Growing Top Quality Oats for Quaker

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The Quaker Oats plant at Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the world’s largest cereal mill, milling millions of bushels of oats a year. With approximately 5,000 bushels of oats per rail car, the plant needs several thousand cars of oats per year.

But they don’t take just any oats. In fact, in the 70s and 80s, they didn’t buy oats from Western Canada at all.

“At that time we had a paradigm that western Canadian oats weren’t milling quality. The reason we believed that was the samples we were seeing on the Minneapolis trading floor were generally not milling quality – they were higher moisture, dark colored, full of wild oats, and had wheat and barley mixtures in them,” says Bruce Roskens, senior manager, agresearch and commodity development, with the Quaker Oat division of Pepsico, based in Chicago.

06 0709 Growing Top Quality 2“The Canadian Wheat Board was generally making deliveries of what they referred to as ‘delivery quality’ oats for the feed markets. We didn’t understand the quality of Canadian oats.”

At the time, Quaker was funding oat variety research at Ag Canada in Winnipeg and Brian Rossnagel’s program in Saskatoon.

“When we’d visit there to look at research and farmer oat fields, we’d say, ‘These are very good quality oats. Why aren’t we seeing that quality delivered into the US?’ It simply was Part of the grain trade system at that time,” says Roskens.

“When the Canadian Wheat Board stopped handling oat marketing, we started seeing better quality Canadian oats crossing the border into Minnesota and North Dakota, delivered by farmersand grain companies. We tried some of those oats, liked the quality and approached several grain companies in Winnipeg.”

The typical response was, ‘we have ones, twos, threes, fours and sample grade. Which ones do you want?” Quaker’s response was that they have human quality specification they’re looking for.

“One grain company, Cargill, was willing to work with us on building a program. We started small in the early 1990s, and by the mid 2000s, one hundred percent of our oats for the Cedar Rapids mill were coming out of western Canada,” he says.

“Now, the majority of the oats that Quaker or any other miller uses – if you draw a line from Saskatoon to Winnipeg and go fifty miles on either side of that line, that’s where 90
percent of the oats for human consumption are coming from.”

Roskens says Quaker does have stringent specifications because they’re strictly a human food processor. They don’t have a separate division for livestock feed, so they have no way to use upgrain that doesn’t meet those specifications.

The challenge for Quaker is to communicate their specs, and the growing practices they’ve gleaned from around the world, to achieve the best yield and highest quality oats possible.

Oat specifications

“A lot of our specifications are not based on moisture and test weight, like you see with 1CW and 2CW. Our spec on test weight is a 38 pound Winchester bushel or 39 pound Imperial bushel.


A lot of farmers are surprised they’re that low, because the racehorse industry wants a 40 or 42 pound Imperial bushel,” says Roskens.

“We’re more interested in the uniformity of the oat, rather than the highest test weight. Milling oats for human consumption is a dry process. We’re taking a clean, sound, solid and uniform oat, taking the hull off , heat stabilizing it so it doesn’t go rancid or dark, then cutting it to flake it, or grinding the whole oat into a flour for ready to eat cereals. Weneed it uniform - in size, shape, texture, and color.” Because the plant is in Iowa, with higher average humidity and temperature levels than western Canada, Quaker wants 13 percent moisture or less.

“For grain drying, we tell the producer to use the same procedures for oats that they would use for malt barley. The oat hull can block airflow, so we recommend low heat – not over 100 Fahrenheit –and keep a lot of air on them,” he says.

“We don’t like farmers blending heavy oats with light test weight oats. We have a limit of 10 percent small oats – that will go through a 5/64 by 3/4-inch sieve. We want a minimum of 96 percent sound cultivated oats – not materially damaged, ground damaged or heat damaged.”

No mixed grains

With traditional crop rotations in western Canada, volunteer grains can sometimes become an issue. Wheat, barley, canola and oats have the potential to intermingle in the field, duringtransport and in the storage of grains. Quaker has very stringent processes and clean up procedures in place at their manufacturing facility, which removes as much mixed grain residue as possible.

“A wild oat is thinner, longer and less dense than tame oats. One percent is quite a few, so they’re not as big a factor as many farmers think. Wild oats clean out easier than barley or wheat kernels,” says Roskens.

The limit for grass green oats is three percent, sprouted oats is two percent, and heat damaged oats is 0.2 percent. Great discoloration can be a big issue if the oats are harvested too wet or allowed to go out of condition in the swath or bin. If it’s dark, it gets rejected.

Fertility

Roskens says oats respond well to fertilization and management. But history has typically seen oats go in last, on the poorest land, and with the least resources allocated.

“We want to get farmers to see oats as a cash crop, and that they can do far better than the provincial average. We’ve had oats yielding more than 200 bushels per acre. In order to harvest that kind of crop, you need to plant a little earlier than normal, soil testing and fertilizing for target yields,” he says.

“A large oat crop will use 100 pounds of nitrogen. But farmers are afraid to put nitrogen on, because they worry the crop will get tall and go down. We suggest that if you’re going to put on 100 pounds of nitrogen and go for a big yield, you’re going to need at least 60 pounds of available phosphorus, plus enough potash.”

“The potash acts as a plant food catalyst, making other nutrients more efficient. It also controls the opening and closing of stoma or guard cells. If you rob a plant of potash, you’ll also see moisture sensitivity or drought effects much quicker than if it’s got adequate potash.”

He says not to put oats on barley or wheat stubble. You’re better off following canola or a legume. The oats have a deeper root system and will mine moisture and nutrients better thanwheat.

“We recommend rust resistant varieties in crown rust areas. Tilt and Strategy are both approved for oat, but we don’t recommend a prophylactic treatment. Only crops with diseasesymptoms should be treated,” says Roskens.

“One concern we have seen in some areas is that the application of a fungicide can delay maturity in some cases.”

Pre-harvest

Roskens gets questions about glyphosate on oats for late season weed control and as a harvest aid.

“I suggest it’s just like swathing – maybe just spot spray those areas that need it, like low spots or weedy areas,” he says.

“Barley and wheat dry from the bottom up, while oats dry from the top down. They look like a Christmas tree, with 90 percent of the oats in the bottom two-thirds of the panicle. You can have the top branches turning white, with some kernels shelling out, but that’s a minor amount, as the majority of the oats are lower down.”

“Just make sure the moisture is down to 30 percent or less, if you’re going to use a desiccant. You can still have green stems, but the oats are dry on top. If you do it too early when the oats are still in the dough stage, it’s the same thing as hitting it with a frost. You’ll lose test weight, volume and yield. If you’re going to have five days of cool, damp weather, I
wouldn’t do it because it’s not going to do you a lot of good.”

Storage

Roskens says Quaker is currently testing the possibility of using grain bags for oat storage. The malt barley industry doesn’t like them because they can affect germination.

“We don’t know if there are germination concerns with oats, so we’re doing some testing with those. But storage of oats is no different than wheat or barley. You want a clean, dry bin and you want to be able to put air on it, particularly if the moisture is higher than 13.5 or 14 percent,” he says.

“We try to discourage farmers from piling the oats on the ground. It’s subject to weather, plus rodents, birds and other animals. You cannot get all that out in a dry grain handling system. So put it in a bin or building, with some aeration tubes through it, to keep the insects, rodents and birds away from it.”

Variety specific

The grain trade typically ships blends of varieties. But the more uniform the grain sample, the better the milling efficiency of the oat and the finished product. The end user doesn’t have to do as much sizing and separating. The best way to ensure uniformity is by sticking with single varieties.

Roskens says Quaker hasn’t done a lot of identity preserved sourcing, but with the Torch River Rail group, it’s asking farmers to put only one variety in each car, to have some traceability.

“We can do better milling evaluations on those varieties and make sure specific varieties in specific areas are working well for the producer and for our milling. We’re trying to make sure we know what the varieties are that we’re milling. If you have a heavy oat and a light oat mixed together, they don’t dehullat the same efficiency or speed,” says Roskens.

“We’ve taken two or three varieties from them. One of the more popular ones in that area is AC Morgan. We’ve also purchased some Leggett and CDC Dancer, so we haven’t been variety specific with them.”

About the Author
Bill Strautman

Bill Strautman is an ag journalist with more than three decades of experience in the western Canadian agriculture industry. Originally from a mixed farm in north-west Saskatchewan, Bill has lived and worked in all three prairie provinces.

He currently owns a fifth-generation century farm east of North Battleford.


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