| May 12,
2005: “You can’t make money growing oats.”
I’ve heard it over and over. In fact, I’ve heard
that said about most small grains here in the East. Everyone
thinks you have to grow corn or soybeans to be a successful
grain farmer. One farmer who visited the Institute farm even
said to me, “I thought you were a grain farmer.”
I said, “I am.” To which he responded, “You
farm over 300 acres, where are all the large corn and soybean
fields?” The only reason most farmers are growing small
grains is to balance out their rotation, and most don’t
grow oats at all.
My reply to “you can’t make money growing oats”
is, “I can’t help but make money growing oats.”
It’s almost too easy. I till the soil and get a good
seed bed ready, plant the oat seed, and wait. I do all the
field work early in spring, long before anything else is even
close to being ready to plant, when time is not as precious
as it soon will become. Then in July I go back, harvest the
crop and collect the pay check.
OK, so maybe that is slightly over-simplified, but not much.
Let’s look at some numbers:
While conventional oat prices were hovering around $1.30
per bushel in August of 2004, organic oats sold off of this
farm brought $4.00 per bushel. We had oats in two different
points in our rotation. One rotation point yielded about 70
bushels per acre and the other around 105 bushels per acre.
That’s an average of 87.5 bushels per acre. So I’m
grossing $350.00 per acre. At $2.50 a bushel for (conventional)
corn I’d need to average 140 bushels an acre to gross
the same amount. And with organic oats there are no herbicide
costs, no cultivation, and no fertilizer, so my costs are
about as minimal as can be. Just as important, with oats I’m
only occupying the resources of my farm for a total of about
four months out of the year, freeing them up for either another
crop or for cover crop production. That’s a great deal.
AND—yes there is another AND—these figures don’t
even include the dollar value of the straw. Straw prices in
2004 were high here in eastern Pennsylvania due in part to
short straw length on the wheat crop. For that reason, I baled
the oat straw and marketed it off the farm. In most years
I like to return the carbon back to the soil, but the money
was too good to ignore and I felt that one year of selling
off the straw wouldn’t hurt. Oh yeah, the prices. We
got $100.00 per ton sold right out of the field. I didn’t
calculate the tons per acre for the straw when I baled it,
but I think you can tell that it's just the icing on the cake.
We also grow other small grains on this farm—wheat,
barley, and rye. This time of the year it’s wonderful
to look out across the farm and see so much green. While a
lot of corn has already been planted most of it isn’t
up yet so those fields look brown and barren. But not the
small grain fields.
The wheat that was planted last fall is about a foot tall.
The rye is about the same depending on how early or late the
field was planted. I didn’t plant any barley last fall
but if I had, it too would be green and lush this time of
As with the oats, we get good prices for our wheat. In 2005
we sold our wheat for $6.03 per bushel, compared to conventional
wheat which was selling for only $2.74 per bushel. Again as
with the oats, last year we sold the wheat straw. My wheat
yields aren’t as high as many of my conventional neighbors',
but 50 bushels an acre is worth the effort. I plant winter
wheat in October: It protects the soil throughout the winter,
and like other small grains gets harvested in July. As a winter
annual, it works well in my rotation, dividing up my work
load and helping to break weed cycles.
I grow rye mainly as a cover crop. I always save one or two
of my better fields for seed to plant later in the season.
From time to time I have extra seed to sell but it's not a
big money maker for me.
Like other grain farmers, we also grow corn and soybeans.
But we don’t limit ourselves to those “glamour
crops.” As farmers across the Midwest, Southeast and
Northeast prepare for the possible onslaught of soybean rust,
it might be a good time to consider the lowly small grains
as you develop an alternative farm plan. I’ve spoken
to farmers that are considering flax, spelt, triticale, buckwheat,
and even perennial grains. Any of these crops can be a money
maker if you do your homework and spend some time setting
up a solid marketing plan. Not only can they generate dollars
but they’ll diversify your work load, improve and protect
your soil, break weed cycles and--like today as I look out
my window--they’ll be green long before most of your
other crops. I like green!!
Hope you all have a safe and successful spring planting season.
From one farm to another,