This post is a little late in coming to you, but what can I say? We’ve been busy since opening in May! Between all the school tours and farm work to be done, this post has slipped my mind more than a few times. Oats are one of the main crops we grow at the 1900 Farm, along with corn and hay. We’ve had posts on check-row planting corn and making hay the 1900 way before, even a post about binding the oats. But we’ve never really talked about just how those oats get into the ground!
Planting oats is something that happens just before we open for the summer touring season, but it’s a crucial step in ensuring the success of our grain harvest event in the late summer, and in ensuring our animals have something to eat during the rest of the year. Here in central Iowa, oats are sown as soon as the soil can be worked from late March until about mid-April. Plantings after May 1 see significant yield reductions due to the seed heads coming on during the heat of summer. Oats are relatively cold hardy, and most older farmers will tell you oats like a little snow on them, so the earlier they’re planted, the better. Our oats were sown on April 20th this year, just inside the ideal window!
As with any crop, the first step in planting oats is to prepare the field. We practice a crop rotation system at the 1900 Farm that had the oats going into last year’s corn field, so field preparation involved just discing under the remaining corn stalks and harrowing out the large clods of dirt. Our exceptionally cold winter this year saw exceptionally deep frost depths to go with it, which meant field preparation was delayed until the ground began to thaw. Thankfully it thawed just in time!
Once the field was prepared, it took a bright, sunny day and a couple of hands to lift the end gate seeder into the grain wagon. The end gate seeder works just like a hand grass seeder you may use in your yard, throwing seed out into a thin layer at a preset rate. The end gate seeder is a little more complex, though, in that 1) it’s around 100 years old, and 2) it is run by a series of chains and gears that all operate on the rotation of the grain wagon’s axle. The end gate seeder also has markings for different seeds such as oats, grasses, and other grains, that determine the seeding rate – usually at a bushels per acre measurement. I once heard that the old standard on the farm was 9 oat plants to the handprint. Modern data suggests planting oats at 30 seeds per square foot, or about 2-3 bushels per acre for drilling, plus another 1/2 to 1 bushel per acre if broadcast (like we will do with the end gate seeder). We set the seeder to what looked like 3 bushels, loaded the bags of oats, and headed to the field. Historically, farmers would have likely been seeding oats harvested from the previous year’s crop.
Once we were in the field, we loaded the hopper with the first bag of oats, opening another one to be ready to dump it in when the hopper ran low. Letting the hopper run out would result in gaps in the field, so it’s important to always be ready with the next bag or shovel-full. It was slightly breezy out of the south, so after we made the first pass down the field, we stopped to check how far the wind was carrying the oat seed to the north. This helped us plan where our next pass through the field should be to get even coverage. Ideally, anything seeded with an end gate seeder should be done on as calm a day as possible to prevent light seeds from being carried too far by the wind. The coverage looked good, though, so we finished the field. A little rough farm math based on the number of bags of oats we used showed we had seeded the field at approximately 2 1/2 bushels per acre, which is in the ideal range.
After the oats were all broadcast on the field, we had to get them down into the soil. Modern grain drills do this in one step by drilling the seed down into the soil, but broadcasting them leaves them laying on top of the soil, where they will struggle to germinate and will most likely be eaten by birds. To increase this crucial “soil-to-seed contact”, we gave the field a light discing. This worked the seeds down into the soil a few inches. Since we weren’t open for touring yet, we cheated history by a few years, pulling the disc with a vintage Ford 9N tractor. The disc was followed by a team of horses pulling a cultipacker. The cultipacker is a heavy, rolling piece of equipment with small “teeth” and sections that can flex and move to follow the contours of the ground. Its job is to break up any clods of soil left by the disc while gently packing the soil down, hopefully nestling each seed into a cozy soil cocoon where germination can occur.
Don’t forget to join us for our Grain Harvest on August 2nd this year! See a steam engine and threshing machine in action as we harvest our oat crop!