Observers are calling it the "oatmeal wars," but it has nothing to do with that traditional confrontation between Mom and Junior at the breakfast table.

This one involves some of America's largest cereal-food companies and, just as their fight for oatmeal markets gets serious, it turns out that U.S. farmers are not growing enough oats to keep the corporate armies marching.

As a result, the battle for breakfast primacy hinges partially on imported oats, a curiosity in a nation of such abundance that more than 69 million acres of cropland were removed from production last year to curtail grain surpluses.

Continuing a trend that began about 1982, the United States is expected in the next year to import more than 30 million bushels of oats to fill the gap left by American farmers, according to Agriculture Department forecasts.

How can it be that 30 million bushels of imported oats will be needed by a nation that boasts of its ability to grow virtually any amount of any grain at the drop of a seed?

Several factors are involved, but the quickest easy answer is that the federal farm program, which is supposed to keep basic foods in steady supply, has spurred farmers to abandon oats and grow other commodities that fetch higher subsidies.

This situation evolved from the farm program adopted by Congress in 1985. Although oats and barley, a similar small grain, yield about the same amount per acre and can be grown in the same conditions, Congress decreed a major difference.

The subsidy for a bushel of barley was set $1 higher than that for oats, so farmers do not hesitate: They plant barley.

As a result, barley is in surplus, so much so that the government is subsidizing barley exports. Nearly 5 million metric tons of U.S. barley have been sold overseas since April 1986, with recent subsidies at about $55 a ton to help move the surplus.

The tight supply picture has pushed oats prices to more than $2 a bushel in recent weeks -- more than double the price several years ago -- and intensified competition among processers for available stocks.

In an effort to correct the imbalance, Congress altered the oats program slightly last month in its budget reconciliation, although it is not clear that the changes will lead soon to self-sufficiency in oats.

"Both producers and the cereal companies asked us to do what we did to get some additional oats into production," said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), chairman of the House feed grain subcommittee. "The companies were worried about reliance on imported oats . . . but I don't think {the changes} will have a monumental impact."

USDA economists Linwood A. Hoffman and Philip W. Sronce, in a study published last summer, reported that the oats picture has changed dramatically as American farming habits have changed since World War II. A major change, of course, is that the tractor, powered by petroleum, has supplanted the horse, powered by oats.

While about 85 percent of oats goes to animal feed, the grain is being fed to fewer and fewer animals. U.S. production, after a peak of 1.5 billion bushels in 1955, dropped to a low of 384 million bushels in 1986. Other feed grains have become more appealing, and changing tillage habits have dropped oats from crop rotations.

But oats supplies were tight even before General Mills introduced a new line last fall intended to challenge Quaker Oats Co. as king of the $500 million oatmeal market. Their battle has sent sales spurting and added to demand for more raw oats.

Quaker Oats official Pat Racey said in Chicago that his company has been able to avoid supply problems by contracting with farmers to produce oats. But, he noted, the national oats supply has been in steady decline "since the end of World War II, as the horse went off the farm."

Oats may be Quaker's middle name, but General Mills ranks up there, too, consuming in excess of 10 million bushels per year. Its oat-based Cheerios is the cold-cereal industry's second-best seller. Its Honey Nut Cheerios ranks not far behind.

Even though both products require imported oats to meet demand, General Mills' move to an oats-based hot cereal was a natural step.

"We saw a market opportunity in a substantial business where one company {Quaker Oats} held two-thirds of the market," General Mills spokesman Craig Shulstad said in Minneapolis. "The hot-oatmeal market fight will create added pressures for oats production."

General Mills set aside $12 million for the first six months of advertising and marketing its new oatmeal line. Quaker Oats responded with $50 million to protect its flanks. With that sort of unaccustomed place in the promotional sun, oatmeal sales have grown at a double-digit pace since fall.