Battle against cholesterol denies livestock their oats

The average Britain does, as the expression goes, "eat like a horse".

Oats are more typically associated for their place in equine bran, being prized for their easily digestible protein content.

However, the UK, the home of porridge, is peculiar in feeding more of its supplies to humans than animals.

"This is in contrast to the rest of Europe, where the majority of oats are used in animal feed," Helen Plant, at the HGCA, the UK crop bureau, said.

Not since 1994-95 have UK livestock eaten more of the grain than Britons themselves. But this season, the gap looks like getting to its most extreme yet.

Diverging consumption

Feed use in 2011-12 is expected to crumble by 19.4% to 163,000 tonnes, the lowest since easily-accessible records begin 20 years ago (when the figure was 229,000 tonnes).

UK oats balance sheet 2011-12, and (year-on-year change)

Production: 613,000 tonnes, (-11.5%)

Imports: 49,000 tonnes, (+172%)

Human and industrial use: 455,000 tonnes, (-0.2%)

Feed use: 163,000 tonnes, (-19.4%)

Seed use: 18,000 tonnes, (-10.0%)

Export. surplus: 17,000 tonnes, (-69%)

End stocks: 74,000 tonnes, (+13.9%)

Sources: Defra, HGCA

But human consumption of oats is forecast by UK farm officials at 455,000 tonnes, just 1,000 tonnes short of last season's record.

And this without the help, this time, of a cold winter, which encourages consumption of hot breakfast cereals such as porridge.

While oat consumption often increases with cold weather, "excluding the cold spell in early February, the winter has been mild", Ms Plant said.

Cholesterol factor

The gap reflects at least two factors, the first that Britons are finding other reasons, besides winter chill, to eat the grain.

"There is a lot of interest in oats from a health perspective," Ms Plant told, with the grain a source of Beta-glucans, a soluble fibre shown to help lower cholesterol rates.

The economic downturn has also boosted appreciation.

The HGCA said: "Since the recession consumer confidence has followed a downward trend. During this time this consumers have started to eat larger more filling breakfasts."

Oats vs wheat 

Livestock, however, have been forced by price considerations to put up with lesser grains, with "the general decline in animal feed demand this season reflecting lower availability and higher prices", Ms Plant said.

The rebound and fall of oats use in animal feed, according to Defra

2011-12: 163,000 tonnes

2010-11: 202,000 tonnes

2009-10: 268,000 tonnes

2008-09: 238,000 tonnes

2007-08: 257,000 tonnes

2006-07: 248,000 tonnes

2006-07: 200,000 tonnes

While oats did see a revival in their popularity as feed from 2007 to 2010, that was down to the relative affordability of the grain for compound feeders compared with wheat.

"Oat prices were at a discount to feed wheat. In contrast, this season so far has seen oat prices at premium to those for wheat, encouraging higher wheat usage and lower oat usage."

Fight to the Finnish

And for those weaker prices, oat lovers, with either two feet or four, have Finland to thank, after the country, the European Union's top exporter of the grain and second-ranked grower (after Poland), came up with a strong harvest last year in quality and quantity.

The Finnish harvest, at 1.1m tonnes, was 36% higher than in 2010, according to Coceral, the European grain industry group.

The danger for Brits is that German buyers beat them to it, buying 34% more Finnish oats so far this season.

"Although Finnish supplies appear plentiful, there is noticeable competition for its exports," Ms Plant said.

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