Turnips provide forage for cattle during winter


Staff writer

When I was a child, my sister and I had a storybook about a farmer who grew turnips. When he went to harvest the turnips, he found one that he could not pull out of the ground.

His wife came to help, then his children, and many others before the turnip finally came out of the ground.

According to my research, there are turnips that can grow to football size, so maybe the story isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

Anyway, farmers are discovering that turnips can provide forage for cattle during the cold, winter months.

According to, turnips were everyday staples in Europe during the Middle Ages. Replaced by potatoes later, they still are used in stews.

In 1730, a British politician imported turnips to Britain for livestock feed. The seed eventually found its way to America.

In recent years, "brassica," or forage turnips, have become more common in North America.

Several farmers around Tampa and Marion plant turnips every year and have found them an inexpensive way to provide late winter forage. In some years, they get a better stand than others.

Scott David farms south of Tampa. He sows the turnip seed in late August or early September, hopefully, right before rain is expected. The fine seed is broadcast using a spreader or an air-planter provided by the local co-op.

Last fall, David spread the seed into a field thick with volunteer wheat. He ran a rotary harrow over the 40-acre field to make sure the seed made contact with the soil.

Turnips like cool, damp weather. In David's case, they made a good stand, and by the first week of December, feeder calves were put into the field, which is bound by an electric fence. They feasted on the lush foliage.

Then Mother Nature threw a wrench into David's plans. An ice storm covered the plants with a thick, hard crust, and the calves had to be taken back to the farmstead and fed in a pen.

But that wasn't the end of the turnips. The turnip bulbs still were there in the ground, ready to be eaten. They ranged from radish-size to double-softball size.

At the beginning of the new year, David turned 94 spring-calving cows into the turnip field, and they've been there ever since. The turnip bulbs are their sole source of feed. He expects the cows to have enough to eat through the second or third week of February.

Because turnips contain a lot of water, the water tank doesn't have to be filled very often.

High in nutrition, brassicas are 75-80 percent digestible and contain 11 percent protein.

Roger Richmond, Marion, planted 40 acres of turnips in mid-August. He didn't get a good stand, but the 28 cows and calves that were turned into the field Dec. 1 are still grazing and holding their weight well, he said.

Richmond said the cattle ate the tops first, pulling out the bulbs and letting them lie on top of the ground. They started eating the bulbs after the tops were gone. During the ice and snow, he supplemented the cattle with hay.

Richmond planted some acres with a mixture of alfalfa and turnip seed. He is waiting to see what kind of a stand of alfalfa he will have come spring. He plans to plant more turnips next year but not as many acres.

Kelly Novak, Tampa, has been using turnips for forage for eight to 10 years. He usually plants 70-100 acres, but this year he planted 150 acres, replacing a sparse field of sudan grass with turnips.

On wheat fields, he burned off the stubble before planting the turnips.

Sometimes Novak hires the local co-op to spread turnip seed mixed with 30-40 units of dry nitrogen fertilizer. On ground that contains sufficient residual fertilizer, he sows the seed himself, using a spreader behind a four-wheeler.

He said after the seed has germinated, the plants put on explosive growth and are ready for grazing in 60 days. They provide grazing after the cattle run out of cool season grasses such as brome or fescue.

Novak said this wasn't the best season for turnips because of the unusual winter. After turning weaned calves out to forage, he had to take them back to the farmyard twice because of ice and snow.

Now, spring-calving cows are grazing on the turnips. The bulbs are close to the surface. The cattle "cup" them out, literally eating them out of the ground.

Novak uses rotational grazing, using electric fences that are moved every five days or so, to be sure the cattle clean up the entire field. He is supplementing them with hay.

He hauls water to the cattle but doesn't have to do it very often because turnips are 90 percent water.

This spring, he plans to no-till milo into the grazing fields.

Chuck DeForest farms north of Florence. This is the second year he has planted turnips for winter grazing.

He said he planted the seeds the last week of August and got a good stand. He planted it four pounds to the acre along with 100 pounds of 18-46-0 fertilizer.

The plants grew knee-high before dying back a bit from the cold.

On Dec. 1, he turned 100 head of spring-calving cows into the turnips. They also graze on 40 acres of dormant alfalfa and 150 acres of milo stalks.

DeForest said the cattle eat anything green first before they eat the turnips, which are as big as a fist. But they prefer the turnips to the milo stalks.

The cattle will be removed to another location within the next month in preparation for the calving season.

At approximately $1 a pound, turnip seed is cheap. But given the high cost of fertilizer, DeForest isn't sure just how cost-effective using turnips is, and he plans to try something else next year.

"The turnips gave me a little extra grazing," he said.