Oats – A crop rota­tion alter­na­tive for arable farms?

Oats (Ave­na sati­va) are a robust, resilient cere­al that is good for humans and good for the soil, but is cer­tain­ly not new to our fields. Archae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered that the Celts and Ger­man­ic peo­ples were already grow­ing this cere­al 4000 years ago. Before pota­toes found their way across the ocean, por­ridge was a sta­ple food in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe.

Over the last few decades, how­ev­er, the mar­ket for oats had become lim­it­ed to horse feed pro­duc­tion and niche, most­ly organ­ic food pro­duc­tion for humans. But for a while now oats have been gain­ing a large num­ber of new fans through­out the world, who appre­ci­ate the health ben­e­fits of this alter­na­tive food in the form of oat drinks or por­ridge, for example.

For a long time, pro­duc­tion in Ger­many remained lim­it­ed, with a degree of self-suf­fi­cien­cy of just 70%. These days, how­ev­er, farm­ers are begin­ning to catch up with the increased inter­est from con­sumers. After all, this sum­mer crop offers arable farm­ers a great deal of ben­e­fits from an agro­nom­ic stand­point. What’s more, the mar­ket­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties are wide-rang­ing and the prices are cur­rent­ly very attrac­tive. Sim­i­lar to oth­er cere­als and oil-pro­duc­ing crops these days, oats are rapid­ly jump­ing from one peak price to the next. At the begin­ning of May, the Chica­go Board of Trade record­ed an unprece­dent­ed price of 411 €/t.

In 2020, Ger­many had an area of 156,000 ha under cul­ti­va­tion – 20% more than the pre­vi­ous year – and har­vest vol­umes of 714,000 t (aver­age yield 48 dt/ha), mak­ing it Europe’s 5th largest pro­duc­er of oats. The Euro­pean fron­trun­ner is Poland, fol­lowed by Fin­land, Spain and Swe­den. Up to now, Ger­man grain mills have been import­ing oats from Scan­di­navia and North Amer­i­ca to cov­er the domes­tic sup­ply deficit. Mean­while, the oat mills are report­ing a ris­ing demand for qual­i­ty oats for the food pro­cess­ing industry.

So, at the moment, the signs are in favour of con­tin­u­ing to increase oat pro­duc­tion. Nev­er­the­less, mar­ket and arable experts admit that prices and yields are sub­ject to stronger fluc­tu­a­tions, and the qual­i­ty require­ments set by mills are not easy to meet either. The best way to avoid mar­ket­ing prob­lems is by con­tact­ing mills in advance and agree­ing long-term sup­ply contracts.

Prof­itabil­i­ty of oats in a crop rotation

Clear­ly, fluc­tu­at­ing prices and yields have a neg­a­tive impact on the prof­itabil­i­ty of a crop. An eval­u­a­tion of the past few years shows that although yields of around 70 dt/ha – some­times even above 90 dt/ha – were reg­u­lar­ly achieved dur­ing nation­al vari­ety tri­als, the results in prac­tice most­ly came out below this depend­ing on the region and year. In dry­er years, an aver­age of just above 40 dt/ha were har­vest­ed in Ger­many, and around 50 dt/ha dur­ing the wet­ter years of 2009, 2012 and 2014.

How­ev­er, up to now, many farm­ers have also tend­ed to put oats in less suit­able loca­tions with a poor­er water sup­ply and in unfavourable posi­tions in the crop rota­tion. If more atten­tion were paid to this crop in Ger­many, i.e. if it was placed on soils with an arable qual­i­ty rat­ing above 27 and a good water hold­ing capac­i­ty, it would absolute­ly be capa­ble of pro­duc­ing good yields. This would put it at the same lev­el of prof­itabil­i­ty as the oth­er crops that have been elim­i­nat­ed from crop rota­tions, such as stub­ble wheat and rye. It is rec­om­mend­ed to use mul­ti-year yield fig­ures for prof­itabil­i­ty analy­ses, while also not for­get­ting the addi­tion­al costs incurred. The agri­cul­tur­al ben­e­fits – high pre­ced­ing crop val­ue, low plant pro­tec­tion and fer­tilis­er require­ments, oppor­tu­ni­ty to slot in catch crops – must always be incor­po­rat­ed into the cal­cu­la­tion approach as well. Oats have a sta­bil­is­ing, health-boost­ing effect on both the soil and the fol­low­ing crops. Although their con­tri­bu­tion can­not be expressed to the exact pen­ny, it is hard to under­es­ti­mate it in view of the chal­lenges faced by arable farm­ers.

New­com­ers to oat grow­ing are advised to obtain advice on sta­bil­is­ing and increas­ing yields from the avail­able chan­nels. These may be arti­cles in the press or pub­li­ca­tions by con­sul­tan­cies; even breed­ers and mills offer cul­ti­va­tion advice, includ­ing the asso­ci­a­tion of oat mills on the www.alleskoerner.de web por­tal. And of course, a care­ful­ly man­aged field cat­a­logue that com­bines all the rel­e­vant field data in a clear and mean­ing­ful way  is instru­men­tal in pro­duc­ing a suc­cess­ful crop.

Oat field

Ben­e­fits of oats

  • Oats are the only cere­al that has the poten­tial to loosen up close crop rota­tions com­prised of cere­als and oilseed rape. As a sum­mer crop, it cre­ates the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fit in a catch crop over the win­ter months. This enables green­ing tar­gets to be met and weeds such as slen­der fox­tail to be effec­tive­ly controlled.
  • Oats are classed as a clean­ing crop because the plants are of no val­ue to many cere­al dis­ease agents, for exam­ple those caus­ing eye­spot or take-all. It is also the best per­former among the sum­mer cere­als at sup­press­ing weeds.
  • With a good water sup­ply, oats can cope with any soil type. Their pro­duc­tive root sys­tems grow very deeply and can eas­i­ly break down nutri­ents from the soil. This crop’s strong abil­i­ty to absorb nutri­ents makes it attrac­tive for red zones too. Although atten­tion should be paid to the avail­abil­i­ty of trace nutri­ents such as man­ganese and copper.
  • Oats are suit­ed to exten­sive cul­ti­va­tion due to their min­i­mal plant pro­tec­tion require­ments. Insec­ti­cides and plant growth reg­u­la­tors should be applied as required; fungi­cides are not usu­al­ly need­ed. Tri­als have shown that inten­si­fi­ca­tion mea­sures are often not prof­itable. In fact, exces­sive inten­si­fi­ca­tion could even have a neg­a­tive impact.
  • The crop’s high pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in exten­sive cul­ti­va­tion is anoth­er rea­son for its pop­u­lar­i­ty among organ­ic farm­ers. In 2019, organ­ic oats were grown on 28,000 ha, mak­ing them the fourth biggest cere­al in organ­ic farming.

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