Origin, History, and Uses of Oat (Avena sativa) and Wheat (Triticum aestivum)

Lance Gibson and Garren Benson, Iowa State University, Department of Agronomy
Revised January 2002.

History and Origin of Oat

Little history of oat is known prior to the time of Christ. Oats did not become important to man as early as wheat or barley. Oats probably per­sisted as a weed‑like plant in other cereals for centuries prior to being cultivated by itself. Some authorities believe that our present cultivated oats developed as a mutation from wild oats. They think this may have taken place in Asia Minor or south­eastern Europe not long before the birth of Christ.

Probably the oldest known oat grains were found in Egypt among remains of the 12th Dynasty, which was about 2,000 B.C. These probably were weeds and not actually cultivated by the Egyptians. The oldest known cultivated oats were found in caves in Switzerland that are believed to belong to the Bronze Age.

The history of oats is somewhat clouded because there are so many different species and subspecies, which makes identification of old remains very difficult. The chief modern center of greatest variety of forms is in Asia Minor where most all subspecies are in contact with each other. Many feel that the area with the greatest diversity of types is most likely where a particular plant originated.

Oats were first brought to North America with other grains in 1602 and planted on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. As early as 1786, George Washington sowed 580 acres to oats. By the 1860s and 1870s, the westward shift of oat acreage in the United States had moved into the middle and upper Mississippi Valley, which is its major area of production today.

Predominant Areas of Oat Production   

Oats are chiefly a European and North American crop. These areas have the cool, moist climate to which oats are best adapted. Russia, Canada, the United States, Finland, and Poland are the leading oat producing countries. Oats are adapted to a wide range of soil types, thus temperature and moisture conditions are the usual limiting factors as to where oats are grown. Perhaps no other country uses oats as much in their cropping system as does Scotland. Some winter oats are produced in the United States, but most are spring oats produced mainly in the north central states.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the five leading states in production usually were Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. By the 1960's, the main oat producing area began moving somewhat north and westward. In 2000, the rank of states in order of production was Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa. Iowa acreage peaked at about 6.4 million acres in 1950 and slumped to 270,000 acres, of which only 180,000 acres were harvested, by 2000. The more profitable crop, soybean, has replaced the oat acreage.

Uses of Oat

Oats have been used as livestock and human foods since ancient times. Some have been used as pasture, hay or silage; but most have been used as a feed grain. Oat straw has been an important bedding for livestock through history. In Samuel Johnson's dictionary, oats were defined as "eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England." The Scotsman's retort to this is, "That's why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!"

In the United States, oats were formerly grown mainly for horse feed; but with the coming of the motorized age, oats became a feed chiefly for young stock and poultry. There has been an increase in oats used for human food in recent years. Oat Bran has received considerable attention from the medical community for its role in reducing blood cholesterol. Nutrition experts believe that Beta glucans, the water-soluble fibers present in oat bran inhibit cholestrol, which helps prevent heart disease. Nutritionists recommend increased daily intake of fiber, such as that in oat bran, because it assists in regulating gastro-intestinal function.

Several breakfast cereals and bread products are made from oat flour and rolled oat products. Oat hulls have also been used as a raw material for fermentation to furfural, a chemical solvent used in refining minerals and for making resin. Another oat product has been used as an antioxidant and stabilizer in ice cream and other dairy products. Iowa continues as a center of oat processing in North America, although the newer processing facilities, built over the last several decades, are more northward in Minnesota and Canada .

A bushel of oats weighs 32 pounds.

History and Origin of Wheat

Wheat is grown on more land area worldwide than any other crop and is a close third to rice and corn in total world production. Wheat is well adapted to harsh environments and is mostly grown on wind swept areas that are too dry and too cold for the more tropically inclined rice and corn, which do best at intermediate temperature levels.

Wheat is believed to have originated in south­western Asia. Some of the earliest remains of the crop have been found in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. Primitive relatives of present day wheat have been discovered in some of the oldest excavations of the world in eastern Iraq, which date back 9,000 years. Other archeological findings show that bread wheat was grown in the Nile Valley about 5,000 B.C. as well as in India, China, and even England at about the same time. Wheat was first grown in the United States in 1602 on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Man has depended upon the wheat plant for himself and his beasts for thousands of years. A global wheat failure would be a disaster that few nations could survive for even one year.

Although the so‑called bread wheats are common to most of us, there are many uncertainly related species that make up the genus Triticum. This likely was due to a number of natural crossings with wild species during its early evolvement. Some of the species closely related to our common wheats would be einkorn, emmer, durum, and spelt.

Predominant Growing Areas for Wheat

In 2000, world wheat production was approximately 21 billion bushels. This was grown on approximately 520 million acres. About 36 percent of the world production is in Asia with about 17 percent in Europe Union countries and 16 percent in North America. World leaders in order of wheat production are the China, India, United States, France, and Russia. Marked increases in wheat production in China and India since the early 1960's is one of the greatest success stories of modern agriculture.

The United States grew just over 62 million acres of wheat in 2000 with an average yield of 41.9 bushels per acre. The top states in acreage grown are Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, and Washington. Other leading producers are Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.

About 70 percent of the wheat planted in the United States is winter wheat (fall seeded). Of the remaining wheat acreage, 24 percent is planted to spring wheat (spring seeded) and 6 percent to durum (spring seeded). Although five major classes of wheat are grown in the United States, the two major wheats are hard‑red spring and hard‑red winter, and both are bread wheats. Iowa is a very minor producer, having only 20,000 acres in 2000, compared with 500,000 acres in 1910. A major processing plant for making pasta products from durum wheat is located in Ames, Iowa.

Uses of Wheat

Although useful as a livestock feed, wheat is used mainly as a human food. It is nutritious, con­centrated, easily stored and transported, and easily processed into various types of food. Unlike any other plant‑derived food, wheat contains gluten protein, which enables a leavened dough to rise by forming minute gas cells that hold carbon dioxide during fermentation. This process produces light textured bread.

Wheat supplies about 20 percent of the food calories for the world's people and is a national staple in many countries. In easten Europe and Russia, over 30 percent of the calories consumed come from wheat. The per capita consumption of wheat in the United States exceeds that of any other single food staple. Besides being a high carbohydrate food, wheat contains valuable protein, minerals, and vita­mins. Wheat protein, when balanced by other foods that supply certain amino acids such as lysine, is an efficient source of protein.

Various classes of wheat are used for different purposes. The major classes used for bread in the United States are hard‑red spring and hard‑red winter. These are the major wheats grown in the Great Plains of the United States. The dominant hard‑red spring wheat states are North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and South Dakota. The major hard‑red winter producing states are Kansas, Okla­homa, Texas, Colorado, and Nebraska. In recent years, some production of hard white wheat has begun in the hard red winter region. These wheats are of higher quality than red wheats, but have been prone to preharvest sprouting. Extensive crop breeding efforts have created modern cultivars that are less susceptible to sprouting than those available in the past.

Durum wheat is produced mainly in very limited areas of North Dakota and surrounding states. Common foods produced from durum wheat are macaroni, spaghetti, and similar products.

Soft red winter wheat is grown principally in the eastern states. Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Arkansas lead in production of these wheats. Soft wheats are softer in texture and lower in protein than hard wheats. Wheats of this class are generally used in the manufacture of cakes, biscuits, pastry, and other types of flours.

Soft white wheats are soft wheats grown mainly in the northwest areas of the country. Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Michigan are leading producers. Soft white wheats are used principally for pastry flours and shredded and puffed breakfast foods.

In summary, wheat is the major ingredient in most breads, rolls, crackers, cookies, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, muffins, pancakes, waffles, noodles, pie crusts, ice cream cones, macaroni, spaghetti, pud­dings, pizza, and many prepared hot and cold breakfast foods. It is also used in baby foods, and is a common thickener in soups, gravies, and sauces. Germ, bran, and malt are additional types of wheat products.

Much of the wheat used for livestock and poultry feed is a by‑product of the flour milling industry. Wheat straw is used for livestock bedding. The green forage may be grazed by livestock or used as hay or silage. In many areas of the southern Great Plains, wheat serves a dual purpose by being grazed in the fall and early spring and then harvested as a grain crop. Industrial uses of wheat grain include starch for paste, alcohol, oil, and gluten. The straw may be used for newsprint, paperboard, and other products.

A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds.