In the early 1930’s, Iowa grew a larger variety of crops to include barley, flaxseed, rye, and wheat in addition to corn, soybeans and oats. When looking specifically at oats, they played a much larger role in the 1930s to 1960s – and greatly exceeded soybeans. Since then the smaller crops such as barley and wheat have phased out as well as the majority of oats acres, while soybean acres in Iowa have grown. According to the USDA ERS, soybeans in 2015 were estimated to return $236.95/acre in the U.S. while estimated oat returns were $172.55/acre.
One reason that many farmers feel oat production has declined is that there is very little demand for oats, and the small amount of demand remaining is primarily for food grade quality. Longer ago oats were often fed to horses that were used heavily for farm work, but that demand has shrunk due to declining horse populations. Oats can be a good source of carbohydrates/energy for livestock such as hogs, but the oat groats are better than the whole oats because the hulls have too much fiber that is hard for them to digest. Overall, oats are not likely to become a main ingredient in rations, but can be used in small portions. Hull-less varieties and higher test weights are ways to help increase use in livestock feed. Food grade oats have many specific requirements such as high test weights, certain moisture target, and cleanliness of the oats. Cleanliness of the oats is critical, especially in cases when companies are trying to hit claims such as ‘gluten free’. If farmers are actually going to produce food grade quality oats, they need to focus on good field selection, weed management, variety selection, and a marketing strategy – whereas, most Iowa farmers plant oats as a last resort on their worst piece of land with minimal planning or management. Storage space is another issue – many co-ops don’t accept oats and farmers don’t want to waste their on-farm storage space on oats.
Other major issues that have led to the decline in oat production in Iowa include a lack of funding and not enough growers to drive that funding. Education for farmers to help them with variety choice and ways to increase the test weight is either not available or is out of date. Up until now, there was very little research on oats still being funded at land grant universities. This led to limited variety options, and the varieties available may not be suitable to produce high quality oats in the Iowa climate.
In June 2016, General Mills and South Dakota State University announced their partnership in opening a new oat variety development lab to help boost the yields and nutritional quality of oats. With this new research, it will be interesting to see if oats work their way back into crop rotations. The partnership between General Mills and SDSU is a great example of public and private businesses working together to provide important research to the agriculture industry.