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Small grain, big impact

Add oats to corn-soybean rotation for economic, agronomic benefits.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

April 24, 2024

5 Min Read
field of oats
OATS MAKE COMEBACK: Oats are making a resurgence for farmers such as Martin Larsen of Byron, Minn., as he has incorporated the small grain into his corn-soybean rotation as a third cash crop. Farm Progress

Oats may be a small grain, but they have made a big difference in Martin Larsen’s farming operation.

Larsen grew up in a traditional farming operation — an uncle had dairy cows, and his dad had hogs in open lots and the crop diversity needed for the livestock enterprises. As the livestock went, so did the crop diversification — to be replaced with a corn-soybean rotation.

Kevin Schulz - Martin Larsen of Byron Minnesota

“Going through 2013 with the Prevent Plant year, these wild weather swings — like short-duration, high-intensity rainstorms that are really hard on our farm if you’re caught without proper cover when they come,” got him rethinking the two-crop rotation, says the former agronomist, who farms in the Byron, Minn., area. “If you do a tillage pass in the spring, and you get one of these thunderstorms that passes over the farm, it can take literally hundreds of thousands of tons of soil left exposed, and you can’t get that back.”

That revelation spurred Larsen to add cover crops to his operation, and in the last few years he has added oats as a third crop in his corn-soybean rotation.

“Growing oats again has enhanced my life and my son’s life,” he says. “I don’t think I would be as happy as a farmer only growing two crops.”

Marketing benefits

Adding oats to the mix has benefited the Larsen operation in multiple ways, one being the marketing side. “I never identified as a good grain marketer,” he says. “I felt like my eggs were in two baskets, so marketing a third crop spread things out.”

Even with his admitted marketing shortcomings, Larsen says “there have been a number of years when oats have been very profitable even as a standalone; if you only looked at the oat year, you were still coming out very good.”

The agronomic benefits also translate to economic benefits of a third crop. As Larsen says “This isn’t a new concept. Growing a corn crop after legume will get you a yield advantage, all things equal. And the more years you can get between soybean years, the more soybeans you’ll grow.”

Larsen’s data show the rotational advantage on the soybean side is $46, and $60 on the corn side. “So, we’ll grow that much more corn and soybeans by having a three-crop rotation,” he says.

Larsen says breaking the two-crop rotation with a small grain also has agronomic benefits. Adding oats to the system allows for a substantial legume cover crop growth, “so I can actually credit my legume cover crop with additional pounds of nitrogen for corn.”

Looking at the system as a whole, rather than three individual crops, Larsen says small grains can give a rotational advantage to the corn and soybean years for yield — but the oats may also allow you the chance to reevaluate how you select corn hybrids. “We can pull some traits back — specifically the rootworm traits to begin with — and then as we get further down the road, maybe moving to conventional corn, so the seed costs are less on the corn year. Our nitrogen costs are less on the corn year because we’re growing a legume cover crop to supply more nitrogen than the soybean crop. So, the benefits to the other years outside of the oats year are just as important as the ones that are the profitability that we calculate within the oat year itself.”

Doesn’t have to be oats

Larsen has worked with other small grains in the past, but he has settled on oats for the primary reason that there is a market.

“I want to get one crop in a community in a large enough quantity to bring us back into markets that we really don’t have access to. If we’re just individual farmers spotting it here and there, we’re not organized. We’re not aggregating — like within an entity — but we’re aggregating as many growers to get bushel quantities above 500,000 now, so I’m focusing on that.”

Growing oats also works nicely for farmers such as Larsen who have limited labor.

“It’s easier for farmers to see this one crop year after year; they can get used to seeing it in the community, so they say, ‘They might be on to something. Let me ask some questions,’” he says. “Our ultimate end goal would be 10 different crops on our farm — that would be really good. But we’ve got to go from two to three. And we should probably focus on just one for now.”

While he sees the benefits of adding oats as a third crop, his practices have also gained the attention of landowners “who are interested in having someone else farm their land that grew more than just corn and soybeans,” he says. “So, I’ve grown because of that, and I can grow because I’m spreading my workload.”

In addition to spreading that workload, Larsen also likes the impact this has on his books. “When you look at what I need to come up with for funds, what the difference in funding, leveraging my dollars, but maybe more importantly is I feel good about what I’m doing for the community,” he says.

“We get a lot of sometimes justified, sometimes unjustified, pushback as farmers,” he says. “I knew very well where my shortcomings were as a farmer — like with erosion — and when I started learning about nitrates and what I was doing in regard to nitrates. I feel better that I’m moving the bar. Am I perfect? No, but at least I am moving the bar and it’s giving something for the community to rally around. And that’s rewarding — because to me, when I’m gone, and it’s Rudy’s farm, or whatever, or I’m not farming anymore, this all feels like legacy work — that if it sticks around, that’s legacy work.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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