Imagine growing a crop that could provide your cows with 15 to 16% protein, an energy level higher than corn, a 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio, and unsaturated fatty acids that improved the nutritional quality of their milk and meat. Now imagine that this crop could yield a ton to the acre, with the same fertility, weed control, and equipment needs as a small grain. If it sounds too good to be true, maybe you need to try some hulless oats.
Bruce Posch is a believer. At the end of October I visited Bruce, OntarBio's most northerly member, on his 800-acre farm just north of New Liskeard. Bruce is a long-time organic farmer who recently switched from dairy to crops. One of his main crops has always been hulless oats. He first started growing them as a teenager on his family's farm in southwestern Ontario and was very impressed with how well pigs performed on a hulless oat diet. When he started dairying in New Liskeard, he was equally impressed with them as a dairy ration. Now, he thinks more farmers should be growing and feeding hulless oats.
As mentioned above, hulless oats have a very favourable nutritional profile. Research literature places their protein content from 14 to 20%. Their energy content rates the same or higher than corn. Several studies in non-ruminant species show that hulless oats can make up 50% of the ration for broilers; 87% for laying hens, and 95% for grower-finisher hogs. An 18-month study conducted in 1998 by the AAFC Research Centre in Lennoxville, QC concluded that hulless oats could replace both corn and the protein supplement in dairy rations with no impact on milk yield or components.
As a small grain, hulless oats do not require the high fertility levels that a corn crop does. Nor does it require any different seeding, weed control, or harvest equipment than any other small grain – another advantage over corn and soybeans for many farmers. Hulless oats can be direct-combined or swathed, although swathed crops need to be handled carefully to avoid threshing losses during pick-up.
Because they lack a protective covering, hulless oats are more prone to damage during harvest, storage, and handling. Of course, this is primarily a concern for those growing for seed; however, rough handling during planting can also reduce germination.
The high oil content at the surface of the seed also makes it very attractive to insects during storage, and they need to be stored at under 12% moisture, so a well-maintained, aerated storage bin is important.
Hulless oats also have a coating of fine hair on the groat that can prevent to oats from flowing freely. More importantly, these hairs cause itching – some people are especially sensitive to this, so it's advisable to work in a well-ventilated area and wear proper clothing during handling – a dust mask is probably a good idea to prevent lung irritation, too.
Hulless oats could be a valuable crop for organic dairy farmers who lack the type of land or equipment necessary to produce corn and/or soybean crops and who want to reduce their purchased feed costs. For farmers who do grow corn, the higher protein content of hulless oats may make them attractive, but this needs to be balanced against the lower yield per acre.
Purchasing hulless oats as a ration ingredient is another possibility. Prices are usually slightly higher than organic corn, but well below the price of organic soybeans. These prices could also make hulless oats an attractive option for cash croppers wishing to diversify their crop rotation.
Is it time to try hulless oats on your farm?
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