Optimizing Organic Oat (Avena sativa) Production and Profitability in Iowa

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2015: $9,985.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2017
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft
Iowa State Univ

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: hay, medics/alfalfa, oats


  • Crop Production: cover crops, cropping systems, crop rotation, intercropping
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Proposal abstract:

    Oats (Avena sativa) are an essential part of many organic farmers’ crop rotations in Iowa. Within multi-year rotations, oats help to decrease the soil weed seed bank and act as an effective nurse crop for either a forage or green manure. Their rooting structure and biological functions contribute to soil health by increasing soil aggregate stability more than other cash crops (corn and soybeans). Unfortunately, small grains like oats are the financial weak link in a crop rotation due to a combination of poor yields, grain quality and current market prices. An observational study completed in the fall of 2014 indicated no consensus around what optimal seeding rates should be. While literature and farmer feedback suggest seeding oats as early as a field is feasibly worked, little information specific to Iowa is available as to how much or if seeding rates should be adjusted as optimal seeding dates get delayed. Based on this feedback, we have developed and begun small plot research on organic acreage at the Marsden Research Farm in Boone, IA and a series of on-farm trials around the state. For the small plot work, oats were seeded at three different dates spaced 11 days apart. The oats were seeded at four different rates on each date, reflecting desired plant populations of 15, 22, 29 and 36 plants/ft2. On-farm trials examined the effects of the top three populations (22, 29 and 36 plants/ft2) at a singular seeding date under different soil and climate conditions as well as management systems. We will examine the effect of seeding date, rate and any possible interaction of the two on grain yield and quality, straw yield, forage/green manure biomass and weed biomass. These four variables represent the major sources of profitability, or constraints thereof, in an organic oat rotation year. This study should provide baseline information on growing oats in the state of Iowa and will inform more precise recommendations as to both plant populations and seeding dates for optimal profitability of the rotation year.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Short term: The results of this project will markedly increase the available information for oat production guidelines in Iowa and the Upper Midwest. The more precise agronomic information that will be generated from this project will better guide producers, both organic and conventional, in their decision making as it relates to the production of oats.


    Intermediate term: If optimal date/rate combinations are proven to add to the consistency of oat yields from year to year, this could help immensely in combating the idea that oats and other small grains are grown simply out of ecological necessity and not economic viability. Our goal is to encourage farmers to add greater precision to growing practices in relation to alternative crops in a rotation. If project results are positive, this may aid in convincing farmers in both continuing to grow small grains like oats and also potentially experimenting with other small grains and alternative crops.


    Long term:  If the intermediate term outcomes are feasibly attained, this will contribute greatly to the overall agroecological health in the state of Iowa. Profitably growing alternative crops like oats could aid in attracting more growers to organic markets and/or sustainable farming practices. This, in turn, could aid in reducing the overall use of petrochemical inputs, like herbicides and fertilizers, on the Iowa landscape. Profitable oat growing in the state could also encourage local mills and processors to buy more product within state lines, which would contribute more dollars to local rural economies.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.