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Harvesting oat crop near Bright Sand, Saskatchewan, September 1944.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

Oat (Avena sativa L.) is the third most widely grown cereal crop in Canada, behind wheat and Barley. Cultivated oat is an annual plant with a spring growth habit. It is easily distinguished from wheat and barley by its panicle rather than spike inflorescence. The panicle has extended branching from the main stem, creating an open type of inflorescence, as opposed to a spike where the seeds are closer to the central rachis. Although oat has wide adaptation and can be grown across Canada, it is best adapted to moist fertile environments and is not widely grown in the drier regions of the prairies. Oat and other small-grain cereals were brought to Canada in the early 17th century by European colonists. Cereal crops were introduced to the prairies in the mid-1700s as trading posts became established in western Canada. Oat was an important feed crop for the early settlers on the prairies, who used horses as the main source of power for farming and transportation. Over the years, several factors have contributed to the relative importance of oat compared to other grain crops: size and makeup of the livestock industry, popularity and value of pulse and oilseed crops, and an increased interest in oat in the human food market.

Although oat production varies from year to year, Saskatchewan statistics show a slight upward trend in harvested acres in the most recent twenty-year period. This trend is attributable to increased demand from the United States food market, and to an increasing demand in the livestock market, including the recreation horse feed market. The 1998–2002 five-year averages of harvested acres and production in Saskatchewan were 1.5 million acres and 1.3 million tonnes, respectively (SAFRR).

Cultivar development has played and integral role in sustainability and advancement of the oat industry. Canadian efforts in cultivar development date to the late 1800s. At that time, the majority of efforts consisted of observation and evaluation of American or European cultivars brought with settlers arriving in Canada or received from other research institutions. These varieties were generally susceptible to serious diseases such as smut and rust, and varied in adaptation to the diverse conditions of the prairies. These evaluation efforts allowed producers the opportunity to grow the most adaptable cultivar for a particular region. Varieties with the best general adaptation became predominant for extended periods of time.

In Saskatchewan, evaluation of oat cultivars was initiated at the Indian Head Experimental Farm in 1888 and at the University of Saskatchewan in 1909. Currently, the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre (CDC) oat-breeding program is the only one in the province. Other breeding programs contributing to prairie oat production include the AAFC research centres at Winnipeg, Manitoba and Lacombe, Alberta. Although efforts continue to emphasize traits such as yield, maturity and disease- and lodging-resistance, since 1975 greater emphasis at the CDC has been placed on food and feed quality traits such as plumpness, test weight, colour, milling yield, hull content, as well as protein, oil and beta-glucan content. These traits have implications in both human and animal feed markets.

While the majority of oat is used as feed, either on-farm or through commercial trade, there has been increasing interest in oat as a functional food (a food product which provides specific nutritional/health benefits). The beta-glucan in oat, which is a form of soluble dietary fibre, is reported to lower blood cholesterol and possess anti-oxidant attributes. In addition to the conventional markets for oat and the increasing interest in its functional food properties, niche markets are developing for the hog and cattle industries. In western Canada, the marketing of oat was placed under the authority of the Canadian Wheat Board in 1949. In 1974, as part of a new domestic feed grain policy, the federal government removed feed oat for the domestic market from the sole authority of the Board. In 1989, the remainder of oat marketing was removed from the authority of the Board.

Blaine Recksiedler

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Further Reading

MacKay, A. 1888. “Experimental Farm for the North-West Territories.” Pp. 101-02 in W. Saunders (ed.), Appendix to the Report of the Minister of Agriculture on Experimental Farms. Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co; McKenzie, R.I.H. and D.E. Harder. 1995. “Oat.” Pp. 98-112 in A.E. Slinkard and D.R. Knott (eds.), Harvest of Gold. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Extension Press.
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