| May 12, 2005:
“You can’t make money growing oats.”
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 year.
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
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,