CHARLES CITY — Where have all the Iowa oats gone?
The once-abundant crop trotted out of Iowa along with horse-powered farm tools in the early 1900s. Then the new kid, soybeans, sealed its fate.
“There was a time we put out oats, and we’d have farmers just chomping at the bit to get the straw,” said Floyd County farmer Tom Brunner.
“That’s not going on now. There’s just not the straw use there used to be by a long shot.”
Brunner’s been growing oats in rotation for 40 years. This past year, he planted 18 acres. He also does windrowing and harvesting for others’ small parcels.
He brings some grain to The Mill in Nashua. He sells green chop for silage and word-of-mouth sends Northeast Iowa horse owners looking for straw to his fields during harvest.
“The word gets out who’s got oats and who’s got straw,” Brunner said.
“Some take 100 bales. It isn’t like the old days when some of those guys would come in . . . and take 500-1,000 bales.”
Margaret Smith, program specialist in small grains with the Value Added Agriculture Program at Iowa State University, said oats peaked in 1876 with about 3.4 million acres planted in Iowa, according to the National Agriculture Statistic Service.
Now, the numbers are so small they fall under her direction as specialty crops.
By the 1940s, oats were down to 1 million acres. In 2013, 220,000 acres were planted, which was actually a big jump from the 130,000-180,000 acres planted for most of the past decade.
The wet spring of 2013 prevented some farmers from planting corn or beans, and oats took over those fields as a cover crop.
Smith said there are two major groups still growing oats: organic farmers and small-scale livestock producers.
In 2013, Winneshiek County was the largest oat-producing county with 395,000 bushels, according to USDA estimates. Clayton and Allamakee were second and third, making Northeast Iowa the largest oat-producing region.
The state also has two big oat buyers.
Grain Millers in St. Ansgar is one of the largest processors in North America, and Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids buys some of its supply from Iowa farmers.
Ironically, Smith said oats grown in Iowa don’t fit processing standards for them as well as oats grown in Canada, which tend to be heavier because of the cooler climate.
But, Sam Raser, who works with Grain Millers organic supply chain management, said there are good reasons for Iowa farmers to grow oats.
“The best incentive for Iowa farmers is to consider oats as a great break crop for corn/soy rotation issues,” he said in an email. “There are benefits to a longer rotation, breaking up the disease and insect patterns developed in a two-crop rotation.”
Brunner said he’s seen a bump in corn yields following oats.
A 10-year ISU study of oats in rotation with corn and soybeans showed that yield bump is real, Smith said. Farmers were also able to cut back on fertilizer, reduce pesticide use, herbicide use and insecticide.
With the increased yields and moderate market price, the three-year rotation was more profitable than just corn-soybean, the study said.
Recently, price jumps provided another incentive for oat growers.
Ten years ago, oats were $1.50 a bushel. In February, Chicago Board of Trade oat futures hit a record high of $4.63/bu.
Canada had a huge crop this year, but due to the extreme cold and additional tonnage the railroads had to move, most of the crop is still sitting in farm bins, Raser explained.
Those logistic issues drove the CME oat market this winter.
“The market for oats was really hot, and it’s settled down, but you can still get oats right now about the same price as corn,” Brunner said.
Without those huge jumps in prices, though, it can be hard to make much of a profit on oats.
In ISU’s estimated budget, it costs about $400 an acre to grow an oat crop. Typical yield is between 70-100 bu./acre. Even at a good price of $3.80/bu., you’re losing money, Smith said.
“You also have straw, you might have a ton of straw, which can be worth $100 a ton,” she added. “That can flip oats into a profitable crop, but it’s marginally profitable.”
For Brunner, it’s not always about the profit.
“It’s something to do,” he said, laughing. “Some years it’s pretty decent.”