Oats recognized for environmental, economic benefits

(Alternative Heat/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 23, 2016

In the face of falling commodity crop prices and pressure to reduce agricultural runoff, some Iowa farmers are turning to oats.

Corn and soy bean fields cover 95% of all crop acres in the state of Iowa, and farmers watched as their value plummeted in recent years. Some experts say that corn prices could fall lower than they’ve been in a decade this year to $2.30-$2.50 per bushel. Similarly, soybean value could drop to only $8.35 per bushel, while crop production is at a record high for the state. Many farmers have felt increased community pressure to reduce agricultural runoff as well, especially after Des Moines Water Works sued three Iowa countries for contaminating the city’s drinking water with nitrates.

In response to growing economic and environmental burdens, some Iowa farmers are sowing oats. Oats are not generally very profitable crops but can be a profitable investment over the course of a few years, according to Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). First, diverse crop rotations can control weeds with up to six times less herbicide use, thereby significantly reducing economic and environmental costs associated with herbicides. Diverse crops, like oats, also introduce unique root systems to soil and therefore encourage rich microbiol life. Microorganisms and varied root systems help to prevent erosion, improve soil quality, and add to organic matter that fosters plant growth. Farmers that implement a three-year rotation, like those that include oats along with corn and soy, experience 21% less erosion.

Brett Heineman, a farmer in Boone county, planted oats on a field that is prone to flooding, where his family often loses part of their corn and soybean yields. Oats have a much earlier harvest time than corn and soy, leaving fields empty through August. The Heinemanns plan to use that extra time this fall to repair tile draining lines, hopefully meaning more profitable harvests in the future. They point out that leaving the field fallow for the entire year would have been a complete loss. Oats allowed them to turn a bit of a profit, even though tile improvements needed to be made. Oat can also be sold for its straw in addition to the actual grain, helping to make oat profit margins more competitive with those of corn and soy.

PFI in partnership with the Sustainable Food Lab is currently conducting an oats pilot project on about 500 acres between Iowa and Minnesota. PFI staff are providing on-site agronomic advice to participating farmers while the Sustainable Food Lab is working to establish a supply chain for farmers looking to market food grade oats with companies like General Mills.

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