USDA projects Idaho’s oat crop, at 1.8 million bushels, will be 85 percent larger than last year.
Oat farmers say the majority of the crop will be cut for hay, rather than grown for grain, due to a shortage of alfalfa, exacerbated in northern Idaho by tough early season weather.
The recent USDA report estimates Idaho’s 20,000 oat acres this season will be up 5,000 acres from 2012, and yields are expected to reach 90 bushels per acre, which would represent a 25-bushel increase.
Eric Hasselstrom, who farms in Winchester, located in Idaho’s northern panhandle in Lewis County, planted 50 acres of oats for hay. He said the crop offers a good short-season alternative to alfalfa that can be grown cheaply.
Hasselstrom’s area was hit with frost in late-April, followed the next week by temperatures reaching into the 90s, damaging alfalfa, grasses and wheat. To supplement their hay supplies, he said many growers planted oats for hay rather than spring barley in late May, and ample moisture arrived to help oat stands.
“About every oat seed around here was seeded,” Hasselstrom said. “The oats crop is beautiful.”
Given the tight alfalfa supply, Hasselstrom anticipates above-average prices for oat hay, which typically sells for about $150 per ton.
Karel Wernhoff, Farm Service Agency executive director for Lewis and Clearwater counties, said because oats are a minor crop, they’re typically seeded last, with the final planting date on June 1. She said most growers were predicting half their normal alfalfa yields when they were deciding whether to plant oats or other spring crops.
She said growers in Lewis County have reported planting 968 acres of oats for grain this season, down from a 10-year average of 1,500 acres. However, plantings of oats for hay, which normally ranges from 300 to 400 acres, are up to 1,040 acres this season, Wernhoff said. In recent years, she believes high hay prices have led to a decline in oats harvested for grain.
Luke Lowe, who farms in Reubens, Idaho, also located in Lewis County, planted 250 acres of oats for hay this season on ground originally planned for barley. He anticipated hay would be short during the winter based on increases in wheat and corn contracts. Lowe said bad weather affecting alfalfa early in the season “was the clincher” in his decision to plant oats.
Lowe was among the first growers in his area to try oats about 25 years ago. He said they contribute to “mellow” soil and create a toxin that helps control weeds, making them ideal to plant before fall wheat.
Lowe believes oats produce high-quality hay, when harvested properly, but the crop is unforgiving of mistakes, which growers make all too often. He suggests cutting oats with a sickle swather rather than a rotary swather, which can suck dirt into windrows. He said growers often cut oat hay too low. Because oat hay is heavier than alfalfa, Lowe said it should be cut 4 inches from the ground to allow for airflow. Furthermore, he said oat hay should be harvested before the top third of the head is filled with grain.
“If you put it up right, it’s better than alfalfa. You can get 16 percent protein with oat hay pretty easily,” Lowe said.
USDA projects national oat production will also increase, rising from 64.024 million bushels to 74.459 million bushels. Oregon oat production is expected to decrease slightly, from 1.805 million bushels to 1.71 million bushels.