March 16, 2020 By Joanna Follings, Cereal Specialist, OMAFRA
Over the winter months, there has been a quite a bit of discussion around spring cereal yields in Ontario, and oat yields in particular. Trend lines for oat yields in Ontario compared to Western Canada (Figures 1 and 2) show that, while Ontario yields continue to increase, the increase is smaller than for our friends in Western Canada.
While there may have been greater investment in variety development in Western Canada, the current Ontario variety performance trial data shows that yield potential in Ontario is strong. The Ontario Cereal Crop Committee (OCCC) performance data shows a five-year average of 1.52 tonnes per acre (t/ac) in Area 2, 1.64 t/ac in Area 3 and 2.05 t/ac in Area 5 (Table 1). While we do have our challenges with the growing season, oat yields that are in line with Western Canada or better are possible in Ontario. What it really comes down to is management!
Ontario growers have been able to push oat yields and ultimately improve the profitability of the crop by focusing on management. Just like wheat, oats are responsive to planting date, and the earlier you can plant, the better. By planting early – and even frost seeding if conditions will allow – it is more likely that hot and dry periods during pollination and grain fill will be avoided. In southern Ontario, the target date for normal seeding is April 10th; April 15th for central and eastern Ontario; and May 10th for northern Ontario.
Using a starter fertilizer and fine-tuning your nitrogen rates have also proven to increase yields. However, there can be a fine line between too little and too much nitrogen where lodging becomes a concern. Selecting a variety with better standability can help reduce the risk of lodging and may lead to better success with higher nitrogen rates. Fungicide applications, especially in the presence of disease, have also been effective in reducing lodging. In the 2019 OCCC performance trials, lodging was reduced in Area 2 on average by 3.8 points where a fungicide was applied, compared to where one was not applied (Table 2). This was also the case in Area 3; however, in Area 5 there were no differences in lodging scores between treatments. Timely fungicide applications can also be effective in managing crown rust and can help avoid the weakening of stalks that can occur with this disease, ultimately reducing the lodging that can come with it.
While plant growth regulators have not yet been registered for oats in Ontario, these products have been shown to be an effective tool in managing lodging in oats in high nitrogen management scenarios, and may be an option in the near future. Once these products are available, it is important to recognize that not all varieties will respond the same, so it is recommended that growers try test strips, especially when growing multiple varieties. All this to say: at the end of the day, the yield potential of Ontario oat varieties is there; we just need to unlock it by fine-tuning our management!