Spring Oats – Not a Winter Forage, But Still a WinnerIn the March 27 edition of Country Folks, in the farmer-to-farmer section, there is only one hay for sale ad. Last year at this time there were about 10 hay ads in the same spot. And two years ago, there were no hay ads in that spot. These relative shortages of forage were caused by droughty conditions in the preceding respective growing seasons. Farmers pray for the right combination of warmth, sunshine and precipitation.

Early in the 2020 and 2022 growing seasons that sought-after combination didn’t become reality in all too many parts of the Northeast. Right now a lot of dairy folks are running low on harvested perennial forages, seeking to create a harvestable 2023 forage as soon as possible.

To accelerate the arrival of harvestable cool weather forages – for growers who don’t have winter forages springing to life, planting oats ASAP should have a lot of appeal – but only if there’s no threat of dangerous herbicide residue. After all, they can be sown at the same time as frost-seeded legumes.

Field crops experts commonly recommend that growers plant oats as soon as conditions permit (dry enough not to “muck up” furrow openers) as cold isn’t a problem. To maximize early harvest of such forage, the best bet is to broadcast nitrogen and sulfur ASAP on the reawakening stands of winter forages. (Reminder: this term refers to winter annual small grains, like wheat, rye, triticale, speltz and barley, planted around Labor Day, the purpose being to harvest them as forage rather than grains, about eight months later.)

To feed these awakening winter forages as well as newly emerged oats, it’s best to provide N and S in a 10:1 ratio. In too many crop programs, S is forgotten in meadow and pasture top-dress applications. Sulfur shouldn’t be omitted, because it serves as the cornerstone element in the critical protein-forming amino acids methionine and cysteine.

A very basic mix supplying 50 lbs. and 5 lbs. of those two elements, respectively, would be achieved by applying 120 lbs./acre of the following blend: 1,665 lbs. urea and 335 lbs. ammonium sulfate per ton. Let me caution that N rates exceeding 50 lbs./acre may predispose winter rye to lodging, since it’s the tallest of these winter grains. Triticale and wheat encounter few standability issues with N/acre in the 75 – 80 lbs. range.

Thus, for these last two forage species, 180 – 190 lbs./acre of the above fertilizer blend should work quite well. This higher rate (10:1) blend should also work well on a freshly emerging stand of spring oats.

With all these comments regarding N and S, let’s not forget that potassium is the main element underwriting the anti-lodging insurance premium for basically all crops. Likening reawakening winter forages to black bears (Ursus americanus) emerging from hibernation is a valid comparison: Ursus and winter forages break dormancy at about the same time. This past January, during an unusual mild spell, I saw a black bear walk through a meadow behind our house, from one woods to another. Absolutely made my day.

If you already have acreages of winter forages (as well as reawakening stands of perennial forages), it’s best to topdress the rye or triticale with the N/S blend as soon as field conditions no longer threaten rut formation. Probably about a week or 10 days after that topdress, the mixed hay perennials will be greening up. At that point, broadcast some of the 10:1 blend on the reawakening grass/legume sod: 180 – 200 lbs./acre should work well, since most existing sod vegetation rarely lodges.

When the perennial stands have adopted that fluffy white appearance due to the ever-present dandelion seed heads, mow the winter forage – if you have such – then the grass/legume sod. The winter forages will probably be about 15 – 16 inches tall, and the perennials two to three inches shorter – definitely not at early bud stage.

Yield from both crops should be about one ton dry matter per acre (actual yield depending on receiving (or not) the recommended N/S nourishment). Dandelions are very nutritious. They also use their taproots to bring up trace elements lying below the topsoil. Don’t mow stands shorter than four inches, since doing so will lengthen the recovery period and reduce the likelihood of rye and triticale tillering. From time to time, peel the gray fluffy mat of dandelion heads off your haybine and toss it back on a windrow to become haylage or baleage.

About June 10, young oat forage plants should be about boot stage and yield 1.5 to 2 tons of dry matter/acre, depending on whether or not they got their early spring N/S meal. That June date is associated with altitudes of 1,000 feet or less. For higher altitudes, expect an additional day in maturity delay for each 100-foot increase in altitude. About a week or 10 days after oat forage harvest, regrowth of early cut grass/legume perennials should be coming on strong.

For dairy/crop people, it’s important not to let corn planting operations interrupt timely harvest of perennials, winter forage annuals and even spring oats. Land grant research shows that planting the corn a week late is clearly the lesser of two evils, compared to harvesting hay crops a week later.

An example of that fact is shown in the form of some Cornell research that I summarized during the 1970s. I was able to show that on an all-hay diet the pounds of grain required to support 50 lbs./day of 3.5% test milk from a 1,300-lb. cow increased 2 lbs. per week – starting at 5 lbs. of grain, when fed hay harvested on May 25 – and ending at 19 lbs./day when cows are fed hay harvested July 13. I published these data in the biweekly county Extension newsletter. One dairyman told me he was so upset by reading these printed words that he would no longer read what I had written.