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From the Spring 2013 Logan County Farm Outlook

Turnips and radishes:
Making dollars & scents out of cover crops

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[April 02, 2013]  In the 1980s, when the idea of no-till farming was taking root in the Midwest, a group of local farmers came together and formed a club. This enabled them to learn more and share more of what they learned with each other regarding being successful with no-till.

Steve Bracey, resource conservationist, and Bill Dickerson, district conservationist, of the Logan County Soil and Water Conservation District in Lincoln, call this group the Logan County innovators of no-till farming.

So it should come as no surprise that when the Land of Lincoln Soil Savers Club recently met for breakfast, several of the members reported they are using nontraditional cover crops on their no-till acres.

More specifically, several of the no-tillers said that they were incorporating radishes into their cover along with ryegrasses.

When looking at cover crops in Logan County, there are both positives and negatives in their use. The most apparent positives are that they protect the soil surface, increase soil organic matter and reduce erosion. In addition, cover crops can help extract residual nitrates and sequester carbon.

On the negative side, first and foremost may be the added cost.

Another consideration in using a cover crop is that it is a double-edged sword. In some years, ground cover may help hold moisture in soil. But in a dry year such as 2012, those same cover crops can steal moisture from the soil, thus hindering cash crop production.

Dan Towery of the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative was the guest speaker at the recent Soil Savers meeting. Towery noted there is another, more or less self-imposed negative to using cover crops: the planting dates.

For cover crops such as turnips or radishes to have enough time to establish prior to winter kill-down, they must be planted between July 15 and Sept. 15, the heart of the growing season for corn.

Cereal ryes, which are also excellent cover crops, can be planted later: between late August and early November.

Towery said that many farmers have a mental block with planting a crop in a growing crop. But in addition, the method of seeding causes some issues as well. For the most part, there aren't many farm tools available that can do this job with corn that is 3 feet or more tall. Then, aerial application is the easiest and best answer.

Towery also told the group that the most effective usage of radish would be as part of a mix with another cover crop. He said that he would encourage a mix of radish with either oats or cereal rye and recommended 4 to 5 pounds of radish to 30 pounds of oats or rye per acre. The cost would range from $15 to $30 per acre.

In contrast, Towery showed the group situations where no-till is incorporated with organic farming, and the use of these same cover crops greatly increased yields over a period of time.

He gave as an example what happened when three different cover crop combinations were used on a no-till farm averaging 107 bushels per acre on corn tests:

  • Using cereal rye, the corn harvest increased to 126 bushels.

  • With a combination of oats, rye and turnip, the yield jumped to 164 bushels.

  • The final combination of winter peas and radishes brought the yields up to 169 bushels per acre on the corn crop.

With current corn prices at $7.20 to $7.30 a bushel, this would increase revenues of $130 per acre to over $400.

In a year like 2012, residue on the ground would have helped retain moisture and provided a benefit at the onset of a drought season. On the other hand, as the summer progressed with no water, having that cover crop steal what little water there was would have hurt the production crop.

With many farmers finding themselves "mudding" their crops in or out after a couple of wet years, planting a soil-busting cover such as radishes or turnips would have helped with compaction issues through added aeration to the soil, increased microbial action and the introduction of a greater earthworm population.

In addition, for those who needed to graze their animals on the cover, turnips and radishes are a good alternative to grasses. Towery told the group that if grazing is part of the plan, cattle prefer turnips to radishes.

On the other hand, Towery said the tuber crops can also be attractive to cutworms. Having those pests in the field could eventually lead to them feasting on corn instead of radishes.

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Towery showed the group slides of root depths with radishes. While the body of the radish was lean and only about 6 to 8 inches long, the taproot and hair roots on the tuber were extremely long. This results in the soil being broken up, with more organic matter left behind. Towery also showed that researchers had dug up plots of corn with radishes to see where the corn roots where going. They found taproots from the cornstalks going as deep as 70 inches.

These same crops also help increase earthworm activity, further increasing soil organic matter, aeration and reducing compaction. Studies show that earthworms are attracted to the radishes and enjoy eating through the heart of the tuber. The most desirable earthworm is the one that travels horizontally through the upper layers of the soil, consuming plant and soil matter and depositing fecal mater.

On the downside, there is something about radishes that stinks, literally. Towery said the decayed radish lets off an offensive odor similar to that of rotten cabbage. Because of this, radishes planted near homesteads may cause some issues for those living there.

After the meeting, Towery spoke one-on-one with LDN about a couple of cash cover crops. He said that in this area, wheat is not being considered for a couple of reasons. The money isn't there to make it worth the planting and harvest expense. He noted that in this region as opposed to more southerly regions, the growing season is a little too tight. For example, prime planting dates in Logan County are mid-August to mid-October, while in Perry County, approximately 170 miles due south, the planting season is Sept. 1 to Nov. 1 for winter wheat.

Another cash cover crop trying to make its way into the Midwest is pennycress. This oilseed crop is being marketed as a non-food-competitive alternative for biodiesel and aviation jet fuels.

Towery said pennycress will someday be a viable alternative for Midwest farmers, but he doesn't think it is here yet. He referred to it as still in its experimental stages, but said it shows promise.

Pennycress is planted in September, will overwinter and is harvested in late spring. It produces a small, deep reddish-brown seed that has 36 percent oil content. Soybeans, in comparison, have only 18 percent oil content.

Towery said that right now one of the biggest stumbling blocks the product is facing is yield. He said test plots have shown a yield of 700 pounds per acre, but in less controlled environments, the yields aren't there, not even close. He said he felt like the company offering the product will overcome that problem, and pennycress is something we may see more of in the future.


Reference websites

Spring 2013
Logan County Farm Outlook

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