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Forage turnips: Cattle can do well on them

Heather Smith Thomas Published on 29 August 2014

Sometimes non-traditional crops for livestock can augment forage supplies or stretch the production on a piece of land.

Turnips are a good example. Cattle readily eat them, and do very well on turnips.

Tom Larson

Tom Larson, who now lives in Colorado, farmed for many years in Nebraska, managing a certified organic crop and livestock farm. “In the late 1960s, I was looking for high-value crops that might fit into the crop system we had. My dad just grew corn, alfalfa, cattle and hogs. The only reason we had pasture and livestock was to help pay the taxes on the place,” says Larson.

“I experimented with alternative crops and various rotations. Then I put in my grazing system, in the winter of 1989 to 1990, a paddock design with water in every paddock. I moved the cattle every two days with 17 paddocks. I think it would have been better to move them every four days and have about 10 paddocks. All I had was cool-season pasture and no warm-season grasses. To make up for late summer, when those cool-season plants aren’t growing very well and there are no crop residues yet, I discovered that the biggest bang for the buck is turnips,” he says.

a field of Winfred

“I was one of the first to plant turnips in my area, in 1986. I did a little research and found that during Colonial days, it was tough to get a cow through winter. People had to cut hay with a scythe, and that’s hard work. Smart farmers would sow turnip seed in early summer, and turnips would be big enough for a cow to eat by fall,” says Larson.

“In 1986, I planted oats on a small 8-acre field. I harvested those and wanted to put something in there that could be harvested in the fall. I’d been reading about forage turnips and found some purple-top variety.

I planted the seed at about 4 pounds to the acre, and this was very cheap. Whatever a person does to get a new stand of alfalfa growing will also work for turnips. I didn’t need to water them, in my climate; I just waited for the first shower, since that region generally has about 22 inches of annual precipitation,” he says.

Larson says he has planted turnips any time from April 1 until July 1 and had the best luck planting them about June 1. “I think they need a little heat for the seed to germinate. May 1 is a little early, and July 1 is a little too hot.

“One acre of turnips, in my experience, is worth 5 acres of grass. To give an idea about carrying capacity, my 8 acres of turnips after the oat harvest – planting the turnips a little late – provided feed for 50 animal units (cows, calves and yearlings) for 100 days. That’s a lot of cattle feed. Even though they were planted late, the turnips grew enough to provide plenty of forage,” he recalls.

New Youk turnips

“The leaves were about 16 percent protein, like alfalfa, and bulbs about 9 percent protein. Unlike some other annual forage crops, there were no toxic alkaloids or prussic acid to worry about. I never had any problem with choking, and I tried many different varieties, but the plain old purple-top turnips were probably the best. You read about risks for choke, but I’ve never seen it nor talked with anybody who has experienced it.”

The turnips provided adequate nutrients, but the rumen functions best with a fair amount of roughage. Larson put out some old low-quality large round bales. “These can be grass or alfalfa of poor quality; the cows just need something in the rumen to keep it working properly. Cattle balance their diet themselves, eating however much roughage they need,” he explains.

Using several crops on the same acreage can greatly increase output per acre, and cattle grazing those acres spread the necessary fertilizer. “Their manure becomes fairly fluid, and you should maintain about a 12-foot distance behind every cow, especially if they cough,” he warns.

“A good crop of turnips won’t be quite knee-high, but something over a foot-and-a-half tall. Bulbs can be anywhere from tennis ball to softball size. The top of the bulb is above ground, so they are easy to eat.

The cow just puts her muzzle down in a circular motion around the leaves and pushes the turnip sideways with her mouth. The bulb goes into her mouth first, and the leaves go in last. The cattle really like the bulbs.”

Hunter forage brassica

Larson found turnips to be a good feed source when forage might be lacking. “In our cool-season pastures, the grass went through a mid-season slump. Nutrient levels drop, and cows get tired of eating cardboard. At that time, we put them into the green turnips, and they loved it. If you have pivot corners or feedlots that aren’t used in the summer, you can grow turnips there and provide great forage for a few weeks,” says Larson.

Larson has grazed turnips clear into February, when the ground is frozen solid. The leaves are brown and shriveled, but there is still some nutrition, and cattle will eat the bulbs off the ground. “They can’t quite get the bottom of the bulb because it’s frozen into the ground, and you’ll see all these white dots where they’ve crunched off the bulbs. The depth you plant the seed is what determines the depth of the bulbs. An inch deep is deep enough, and the bulbs grow mostly on top of the ground and are easy for the cows to eat,” he explains. He provided other feed along with the turnips during cold weather, but the turnips helped stretch the feed supply into February.

“The forage turnips produced more feed for less effort than anything else I did on the farm. The investment was tiny, and the returns were phenomenal, when you figure what it generally costs per day to feed cattle.”  FG

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

PHOTO 1: Graza is a newer forage brassica sown in spring or autumn.

PHOTO 2: Tom Larson prepares to install temporary fencing for turnip grazing.

PHOTO 3: A field of Winfred – a new forage variety, which is a cross between kale and turnip.

PHOTO 4: New York turnips.

PHOTO 5: Hunter forage brassica is a new variety, which is a cross between a turnip and a Chinese cabbage. Photos courtesy of Tom Larson.

Other grazing varieties
Turnips are part of a large family of brassicas that includes turnips, radishes, rutabaga, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Some have been selected and adapted to create varieties that work well as livestock forage.

John Snider, who lives in Oregon and works for PGG Seed (a company based in New Zealand), says some are more flexible for grazing than the traditional bulb turnip.

“There are some taproot varieties today that produce more biomass above ground and can be grazed two or three or even four times during the year instead of just once.

A traditional turnip grows best in a cool-season environment and requires 90 to 100 days of good growing weather (but not a lot of heat) to get maximum productivity. This requires a certain window of time, planting after the hottest weather but early enough to get maximum growth before winter,” he says.

“That window is part of a traditional English farming system that had mild summers. That can also work well in the upper Midwest where it rains in July and August.

But in hotter, drier environments, farmers need plants that are more adapted to drought.” A person needs to select varieties of forage brassicas that fit the environment.

“There are several varieties that are easier to grow than the traditional purple-top turnip (which does a great job of providing extra feed for cattle in the fall and winter) and become grazeable earlier – at 40 to 60 days rather than 90 to 100 days. This can be a huge benefit,” says Snider. These can be very useful in climates that utilize warm-season grasses like sudan, sorghum and millet.

“Our varieties of brassicas are adapted to summer weather and can be planted early in the spring. If you live in California, you could plant them any time of year, and they can fit in with whatever other crops you are growing.

We’ve planted forage brassicas, leaf turnips and forage rape in December in California and Arizona. They grow slowly for a while and then, by March, are large enough to be grazed,” he says.

One of the new varieties is a cross between a turnip and a Chinese cabbage. Another is a cross between a kale and a turnip and requires even less water to be a grazable crop. These provide multiple grazing opportunities with re-growth during the growing season.

“All turnips are not the same, just as all wheat is not the same. You wouldn’t plant spring wheat when you need to be planting winter wheat, for instance. You wouldn’t plant corn in mid-December in the Northern Hemisphere or plant traditional corn in a climate where you’d need a fast-maturing variety to make ears before frost.

Brassicas are a huge family, and you need to know which one might work best in your situation,” says Snide

For good utilization of turnips, you need portable electric fencing to move the cattle across the field in small strips. “My 8-acre field was rectangular. Along one side I ran a hot wire along the existing fence.

Perpendicular to that, I ran a poly wire to split the field. It was about 600 feet wide, and I’d use 700 feet of poly wire because it works best if the dividing fence is a bit crooked,” he explains.

To make it simple to move the cows to the next section, put up the next increment of electric fence (farther into the field) before you take out the old one. “Then when you take it down, the cows are already contained in the next portion. You just leap-frog across the field with the fencing.

I used a piece of plastic pipe (about 6 to 8 inches long) tied onto the poly wire. That was my gate so I could charge and uncharge the wire when I undid it,” says Larson.

He kept all the poly wire on two extension cord reels. “These plastic reels won’t carry electricity, so when you get to the other end of the field, you can hang that reel on the little step-in post. If it’s at the other end, you can hook it around the hot wire a couple of times and then set it on the post, and that’s your gate.

You can unwind that and start walking to pick up fence posts and reel it up, because the wire isn’t electrified when it’s unhooked. You have the other poly wire already set up, so the cows won’t go any farther. You wind that wire up, carry the posts along and then go to the next section (for tomorrow’s grazing) and step in another batch of posts to set up that next portion.”