Producing Milling Oats in Western Washington: Guide to Grain Quality Optimization and Marketing

Producing Milling Oats in Western Washington: Guide to Grain Quality Optimization and Marketing

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Louisa Winkler, Research Associate, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Kevin Murphy, Associate Professor, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Washington State University
Oats, like wheat and barley, are a small grain which agricultural producers in western Washington can incorporate into their rotations to disrupt pest and disease cycles and contribute to soil quality. Oats are physiologically well adapted to the region’s cool climate and high rainfall. However, oats have not been studied in western Washington during recent generations, and there is a lack of information about value-added markets for the crop, optimal production practices, and variety choice. This publication takes a first step towards rebuilding a regional knowledge-base for oats, focusing on the production of food oats for the milling industry. We introduce milling oat quality specifications and describe how the crop’s performance can be managed to meet them, both in the field and after harvest. Results are presented from two years of variety trials carried out in four western Washington counties which identified several oat varieties with consistent yield and quality performance. Production data from these trials are analyzed together with regional market prices to provide an indication of the revenue potential of milling oats grown in western Washington. Comparison of revenues with those of other small grains show that oats can be economically competitive. Oats represent an interesting opportunity for producers in western Washington both to diversify their rotations and strengthen local food systems.
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West of the Cascade mountain range, where a cool maritime climate prevails, the most widely grown crops include specialty potatoes, berries, and hybrid brassica seed. The relatively high returns commanded by these crops are crucial to farm businesses under economic pressure as urban expansion makes farmland increasingly scarce and more expensive. At the same time, continuous monocropping of high value crops is unsustainable owing to the buildup of pest and disease pressures, so small grains are used by many farmers as rotation crops.

Oats and other small grains are not susceptible to major diseases of crops typically grown in western Washington, such as white mold (caused by Sclerotinia sclerotiorum) and verticillium wilt (caused by Verticillium dahliae). In addition to disrupting pest and disease cycles of beans, peas, sunflower, brassicas, carrots, and potatoes, small grains can contribute to a robust local food system. Work has been underway in recent years to develop markets which can add value to wheat and barley crops in western Washington, such as the breadmaking market for wheat (Hills et al. 2012) and the craft malting market for barley (Stayton 2014). Similarly, there are opportunities to add value to oats (Avena sativa L.) by marketing their grain to the human food market. Oats for human food are known as milling quality oats, referred to hereafter as milling oats (note that in the grain trade, milling oats are differentiated from feed oats in terms of grain quality only, not production practices).

Oats represent a practical option for western Washington farmers already growing wheat or barley, and a way to add further diversity to their rotations. Oats have a lower disease susceptibility than other small grains (Forsberg and Reeves 1995). Field equipment is interchangeable between oat, wheat, and barley crops. The same grain-cleaning equipment can also be used, though different sieve sizes might be required. For region-appropriate guidance on small grains equipment, see Miles et al. 2009.

Among the small grains, oats are particularly well suited to production in western Washington. Oats germinate well in cold, wet soil and produce their best yields and test weights when spring temperatures are cool and there is ample water supply (Forsberg and Reeves 1995). Indeed, oats have a higher water requirement than other small grains (Briggs and Shantz 1913). The Puget Sound region used to produce some of the world’s highest yielding oat crops (Shands and Chapman 1961). Oats disappeared from western Washington in the late

twentieth century along with the region’s milling industry as farmers sought higher margin crops (Winkler et al. 2016), but with the 1986 opening of the Grain Millers facility in Eugene, OR, a commercial-scale regional oatmeal mill is now available again.

Because oats have been largely overlooked in western Washington cropping systems during recent generations, there is a lack of up-to-date information about the practical and economic considerations of producing milling oats in the region. This publication addresses the gap by providing guidance on how to understand and meet modern milling oat quality criteria; it also estimates revenue potential using milling oat variety trial data collected in 2014 and 2015 from Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and Thurston Counties.

Marketing Milling Oats in Western Washington

Major milling companies use hulled oats for food oat production rather than hulless oats (a variant of Avena sativa L.). One reason for this is the protection offered by the hull during transport and storage of the grain. Oat groats (the name used for the oat kernel inside the hull) are high in lipids and vulnerable to rancidification, which speeds up on contact with the air. Owing to the high lipid concentration, oat groats are also soft and easily broken during handling. Additionally, there are relatively few hulless oat varieties available on the US seed market at the time of this publication, and the agronomic performance of the best hulless oat varieties does not yet equal that of the best hulled varieties. In this publication, discussion of grain quality criteria refers solely to hulled oats.

The processing of hulled oats for food requires cleaning, heat treatment to inactivate lipid-degrading enzymes, removal of the tough hull, toasting to develop flavor, and moisture adjustment followed by flaking or grinding (Girardet and Webster 2011; North American Millers’ Association 2016). The high capital intensity of oat processing accounts for the relatively small number of oatmeal mills in the US. Most facilities are located in the Midwest (North American Millers’ Association n.d.). The largest scale facility accessible to farmers of the coastal Pacific Northwest is that operated by Grain Millers, Inc. in Eugene, OR. This facility processes 50,000 tons per year of oats. Much of the intake is currently imported from Canada owing to lack of local production, but local sources of grain are sought and the mill is able to collect from farms throughout the coastal Pacific Northwest. Because the Grain Millers facility is likely to remain an accessible



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