Turnips pull grazing season along

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SALEM, Ohio – The cows know what’s coming.
Trumbull County cattleman Jim Balzer schleps across the muddy cow lane toward the pasture behind his house, his herd of 20-plus Simmental brood cows in tow.
As soon as he moves the temporary electric fence a foot or two, the cows will go to town on a crop Balzer’s found to be easy to grow, high yielding, tasty to the cows, and a savior when hay is short.
His crop is turnips.
Not new. Growing turnips, also called brassicas, as an alternative forage isn’t a new.
Balzer and his wife, Nanette, have been growing and feeding the bulbs for nearly 15 years, and some of their friends in southeastern Ohio, from whom they got the idea, have been growing them even longer.
In times when hay is in short supply or when pastures are eaten down nearly to the dirt, 5-acre plots of turnips have turned out to be a lifesaver.
“Especially for this time of year, when it’s cold, I don’t know what else you could have that yields this kind of tonnage,” Balzer said, wading into the knee-deep turnips.
“They sure love those leaves, but they eat the whole thing.”
Yields. Balzer, who admits he’s never figured a way to measure just how much yield he’s pulling from the turnip patch, relies on experts to feed him the figures.
Jeff McCutcheon, an Extension educator in Knox County, said yields can range from 3 to 5 tons of dry matter per acre, counting both the leafy stalks and bulbs.
University of Wisconsin Extension’s Alternative Field Crops Manual says turnip stems and leaves contain 20 percent to 25 percent crude protein, and the roots have about 10-14 percent protein.
The high protein gives the cows energy and keeps them in good body condition as they head toward January calving, Balzer said.
Low protein levels in cows can lead to weak calves at birth, and cows that produce lower quality colostrum, according to beef specialists at the University of Kentucky.
In addition, poor body condition going into spring can decrease breed-back rates, the experts said.
A real stretch. Jeff McCutcheon said the turnips can mature in as little as 60 days and provide maximum yield in 70 to 90 days. The tops can tolerate temperatures as low as 15-20 degrees and the bulbs are even hardier.
Even when snow covers the ground, the cows will dig for the turnips, Balzer said.
This year, Balzers planted their turnips in late July and early August in a pasture that needed reseeded.
Balzer broadcasted the seed using his fertilizer spreader at a rate of 2 pounds plus one bushel of oats per acre. Balzer said the oats are a good grazing crop, too, but he mainly adds oats to help spread the turnip seeds.
He estimated the cost of planting nearly 5 acres of turnips this year at only $25.
“Now you probably can’t even buy a round bale for that price,” he said.
Getting through. The Balzers move a single strand of electric fence twice a day, only a foot or two at a time, to create a fenceline feeder of sorts.
The cattle eat the turnips on their side of the fence, then reach underneath to get a start on the next section.
The Balzers have found this system beneficial in that the cows don’t trample their feed and waste less turnips.
When the cows can’t reach any farther underneath the fence, they head back toward the barn for the hay Balzer uses to supplement the brassicas. But when they see Jim Balzer headed to move the fence again, they’re eagerly in tow.
“The turnips will help stretch the hay this year. We’ll get to the end of April easy,” he said.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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