Ask the Farmer: Getting started with oats

Rodale Institute Farm Director Jeff Moyer talks about what is happening in our fields and yours.

Melissa asks:

I am passionate about growing organic produce and I decided to grow oats for my family, animals and maybe extra for friends or bartering at farmers’ markets. I am new bloomer—never farmed before. With all the information about prepping the garden and controversy over tilling versus no-tilling, what do you recommend? What kind of oats do you recommend? Also, how do you spread the seed? Do you plant oats in long rows or cluster plots? I live in southeastern Indiana and I really appreciate any information you can offer. Spring is just around the corner and I need to make some decisions.

Jeff says:

Welcome to farming. Glad to have you aboard. Oats are a crop that you can plant early in spring, preferably in March if the soil and weather allow. I would suggest that you till the soil as soon as possible. Typically oats are planted in fields using a grain drill to establish them in 7- or 8-inch rows. When this is done early in the season the oats can germinate and grow with very little interference from us as farmers. That means you'll need to get all your fertilizer or soil amendments in place before you till the soil. A soil test will help you decide if additional crop nutrients are needed.

Oats are usually harvested with a combine in field situations but in smaller plots they can be harvested by hand in early to mid-July then taken to an area where you can thresh them out. If they are for human consumption you'll need to hull them. This can be done by rubbing them between two rough surfaces that roll the hulls of the seed. Southern Exposure Seeds has instructions on making a dehuller attachment for a hand-crank grain mill. Or, you could always plant hulless oats. Good luck.

12 Responses to “Ask the Farmer: Getting started with oats”

  1. William N Hale

    I planted and harvested Penn Nuda buff oats last year. I put in only a little over an acre, the early weeds were fairly heavy (I even tried tine weeding early on, which helped) and the field was not terribly rich. I was disappointed to only get about 20 bushels threshed, which yielded even less once they went through the cleaner. I assume that the naked oats generally do not yield well, but they seem to have some other good things going for them, like good prices for seed producers. My combine (an old F2 Gleaner) seemed to do a pretty good job on them, despite having only fair cylinder bars, which have since been replaced. Most of the hulls were removed in the machine and there seemed to be very little damage to the berries. I was lucky, I thought, that it was extremely dry when I combined them, and I could run the cylinder pretty slowly as a consequence. When it came time to do germ tests (at Sou. Exp., who wanted the seed), I got a rude shock in that they only got 50-70% germination. I got a little better myself, but not a lot. They did not seem to have insect damage and nothing much changed after putting them through a freeze cycle. I am currently thinking that the naked oat berries are just very sensitive to threshing damage. So I ended up with more seed than I had planned on, most of which I sowed this Spring. Some leftovers I will put in a high class chicken scratch that I am bagging for market. The soil has been very cold here this year, so what I got in this year before the early March snowstorm only came up in the last couple of weeks. I planted a bit heavy, thinking the germ was poor, but the germ in the field turned out to be pretty good and now have a solid stand, if short, on several acres. I also put some in an early cover mix with naked oats, yellow mustard, phacelia, turnips and red clover, which is coming up even better. This Spring has been entirely different than last year which was so warm the cool weather stuff, like Bell Beans, just couldn’t hack it. I write all this because I am interested in anyone else’s experience with naked oats. Thanks for listening.
    William Hale, Louisa Va

  2. Kent Russell

    Can anyone tell me about the safety of using a plastic greenhouse?

  3. Debbie

    Do I have to wait til after the last frost before planting as we still have below freezing temps well into may..if I wait that long will I get a harvest before first snow in mid October?

  4. Dan Lefever

    Plant as soon as you can get the ground prepared. Oats are cold hardy down to about 10 degrees F for extended periods. If you can work the soil, you can plant, a frost won’t hurt them. In the mid-Atlantic region (zone6) the earliest we can plant is end of March to beginning of April. they get harvested the end of July into August; so you should have enuf growing time before snow. The biggest issue may be getting the crop to die off and dry down for harvest. In northern climates grain crops often need to be cut and windrowed to get them dry enuf to thresh with a combine. If you are doing back yard scale you could cut and bundle into sheaves (approx. when grain reaches “dough” stage) which could then be stacked under cover to dry. Also if doing a small scale planting you may want to consider growing transplants under cover. They could be started a month before last frost, grown up to 6″ in plug trays, hardened off and the set out in mid to late May. These spaced plants in good garden bed soil can make many tillers (stalks with seed heads) and fill a square foot area. I have seen wheat plants in this type of situation make as many as 75 tillers verus plants drilled in a row 1″ to 3″ apart having only 1 to 3 tillers. It is my opinion that the extensive root system the wide spaced plant have also picks up much more nutrients and trace minerals thus making high nutrient density grain; which is a better food and a better germinating seed with a longer life.

  5. Brittany

    The farm beside my house grew oats and put them into bails. What do they do with them after?

  6. Jeanne Sheridan

    We us oats for our goats but as someone else said you can use them for human consumption.

  7. Jeanne Sheridan

    Kent, what type of “plastic” green house? We have a rigid sided 12’x24′ Fiber glass impregnated poly-carbonate green house. It has straight sides and a peaked roof. It has held up to heavy rain, wind and even about 6 inches of snow with no issue. I’ve seen them used up in the Cascades in areas that get a lot more snow than we do.
    Or due you mean heavy rolled plastic over an arched PVC frame? We don’t have one but a nursery in the neighborhood has them up year round without an issue. If you are looking at this type I think the issue will be your snow load. I think you could make it work even in high snow load areas but you would need to increase the structure system holding up the rolled plastic sheeting.

  8. Jeanne Sheridan

    The National Organic Program (NOP) requires crop and plant producers to use organic seeds, annual seedlings and planting stock within their operations.

    Organic seeds defined, means seeds that are untreated, or treated only with allowed substances found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances


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