Oats were originally one of the most widely grown farm crops in the Midwest. The grain was used for protein and fiber in animal diets and the straw as bedding. Oats fit well into the labor and livestock intense system of 1900.
As America developed so did its manufacturing, transportation, and agricultural systems. Farms became specialized and mechanized, with fewer and fewer draft animals needed to work on farms, or in cities, mines, or forests. In Minnesota, oat production was on 2,500,000 acres in 1900, peaked in 1945 at 5,392,000, and is 300,000 acres today. The average farm is now 356 acres and specializes: in corn-soybeans, small grains, or forage crops, and/or a single livestock species.
Oats are still a multiple-use crop. In addition to animal feed and bedding, they are found in a wide variety of breads, cereals of all types, granola bars and as a thickener in infant foods. University of Minnesota cereal and nutrition scientists documented how beta-glucan, found in abundance in oat and barley fiber, lowers the risk factors for heart disease. Oats are now widely promoted as the "most healthy" grain.
Early U of M research led to higher yielding varieties resistant to fungal diseases that can spread extremely fast and destroy the crop. In 1966 oat scientists began a cooperative research effort with Mexican breeders after stem rust decimated that country's oat fields. After improving Mexican varieties to incorporate rust resistance, Experiment Station researchers began work with scientists in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay where crown rust is still a severe problem.
Plant breeders use winter nurseries to speed variety development. The U of M oat program has off-season plots in New Zealand, in a site with soils and growing conditions similar to Minnesota. For more than 50 years, the Quaker Oats company has supported U of M international and domestic research as well as many graduate students.
Oats is often used as a "companion crop" to establish alfalfa. The oat plants emerge and grow quickly, protecting the tiny alfalfa seedlings from erosion and the drying sun until they can survive on their own. The oats may then be cut, chopped, and used as silage to feed livestock. Or, the oat crop may be grown to maturity and harvested, the grain used as livestock feed and the straw for bedding. 'Preston,' 'Starter,' and 'Pal,' were developed to serve as companion crops.
Plant breeders working with oats, wheat, and barley learn to work carefully with the small flowers when they cross pollinate two parents.
'Sesqui' is the most recent oat variety and commemorates the University of Minnesota Sesquicentennial. Oat breeding was one of the first applied research projects at the University, and in 1895 an improved oat variety was released by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station.
U of M Oat Varieties
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