Spring oats are attracting increasing interest in the eastern counties but growers need more information on how to get the best from the crop. Marianne Curtis reports.
With East Anglian growers looking for alternative cropping options in an attempt to combat issues such as black-grass and problems growing oilseed rape, spring oats are an option, but those connected with the crop report a dearth of information on the best agronomy to achieve good yields and milling specifications.
Grain merchant Gordon Gowlett says: “There is very little knowledge or advice on best agronomy to produce milling quality and sustainable returns in East Anglia. We need to understand how the Scots produce such good spring oats. If it is light levels or moisture there should be varieties which perform in the East Anglian environment.”
Independent agronomist Antony Wade, who covers Herefordshire, Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, says he has seen an increase in interest in growing spring oats and growers switching from winter to spring oats in his area.
“The main reason for the switch is winter oats giving inconsistent yield performance and there are more grass-weed problems. But growing oats if you have bad black-grass is not a good idea because basically there is no effective grass-weed control in oats. Spring oats are even more limited than winter oats in terms of residual chemistry. There is only one that you can use in spring oats, DFF and no contact material available.”
On farms with a grass-weed problem which still opt for spring oats, he says ploughing is an option worth considering. “It helps minimise grass-weed issues, especially bromes.”
Oats are usually drilled in March/April after spring barley and in terms of seed rates, Mr Wade advises aiming to establish 300-325 plants/sq.m.
“They can tiller quite well. But if they are sown in mid-April there is not so much time to tiller so consider putting the seed rate up. If it is strong ground and very fertile you may want to lower the seed rate to minimise lodging.”
John Miles, product development manager at KWS, says optimal seed rates will be looked at in a series of trials. “We have started a range of work to explore more about oats and new varieties which have higher yields, greater ear numbers and higher tillering ability. Getting the right population is important. If it is too heavy it may impact on grain content. If it is too thin you will get good grain quality but won’t have maximised yield.
“Historically, spring oats have been grown on ground that was lighter but what is the right rate for heavy ground with a black-grass problem? From a little bit of feedback we’ve had from growers there could be opportunities to increase seed rates to get more competition. Some new varieties are quite robust at holding on to kernel.”
Oats are a low input crop compared with other cereals and inputs must be applied carefully to avoid damaging what is a sensitive crop, warns Mr Wade.
“You can apply fungicides, herbicides and PGRs together on other crops but this can be dangerous on oats in terms of crop effect and you’ll probably have to go through two or three times.”
Key inputs include manganese as the crop is susceptible to deficiency, says Mr Wade. “Next will be herbicide if there’s a flush of weeds.
“Ally Max can be a bit hard. I prefer florasulam which is kind on oats.”
A fungicide should be applied at growth stage 30-31, says Mr Wade, with key diseases being crown rust and mildew.
“This will usually be an azole with a bit of strobilurin. In a co-formulated product you can usually get away with half dose. Oat mildew, unlike the species in wheat, is still controlled by strobilurin chemistry.
“Crown rust can come in late in a hot summer with humid weather and you may need to put a fungicide on late flag leaf when some of the panicles are emerging.”
A PGR should be applied at GS32 he advises. “Spring oats grow quickly. People think they won’t lodge but they can. I tend to use Canopy as it’s kinder on oats and you can go a bit later.”
The extent of tillering can mean the crop is quite green towards harvest, says Mr Wade. “People rush to harvest when the straw is still green. Patience is the watchword when it comes to harvest.”
Sam Slater, who farms 650 hectares at Windolphs Farm in west Suffolk, south of Bury St Edmunds, has moved from growing winter oats to 160ha of spring oats over the last few years.
Mr Slater stopped growing oilseed rape 10 years ago, due to pigeons, slugs, land being spread out with a minimal labour force and the challenges of establishing it on Hanslope boulder clay.
He says: “We had been hunting around for a break crop for a long time. We got on well with winter oats until black-grass became too much of a problem. The first year we grew spring oats was 2010. We’ve settled with Canyon; it is a resilient variety with a good yield and good grain quality. It copes well with dry spells. Only this year are we growing Elyann as well as Canyon.
“It [Elyann] has not proved itself on-farm yet but its growth habit looks a bit more black-grass suppressive with a more smothery style. Canyon is more upright.”
Mr Slater budgets for a yield of seven tonnes/ha. “We have been over that at times but also under. As we’ve got the hang of the crop we’ve been able to achieve a more stable and reliable yield.
“The biggest thing we have learned is not to damage the crop with inputs. We have damaged it in the past with herbicides and mixing various agrochemicals. It is a very soft crop. It grows very rapidly and once it goes into stem extension you end up having to do a lot in a short space of time.”
Using a manganese seed dressing avoids the need to apply the trace element at the same time as herbicide, says Mr Slater. DFF is used as a pre-em ‘to take the pressure off on weed control’.
“Inka is a good sulphonylurea, very soft on oats. There is the potential for some tank mixing when the crop is not stressed,” he says.
“We typically use Fandago during stem extension followed up with Amistar or Folicur at flag leaf or early panicle. This is perfectly adequate to give the disease control required. It is not a crop that is heavily dependent on inputs.
“Canopy is a very good PGR and does not damage the crop which responds well if you need to use higher rates.”
Seed rates are tailored to cultivation methods and field conditions.
“With ploughing there is more mineralisation so we cut seed rates back a bit and also the fertiliser regime. If it’s cold boulder clay, min tilled we push up seed rates and N rates.”
Spring oat harvesting normally falls at a similar time to wheat, says Mr Slater. “It dries nicely in the field as long as it hasn’t lodged. Sometimes we have to be patient as straw can be green.”
Mr Slater is hosting two spring oat trials on his farm this year. “Four or five years ago it felt like I was on my own working out how to grow them. I am very conscious that growing oats in East Anglia is a different climate to Scotland which has extra daylight and cool spells in summer. I think heavy ground helps the crop. There is no doubt they love a wet spring.”