRead More on This Topic cereal processing: Oats Oats belong to the botanical genus Avena, which includes a large number of types, the principal being A. sativa,…

Oats are annual plants and often reach 1.5 metres (5 feet) in height. The long leaves have rounded sheaths at the base and a membranous ligule (small appendage where the leaf joins the stem). The flowering and fruiting structure, or inflorescence, of the plant is made up of numerous branches bearing florets that produce the caryopsis, or one-seeded fruit. Common oats are grown in cool temperate regions; red oats, more heat tolerant, are grown mainly in warmer climates. With sufficient moisture, the crop will grow on soils that are sandy, low in fertility, or highly acidic. The plants are relatively free from diseases and pests, though they are susceptible to rust and anthracnose on their stems and leaves.

mature oatsMature oats (Avena sativa), ready for harvest.cmtyers—iStock/Thinkstock

Rolled oats, flattened kernels with the hulls removed, are used mostly for oatmeal; other breakfast foods are made from the groats, which are unflattened kernels with husks removed. Oat flour is not generally considered suitable for bread but is used to make cookies and puddings. The grains are high in carbohydrates and contain about 13 percent protein and 7.5 percent fat. They are a source of calcium, iron, vitamin B1, and niacin.

As a livestock feed, the grain is used both in pure form and in mixtures, though the demand for oats has been somewhat reduced by competition from hybrid corn (maize) and alfalfa. The straw is used for animal feed and bedding. In industry oat hulls are a source of furfural, a chemical used in various types of solvents.

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Homegrown Oat Grains – Learn How To Grow Oats At Home For Food

I start the morning off with a warm bowl of oatmeal and I know I’m in good company. Many of us realize the health benefits of oatmeal and regularly purchase the grain, but have you ever wondered “can you grow oats for food at home?” Growing oats in home gardens is really no different than growing grass for a lawn except you don’t mow down the seed heads; you eat them! Interested in homegrown oat grains? Keep reading to find out how to grow oats at home.

Can You Grow Oats at Home?

Oats are used in a multitude of ways, whether crushed or rolled or ground into flour. Oats are even used for brewing beer in England and in Latin America a cold beverage made from ground oats and milk is popular.

But I digress, we were wondering about growing oats in home gardens. It is very possible to grow your own oats even if you only have a small garden plot. The introduction of hull-less oats has made it even easier to grow your own oats since they need less processing once harvested.

How to Grow Oats at Home

Sow seeds outdoors in a sunny area with well-draining soil. Just broadcast them over a well cultivated area. Try to get them fairly evenly distributed.

Once the seeds have been broadcasted, lightly rake over the area. The goal here is to cover the seeds with an inch or so of soil, so the birds don’t get to them before they can germinate.

Once you have sown the oat seed, keep the area moist while your homegrown oat grains germinate. Continue to provide irrigation as they grow since oats like more moisture than most other grains.

Further caring for backyard oat crops is minimal. There is no need to weed and the denseness of the crop would make it futile to attempt anyway. Within 45 days or so, the green kernels atop the grain stalks should be turning from green to cream colored and the oats will be between 2 to 5 feet tall.

Harvesting Homegrown Oats

Don’t wait to harvest until the kernels are hard or you will likely lose a lot of grain. The kernel should still be soft and easily dented with a fingernail. To harvest the oats, cut the seed heads from the stalks as high up as possible. Higher up is better, as you will have less straw to mess with when threshing the grains.

Now that the oats are harvested, you need to let them cure. The length of time for curing will vary depending upon the weather and may be several days to several weeks. Store the oats in a warm, dry area while curing them.

Once the kernels are ripe, you can thresh out the oats. Spread out a tarp or sheet and then either stomp the oats loose from the stalks (cover the oats first before tromping all over them) or use some other implement, like a plastic baseball bat, to thresh the oats from the stalks (chaff).

Then separate the oats from the left over pieces of stalk. Place the oats and chaff in a bowl or bucket and toss it up into the wind. The wind will blow out the loose chaff while the heavier oats drop back into the bowl or bucket.

The threshed oats can be stored in an air-tight container in a cool, dark area for up to 3 months.


Oats are annual grasses belonging to the genus Avena, in the family Poaceae and are grown primarily for use as livestock feed. Several species of oats are grown commercially in different regions of the world, including Avena sativa (common oat), Avena byzantina (Algerian or red oat), Avena nuda (naked oat) and Avena sterilis (the sterile or animated oat). Like wheat, oats generally have been developed into different varieties that are adapted to planting at different times of the year. Spring oats are planted for a late summer harvest, whereas Winter oats are planted for harvesting in early to mid summer. Overwintering varieties are more commonly grown in regions with mild winters. Oats generally possess an upright stem and fibrous root system. The inflorescence consists of a number of branches, or racemes, and spikelets (20–150 per plant) which usually contain three florets or flowers (naked oats produce 3–7 flowers per spikelet). Generally, two seeds (kernels) are produced per spikelet, but sometimes only one develops. Ancestors of the common oat, Avena sativa and the closely related Avena byzantina originated from the Fertile Crescent of the Near East.
Ripening oats
Oat closu-up
Field of oats
Oats ready for harvest ‹ ×


Oats can be rolled or crushed to produce oatmeal or ground to produce oat flour. Oats may also be used in the production of several baked goods such as oat cakes or oat bread. The vast majority of commercially grown oats are used as livestock feed.


Basic requirements Oats grow best in cool, moist climates, with the optimum temperature for growth being between 20 and 21°C (68–70°F). The plants will thrive in well drained soils but are adapted to grow in many soil types, requiring a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Oats are less tolerant of drought and heat than other cereals but, like other small grains, tolerate acidic soils well. Propagation Oats are propagated from seed which can be sown in Spring or in Fall depending on the variety, prevailing climate and the intended use. Commercially produced oats are drilled into a prepared seedbed. Seedbeds should be firm and free of any weeds or vegetation. If oats are being grown to harvest grain then the recommended seeding rate is 60–90 lb of seed per acre. This should be increased slightly if the seeds is being sown by broadcasting as is commonly the case in small-scale production or home gardens. Seeds should be sown at depths of 3–7 cm (1.2–2.8 in) allowing 15–17 cm (5.9–6.7 in) between rows. General care and maintenance Soil should be tested prior to planting oats in order to establish the rate of fertilizer and lime application required. Lime is often applied to raise the pH of the soil. if pH is too low, yields may be reduced. Nitrogen should be applied to oats after seedlings emerge at a rate of 20 lb per acre. Further applications are made throughout the growing season based on the specific soil and rotation schedule. In addition to nitrogen, oats require phosphorus and potassium for optimal growth. The rates of application of these nutrients should be based on the results of a soil test. Harvesting Oats are ready to harvest when the kernels are at the “hard dough” stage when the grain moisture content drops below 14%. The plants will have lost their green color and appear yellow-brown. The kernels harden and cannot be dented with a fingernail. Commercially produced oats are harvested by combine. Small-scale productions can be harvested by hand cutting. After harvest, the grain must be dried before being stored.
CABI Crop Protection Compendium. (2010). Avena sativa (oats) datasheet. Available at: http://www.cabi.org/cpc/datasheet/8061. . Paid subscription required. Mask, P. L., van Reissen, H. W. & Ball, D. (1994). Production guide for oats. Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Available at: http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0884/ANR-0884.pdf. . Free to access.

Where do oats come from?

It’s no surprise that oatcakes are made from oats but you might not know how oats grow in the first place? Or what our miller’s do to turn the raw crop from the farmer’s field into a wholesome ingredient we can use in our range of recipes. So where do oats come from?

What plants do oats come from?

Oats (Avena Sativa) grow in fields like wheat and barley year round. Crops sown in spring and harvested in August are called ‘spring oats’. Crops sown in September and harvested in spring are called ‘winter oats’. They are easy to spot when you know to look for their tell-tale husks dangling off the main stalk, or the oat flowers which are a familiar sight all year round in Scotland. The groat or oat is inside, protected by the husk.

Growing oats

Oats love cool summer temperatures and plentiful rain to ripen slowly and plump up, so it’s no surprise that the Scottish climate is perfect! Farmers have been growing oats in the Scottish Borders for centuries, and it’s here that Nairn’s source the majority of our oats from farms with generations of expertise that shows in the quality of the crop they produce.

A creamier and nuttier taste

Our trusted relationship with John Hogarth’s began in 1978– their mill in Kelso is situated on the picturesque banks of the River Tweedand they’ve been milling for over a hundred years. Even today, some of the mill’s local customers still pop in for their sack of porridge oats!

Hogarth’s mill their oats the traditional way. The oats are kiln-roasted with their husks on. This allows the miller’s to roast at a higher temperature before they are steamed to impart a wonderful creamy and nutty taste you can’t achieve the modern way, stripping the husk off the groat first.

Once kiln roasted, the husks are then removed and the oats are gently rubbed together to smooth the surface. The oats are then flattened, chopped and milled into different texturesthat you can read about here.

Oats that are too small or not good enough to make it into a Nairn’s product are put to good use, going back to farmers for use as Winter feed for the animals. Nothing is wasted.

Why is it called a wholegrain?

The husk is really just the groat or oat’s coat or jacket. Once removed all the fibre and goodness remainsunlike heavily processed flours where the bran and the germ are removed.

Using oats in recipes

The combination of the creaminess and nuttiness of our oat ingredients and Nairn’s time-honoured mixing methods means the texture and taste of the traditional Scottish oatcake is preserved in our recipes.

Did you know that traces of oat porridge have been found amongst the remains of our ancestors from over 5000 years ago? We think its testament to how truly tasty a good helping of oats can be– we stay true to our roots but we love experimenting with different additional ingredients – from cheese to chia – to move with the times and keep oats and oatcakes an enjoyable healthy snack today.

So there you have it; from the simple oat plant growing in the fields to the crisp and delicious oatcake fresh from the oven, the mystery of where oats come from (and how we turn them into wholesome tastysnacks) has hopefully been solved. If you’re still curious, why not check out our infographic on Scottish Oats from Field to Plate.


OATS, grains of the genus Avena of the family Gramineae (grass family) thrive in the moist, temperate regions of the world, though they may be cultivated in a variety of climates. The most widely cultivated is the Avena sativa, a cereal grass used for food and fodder. The plant has a flowering and fruiting structure known as in-florescence and is made up of many branches bearing florets that produce the caryopsis or one-seeded fruit. Like most cultivated plants, oats were domesticated from wild varieties at an unknown time. Domestication may have occurred around 2500 b.c., which is recent compared to other common grains.

The wild oat can be traced to western Europe, where it grew as a weed. In northern Europe, as horses were increasingly used as draft animals, oats were grown as feed. Wild oats spread from Europe to other parts of the world and were brought to North America by explorers and settlers who also introduced other grains, such as wheat, rye, barley, and flax, all crops commonly produced by American farms in the twenty-first century. Bartholomew Gosnold planted oats on the Elizabeth Islands in Buzzards Bay about 1600. The Jamestown colonists planted them in 1611. They were grown early in Newfoundland and New Netherland, along with wheat, for beer and for horses, and they spread throughout the English colonies. In the eighteenth century farmers in the Middle Colonies began to use horses instead of oxen and sowed more oats for feed. It was common that as horses became more numerous, oat production increased. George Washington tended several hundred acres of oats at his Mount Vernon farm. Oatmeal became popular during the Civil War, and by the end of the war the demand for oats had increased.

Oats have a high nutritive value but are primarily produced for livestock feed. Their agricultural uses are various. Oats are valuable in crop rotation, and oat straw is used for animal feed and bedding. Those oats produced for human consumption are chiefly rolled oats, flattened kernels with the hulls removed, used as a breakfast food and a baking ingredient. Oat flour, although used in the production of some food, does not contain the glutinous type of protein necessary for making bread. Oat grains are high in carbohydrates and contain about 13 percent protein and 7.5 percent fat. They are a source of calcium, iron, and vitamin B1. Bran content varies as some or all of the bran is frequently removed and used as a separate food product. Furfural, a chemical used in various types of solvents, is derived from oat hulls.

The Quaker Oats Company, the largest U.S. producer of cereal oats, officially formed in 1901, when the Quaker Mill Company of Ohio incorporated with a large cereal mill in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the German Mills American Oatmeal Company of Ohio. In the early twenty-first century the United States was one of the leading oatproducing countries.


Beeman, Randal S., and James A. Pritchard. A Green and Permanent Land: Ecology and Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Heiser, Charles B., Jr. Seed to Civilization: The Story of Man’s Food. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973.

Hoffbeck, Steven R. The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.


See alsoAgriculture ; Cereal Grains .

Porridge is a hot cereal similar to oatmeal. While oatmeal often consists of crushed, rolled, cut or coarsely ground oats, porridge consists of any type of crushed grain, including oats, wheat, rice or barley. Eating porridge on a regular basis can offer numerous health benefits.

Oats were a staple food of the Irish throughout our history. Vast quantities of oatmeal were consumed in the form of porridge. With the introduction of the potato in the late sixteenth century, the prevalence of oatmeal porridge declined.

During the 20th century porridge became an increasingly popular dish on the Irish breakfast menu. Fast forward into the 21st century and Oatmeal in the form of porridge has regained its well-deserved title as a nourishing and healthy breakfast. It can even be found on restaurant menus as a gourmet breakfast option; described as homemade creamy porridge with cinnamon, fresh berries and honey, or as creamy hot oats with a generous splash of Irish whiskey. Either way, what we’ve known for many years is that porridge is simply delicious and can offer a different breakfast every morning depending on what toppings you add.

So… Why Are Oats So Good for You?

Low Fat

Oats are high in energy, but low in fat, so they are one of the best ways to start the day. An average bowl of porridge made with water is only 171 calories.

Prolonged Energy Release

Oats have a high content of complex carbohydrates and soluble fibre, which means they release their energy slowly, so after a bowl of porridge, you should find no need to snack between meals.


Oatmeal and porridge oats are two of the few wholegrain foods that come out of the package as 100 percent whole grain.

‘Wholegrain’ refers to the entire edible part of the grain, which includes the germ, endosperm and nutrient- rich bran. Refined grains are lower in fibre and other nutrients because the bran and germ are typically removed.

Low-GI Food

Oats are a low-GI food. The lower the GI rating, the better the food is for blood sugar levels. Unlike sugary breakfast cereals, porridge doesn’t send blood sugar levels soaring, only to come crashing down an hour later. This is particularly important for people with diabetes.

Instead, foods with a low GI index, like porridge and oatmeal, help the body to keep energy levels steady, and keep the hunger pangs at bay for much longer. As such, low GI foods are great for weight loss, as they keep you feeling fuller for longer, so you’ll want to eat less.

Oats and Cholesterol

Oats can help to lower cholesterol, and may help to reduce the risk of heart disease, when taken as part of a low fat diet.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver and other cells in the body, which is used to break down and digest fat. Cholesterol also comes from dairy products, beef, poultry and seafood. When the body has more cholesterol than it needs, cholesterol levels in the blood can rise, and over time, may damage or clog the arteries.

Oats act like tiny sponges, actually soaking up cholesterol and carrying it out of the bloodstream.


Oats are high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals including calcium, zinc, iron, manganese, thiamine and vitamins B1 and E.

Soluble Fibre

Oats contain more soluble fibre than any other grain. Soluble Fibre is essential for healthy digestion, helping both to maintain a healthy bowel function.

Folic Acid

Oats contain folic acid, which is essential for healthy foetal development.

How To Process Oats To Eat At Home


Jan. 07, 2011

If you know how to process oats at home, you can make your diet more nutritious and healthy. Although harvested in fall, oats are available all the year round. One bowl of oats makes a regular wholesome breakfast. Oats have many health benefits associated to them.
Usually oats are grown by farmers and are processed, packed and then come to us in a packaged form. But how much fun would it be if you can process oats at home?
For processing oats one has to follow various steps which include harvesting, sieving, threshing, roasting, hulling and sorting.
To process oats at home youll need “fid”:”541166″,”viewmode”:”wysiwyg”,”fields”:”format”:”wysiwyg”,”type”:”media”,”attributes”:”alt”:””,”title”:”Oats make a healthy breakfast”,”style”:”border-bottom: 4px solid border-left: 4px solid margin: 4px width: 320px float: right height: 192px border-top: 4px solid border-right: 4px solid”,”class”:”media-element file-wysiwyg”
Clean sheet
Screen or mesh
Roller mill
Thrashing frail
Here is how processing oats can be done
Harvest the oats when they have reached the three feet height. It is better to harvest the oats in the rain free weather.
With the help of a sickle, cut the stems of oat grass.
Let the cut oat grass also known as oat stem dry. Since the oat plants contain a lot of moisture, drying can take some time.
Collect the dried oat stems to make a large bundle. Stack two such bundles together.
Now with the help of few oat stems, tie the bundles firmly.
Make these bundles stand in an open area with the oat stems opened up. This will help the oat stems to dry completely. The drying can take up to two weeks.
Once dried, open the tied bundles on a clean sheet. Thrash the stems hard till the oat grains separate from the oat stems.
Collect the oat grains, and keep the oat stems aside.
The oat grains will be in their hard hulls. Roast the grains in an oven for one and half hours at 180 degrees.
The hulls will wisp and will separate from the edible oats groats inside.
Grind the hulls with the oat groat in the roller mill. Keep the grinded hull and groats in the bucket covered with a screen or mesh.
On a dry day, winnow the buckets content. The oat grains will separate from light weighted hull.
Collect the oats and store in dark, cool place. Use the oat straw for feeding animals.
The processed oats are ready to be served in the breakfast.
Image credit- planetgreen.discovery.com

Avena sativa

Also called: spring oats
Type: cool season annual cereal
Roles: suppress weeds, prevent erosion, scavenge excess nutrients, add biomass, nurse crop
Mix with: clover, pea, vetch, other legumes or other small grains
See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. If you need a low-cost, reliable fall cover that winterkills in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder and much of Zone 7, look no further. Oats provide quick, weed-suppressing biomass, take up excess soil nutrients and can improve the productivity of legumes when planted in mixtures. The cover’s fibrous root system also holds soil during cool-weather gaps in rotations, and the ground cover provides a mellow mulch before low-till or no-till crops.

An upright, annual grass, oats thrive under cool, moist conditions on well-drained soil. Plants can reach heights in excess of 4 feet. Stands generally fare poorly in hot, dry weather.


You can depend on oats as a versatile, quick-growing cover for many benefits:

Affordable biomass. With good growing conditions and sound management (including timely planting), expect 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of dry matter per acre from late-summer/early fall-seeded oats and up to 8,000 pounds per acre from spring stands.

Nutrient catch crop. Oats take up excess N and small amounts of P and K when planted early enough. Late-summer plantings can absorb as much as 77 lb. N/A in an eight- to ten-week period, studies in the Northeast and Midwest have shown (313, 329).

Where the plant winterkills, some farmers use oats as a nitrogen catch crop after summer legume plowdowns, to hold some N over winter without needing to kill the cover in spring. Some of the N in the winterkilled oats may still be lost by spring, either through denitrification into the atmosphere or by leaching from the soil profile. Consider mixing oats with an overwintering legume if your objective is to maximize N contribution to the next crop.

Smother crop. Quick to germinate, oats are a great smother crop that outcompetes weeds and also provides allelopathic residue that can hinder germination of many weeds—and some crops (see below)—for a few weeks. Reduce crop suppression concerns by waiting two- to three weeks after killing oats before planting a subsequent crop.

Fall legume nurse crop. Oats have few equals as a legume nurse crop or companion crop. They can increase the fertilizer replacement value of legumes. Adding about 35 to 75 lb. oats/a to the seeding mix helps slow-establishing legumes such as hairy vetch, clovers or winter peas, while increasing biomass. It also helps reduce fall weeds. The oats will winterkill in many areas while improving the legume’s winter survival.

Spring green manure or companion crop. Spring -seeded with a legume, oats can provide hay or grain and excellent straw in the Northern U.S., while the legume remains as a summer—or even later—cover. There’s also a haylage option with a fast-growing legume if you harvest when oats are in the dough stage. The oats will increase the dry matter yield and boost the total protein, but, because of its relatively high nitrogen content, could pose a nitrate-poisoning threat to livestock, especially if you delay harvesting until oats are nearing the flowering stage.

The climbing growth habit of some viny legumes such as vetch can contribute to lodging and make oat grain harvest difficult. If you’re growing the legume for seed, the oats can serve as a natural trellis that eases combining.

(Avena sativa)


Establishment & Fieldwork
Time seeding to allow at least six to 10 weeks of cool-season growth. Moderately fertile soil gives the best stands.

Late-summer/early-fall planting. For a winterkilled cover, spring oats usually are seeded in late summer or early fall in Zone 7 or colder. Broadcasting or overseeding will give the best results for the least cost, unless seeding into heavy residue. Cleaned, bin-run seed will suffice.

If broadcasting and you want a thick winterkilled mulch, seed at the highest locally recommended rate (probably 3 to 4 bushels per acre) at least 40 to 60 days before your area ’s first killing frost. Assuming adequate moisture for quick germination, the stand should provide some soil-protecting, weed-suppressing mulch.

Disk lightly to incorporate. In many regions, you’ll have the option of letting it winterkill or sending in cattle for some fall grazing.

If seeding oats as a fall nurse crop for a legume, a low rate (1 to 2 bushels per acre) works well.

If drilling oats, seed at 2 to 3 bushels per acre 1/2 to 1 inch deep, or 1 1/2 inches when growing grain you plan to harrow for weed control.

Shallow seeding in moist soil provides rapid emergence and reduces incidence of root rot disease.

Timing is critical when you want plenty of biomass or a thick ground cover. As a winter cover following soybeans in the Northeast or Midwest, overseeding spring oats at the leaf-yellowing or early leaf-drop stage (and with little residue present) can give a combined ground cover as high as 80 percent through early winter (200). If you wait until closer to or after soybean harvest, however, you’ll obtain much less oat biomass to help retain bean residue, Iowa and Pennsylvania studies have shown.

Delaying planting by as little as two weeks in late summer also can reduce the cover’s effectiveness as a spring weed fighter, a study in upstate New York showed. By spring, oat plots that had been planted on August 25 had 39 percent fewer weed plants and one-seventh the weed biomass of control plots with no oat cover, while oats planted two weeks later had just 10 percent fewer weed plants in spring and 81 percent of the weed biomass of control plots (329, 330).

No-hassle fieldwork. As a winterkilled cover, just light disking in spring will break up the brittle oat residue. That exposes enough soil for warming and timely planting. Or, no-till directly into the mulch, as the residue will decompose readily early in the season.

Winter planting. As a fall or winter cover crop in Zone 8 or warmer, seed oats at low to medium rates. You can kill winter-planted oats with spring plowing, or with herbicides in reduced-tillage systems.

Spring planting. Seeding rate depends on your intended use: medium to high rates for a spring green manure and weed suppressor, low rates for mixtures or as a legume companion crop. Higher rates may be needed for wet soils or thicker ground cover. Excessive fertility can encourage lodging, but if you’re growing oats just for its cover value, that can be an added benefit for weed suppression and moisture conservation.

Easy to kill. Oats will winterkill in most of zone 7 or colder. Otherwise, kill by mowing or spraying soon after the vegetative stage, such as the milk or soft dough stage. In no-till systems, rolling/crimping will also work (best at dough stage or later). See Cover Crop Roller Design Holds Promise For No-Tillers. If speed of spring soil-warming is not an issue, you can spray or mow the oats and leave on the soil surface for mulch.

If you want to incorporate the stand, allow at least two to three weeks before planting the next crop.

Killing too early reduces the biomass potential and you could see some regrowth if killing mechanically. But waiting too long could make tillage of the heavier growth more difficult in a conventional tillage system and could deplete soil moisture needed for the next crop. Timely killing also is important because mature oat stands can tie up nitrogen.

Oats, Rye Feed Soil in Corn/Bean Rotation

Bryan and Donna Davis like what cover crops have done for their corn/soybean rotation. They use less grass herbicide, have applied insecticides only once in the last six years, and they have seen organic matter content almost double from less than 2% to almost 4%.

Rye and oats are the cover crop mainstays on the nearly 1,000 acres they farm near Grinnell, Iowa. Bryan and Donna purchased the farm—in the family since 1929—in 1987 and almost immediately put most of the operation under 100% no-till, a system they had experimented with over the years. They now till some acres and are also in the process of transitioning 300 acres to organic.

Moving 1/3 of their acreage toward organic seems the logical culmination of the Davis’ makeover of their farm that started with a desire to “get away from the chemicals.” That was what motivated them to start using cover crops to feed the soil and help manage pests.

“We were trying to get away from the idea that every bug and weed must be exterminated. Rather, we need to ‘manage’ the system and tolerate some weed and insect pressure. It should be more of a balance,” says Bryan.

Bryan and Donna are practitioners and proponents of “biological farming,” a systems approach based on such principles as feeding the soil to keep it biologically active, reducing chemical inputs and paying attention to trace elements or micronutrients in order to maintain balance in the system. Cover crops play an integral role in this system.

They seed oats at 2-3 bu/A in spring or fall, depending on time and labor availability. Donna does most of the combining and planting, but even with a lot of acres for two people to manage, cover crops are a high priority on their schedule. Fall-seeded oats are planted after soybean harvest and “need rain on them soon after planting to get them started.” They’ll put on about a foot of growth before winterkilling, usually in December in their south-central Iowa conditions.

Spring oats are broadcast in mid or late March with a fertilizer cart and then rotary harrowed. If going back to corn, they seed at a heavier, 3.5 bu rate, expecting only about 5 or 6 weeks of growth before they work down the cover crop with a soil finisher and plant corn in early May. For soybeans, they either kill chemically and no-till the beans, or work down and seed conventionally.

They have managed rye in different ways over the years depending on its place in the rotation, but prefer to seed into killed or tilled rye rather than a living cover crop. They figure that they get about 35 lb. N from oats and up to 60 lb. from rye.

On their organic transition acres they are applying chicken manure (2 tons/A), and cover crops are crucial to sopping up excess nutrients and crowding out the weeds that crop up in response to the extra nutrients. They feel that their efforts to balance nutrients are also helping with weed control, because weeds feed on nutrient imbalances.

In addition to the increase in soil organic matter, attributed to cover crops and no-tillage, they’ve also seen improvements in soil moisture and infiltration. Fields that used to pond after heavy rains no longer do. Soybeans are weathering drought better, and corn stays green longer during a “more natural” drying down process.

“Our system takes more time and is more labor intensive, but if you look at the whole budget, we are doing much better now. We have cut our chemical costs dramatically, and have reduced fertility costs—in some fields—by 1/3 to 1/2” says Bryan. “With energy costs these days, you can’t afford not to do this.”

Davis is careful to note that this is not just about adding one component such as cover crops. “You need to address the whole system, not just one piece of the pie. To be able to have a sustaining system, you must work with the living system. Feed the soil and give it a roof over its head.” Cover crops play a crucial role in that system.

—Andy Clark

Pest Management

Allelopathic (naturally occurring herbicidal) compounds in oat roots and residue can hinder weed growth for a few weeks. These compounds also can slow germination or root growth of some subsequent crops, such as lettuce, cress, timothy, rice, wheat and peas. Minimize this effect by waiting three weeks after oat killing before seeding a susceptible crop, or by following with an alternate crop. Rotary hoeing or other pre-emerge mechanical weeding of solo-seeded oats can improve annual broadleaf control.

Oats are less prone to insect problems than wheat or barley. If you’re growing oats for grain or forage, armyworms, various grain aphids and mites, wireworms, cutworms, thrips, leafhoppers, grubs and billbugs could present occasional problems.

Resistant oat varieties can minimize rusts, smuts and blights if they are a concern in your area or for your cropping system. Cover crops such as oats help reduce root-knot nematodes and vegetable crop diseases caused by Rhizoctonia, results of a producer study in South Carolina show (448), although brassicas are better. To reduce harmful nematodes that oats could encourage, avoid planting oats two years in a row or after nematode-susceptible small grains such as wheat, rye or triticale (71).

Other Options
There are many low-cost, regionally adapted and widely available oat varieties, so you have hay, straw, forage or grain options. Select for cultural and local considerations that best fit your intended uses. Day-length, stalk height, resistance to disease, dry matter yield, grain test weight and other traits may be important considerations. In the Deep South, fast-growing black oats (Avena strigosa) look promising as a weed-suppressive cover for soybeans. See Up-and-Coming Cover Crops.

Aside from their value as a cover crop, oats are a great feed supplement, says grain and hog farmer Carmen Fernholz, Madison, Minn. A niche market for organic oats also could exist in your area, he observes.

Oats are more palatable than rye and easily overgrazed. If using controlled grazing in oat stands, watch for high protein levels, which can vary from 12 to 25 percent (434). The potassium level of oat hay also is sometimes very high and could cause metabolic problems in milking cows if it’s the primary forage. Underseeding a legume enhances the forage option for oats by increasing the biomass (compared with solo-cropped oats) and providing nitrogen for a subsequent crop.


Fall brassicas grow faster, accumulate more N and may suppress weeds, nematodes and disease better than oats.
Rye grows more in fall and early spring, absorbs more N and matures faster, but is harder to establish, to kill and to till than oats.
As a legume companion/nurse crop, oats outperform most varieties of other cereal grains.
Oats are more tolerant of wet soil than is barley, but require more moisture. Seed sources. See Seed Suppliers.

Top | Cereal Rye

All About Growing Winter Grains

Spelt, a primitive wheat, produces berries with a unique, nutty flavor.

Cereal rye has renowned cold tolerance, and will grow in lean, sandy soils, so it’s ideal for improving new garden plots.

Check out our chart of winter grains for more details on oats, winter barley, triticale, wheat and cereal rye. Fedco Organic Growers Supply offers an excellent selection of grains at better prices than most sources.

When to Plant Winter Grains

You should plant the least hardy grains first, followed by hardier species as the first frost approaches. (Find your frost dates on our What to Plant Now pages.)

Ten to 12 weeks before your first fall frost, start sowing seeds of oats or winter barley. In areas with mild winters, they can be planted up to six weeks before the first fall frost date.

Eight to 10 weeks before your first fall frost date, sow seeds of triticale, wheat and spelt. (Many state extension services publish recommended dates for growing wheat, which often has a tight interval for seed sowing.) In areas with mild winters, you can plant these grains up to four weeks before the first fall frost date.

Four to eight weeks before your first fall frost date, sow seeds of cereal rye. Cereal rye can be planted until the first fall frost date in areas with mild winters.

How to Plant Winter Grains

All grains need fertile, well-drained soil and a near-neutral pH (about 6.0). If possible, sow winter grains into the stubble of a previous crop instead of planting into a clean bed. Any vegetation at the surface will help block wind and catch snow, which enhances the winter hardiness of all grains. Use a rake or hand trowel to rough up the soil’s surface, then plant seeds about 1 inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart. Firmly tamp the seeds into place with the back of a rake, then water the area. Keep the soil lightly moist until the seedlings emerge.


Harvesting and Storing Winter Grains

Oats and barley planted in late summer grow into lush, green plants that will regrow if cut back when they are 2 feet tall. Use the greens as mulch, or feed them to animals or your compost pile. Allow wheat, rye and their relatives to grow until late spring. To utilize them as mulch-producing cover crops, cut the plants back to 3 inches when they are knee-high (first cutting), and make a second cutting two weeks later before digging out the plants or turning them under.

With grains you plan to harvest for food, allow the plants to grow uncut. Harvest when the seed heads dry to light brown but still show streaks of green. Use a scythe or heavy scissors to cut off the tops, leaving about 12 inches of stem attached. Bind big handfuls into bundles (called sheaves) using string or rubber bands. Hang your sheaves in a dry place, or arrange them in single layers on a drying table. Depending on weather conditions, the grain will be dry enough to thresh in one to two weeks.

Of the many ways to thresh grain, one of the easiest is to knock the dried tops against the sides of a clean barrel or deep bucket. You could also place the grain tops in a clean pillowcase and crunch them with your hands. Next, winnow the grain by pouring it back and forth between broad bowls or pans in front of a fan, which will blow away the chaff (seed husks and bits of stem).

Tiny insects often hide in harvested grain, but freezing easily kills them. If you can’t permanently store your grain in a freezer, freeze it for a week and then store it in airtight containers in a cool, dry place.

Saving Seeds

Saving grain seeds for replanting is as simple as setting aside some of your harvested grains. As you sort your crop, select the largest, prettiest grains for your planting stock. Stored in cool, dry conditions, grain seeds remain viable for at least two years.

Pests and Diseases

Used in rotation with vegetables, winter grains interrupt the life cycles of soilborne pests and diseases.

The Hessian fly can be a serious threat to fall-planted grains, especially wheat planted in early fall. Your best defense is to delay planting until cool weather ends the Hessian fly’s yearly life cycle.

Insect-vectored viral diseases, including barley yellow dwarf virus and wheat streak mosaic virus, cause plants to become stunted and develop red or yellow streaks. You can best prevent these diseases by planting grains after nearby corn or other grains have been harvested.

Growing Tips

Winter grains make beautiful, edible ornamentals: Try growing them in stands as lawn alternatives in places where you can watch them dance in the wind.

Widely spaced cereal rye plants are stiff enough to support spring peas as a natural trellis.

If you plan to eat your oats or barley, try growing hull-less (also known as “naked”) varieties for easier post-harvest processing.

In colder climates, plant edible grains in early spring to prevent winterkill. Check with your local extension office for recommended planting times.

In the Kitchen

Simmered in lightly salted water for about 45 minutes, wheat or spelt “berries” and hulled oat “groats” become chewy and slightly nutty. Mix cooked whole grains with yogurt or fruit for breakfast, or combine them with vegetables in cold salads. You can grind small amounts of dry whole grain in a coffee mill or food processor, and you can use a grain mill to produce your own high-quality, whole-grain flour. All whole grains can be sprouted — an easy way to eat your homegrown grains if you don’t have a mill. Add sprouted whole grains to salads, or chop them up and use them in breads. Whole grains are a good source of fiber, protein and iron.

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.

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