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Turnips could be fall, winter grazing solution

In writing this, I fully realize we are still in the midst of a drought and no one knows when it will end, so the idea I am putting forth might not seem plausible. On the other hand, if some timely rains fall, it could work. Planting turnips or a mix of turnips and radish into wheat or oat stubble for late fall and early winter grazing could yield some valuable fall forage and ease the burden on pastures and hay feeding.

Turnips are a high-quality, high-yielding, fast-growing crop particularly suitable for grazing by livestock. Turnips often have digestibility of 70 to 80 percent with crude protein from whole plants of 14 to 22 percent. Stocker cattle gains of 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day have been recorded. Turnips are 85 to 90 percent water, so it is beneficial to have some dry hay, grass or stalks for roughage to the diet. Although cattle have performed well on grazing turnips alone, cattle also have done well when added in a mixture of cool season grass such as triticale, wheat or oats.

Turnip seed is inexpensive -- approximately $1.55 per pound -- and the ole "Purple Top" variety that has been planted in gardens for years seems to yield just as well as any others. Another brassica that might work equally as well is Dwarf Essex Rape, and it is cheaper -- approximately $1 per pound. Radish seed will be more expensive at $2.25 per pound. Bottom line is turnips or rape could provide some cheap fall and early winter grazing.

Planting a brassica such as turnip, radish, rape or kale for fall grazing would take place in late July through late August. When planted with a drill, just scratch the surface with your openers covering only slightly, and seed turnips at 2 to 4 pounds per acre.

Drilling it no-till into stubble might be the preferred planting method, given the current weather conditions. But if no-till is not an option, then broadcast 2 to 4 pounds of seed per acre and go over with a cultipacker or harrow. Covering the seed with more than 0.5 inch of soil will suppress emergence, and as always, plant into a weed-free seedbed. Good early weed control is essential. Turnips or any brassica do poorly if weeds get ahead of them, but once started, turnips compete well. Since no herbicides are labeled for turnips, weeds must be controlled either by tillage or by using contact herbicides before planting. Plant quickly to get them off and running.

Forage yields of turnips in Saline County on non-replicated farm strip plots in 2004 and 2005 averaged 4,800 pounds of dry matter per acre, this included the tops and bulbs. The turnips outyielded the other forages in the test being wheat, triticale, oats, canola, forage canola and forage peas. Eighty pounds of nitrogen preplant was applied. Taking a soil sample is recommended to determine the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus needed for your yield goal.

Turnips are ready to graze when plants are "rooted down" enough not to be pulled up. This could be 70 to 80 days after emergence and should be used by the time temperatures reach 18 to 20 degrees. Once leaves are all grazed, cattle will pull bulbs and eat them, choking on bulbs has been an extremely rare problem. Some use a field cultivator to lift bulbs to the surface after tops are grazed off, resulting in almost complete utilization of the plant.

Oats or triticale can be added to the mix, the oats probably would be best where you would fall graze only. Triticale would be best if you desire some late winter grazing as well, or both could be added to the turnips and radish. Cover crops are a hot topic among some no-tillers right now, and this could serve as a cover crop and provide some much needed forage.

If you add some triticale or oats with the brassicas, planting both at the correct depth becomes a challenge. Some folks run the brassicas on the surface just ahead of the packing wheels if they have a small seed box or the air seeders have two boxes.

Brassicas can be prone to having high levels of nitrates, especially if precipitation is limited. Before turning cattle out to graze, it always is recommended to get a forage nitrate test.

In Saline County where grazing plots were planted to single forage of either oats, triticale or turnips, the cattle ate the oats and triticale first before the turnips. If turnips are their only option, cattle will acclimate to it rapidly and do just fine, but it won't be their first choice probably due to the rougher leaves turnips have.

If this is your first time to try something like this, I would recommend planting a limited number of acres. More information on growing turnips can be found at www.ellis.ksu.edu.

And as always if you have further questions give your local County Extension Office a holler.

Stacy Campbell is agriculture Extension agent in Ellis County.