Can turnips really save the day?


By Chris Penrose

Now that we have up most of our hay for the year, we can start to determine if there will be enough stored feed for the winter.

Many farmers I have talked with have had significant reductions in yields this year leaving hay in short supply. In addition, many areas have been experiencing a drought and pasture is in short supply.

Do you have enough?

Do you have enough feed to make it through the winter? If hay becomes short and the price rises, could you sell hay and raise other feed for your livestock?

Feed costs account for more than 90 percent of the variable costs on many cow-calf operations and the major portion of the cost is for hay production.

Recent increases in materials such as fuel, fertilizer and equipment have sent the cost to produce stored forages higher. We can extend the grazing season to reduce costs and increase feed availability for ruminant livestock and now is the time to consider the options.

Several options

There are several low cost options to lower stored feed costs. Stockpiling forages such a fescue (which I think is the most economical option in most situations), growing grains such as oats, cereal rye and wheat and growing brassicas such a turnips are the most common alternatives.

A recent article in Farm and Dairy (June 11, 2009) by Mark Landefeld, OSU Extension educator, Monroe County, did an excellent job explaining the benefits of stockpiling fescue. Stan Smith, OSU Extension, Fairfield County has conducted research and has information on growing oats in the late summer for extended grazing.

Growing brassicas

Today, I will focus on some of the benefits of growing brassicas (turnips, rape, kale, swedes, etc.). Many studies and producer experiences reinforce that brassicas are a viable option to extend the grazing season, and reduce stored feed costs.

Forage brassica crops such as turnip, swede, rape and kale can be spring seeded to supplement perennial forages in late summer, or more commonly, summer seeded to extend the grazing season into early winter.

Brassicas are annual crops which are highly productive and digestible and can be grazed 70 to 150 days after seeding, depending on the species.

Generally, crops which produce roots or bulbs will out-yield those which do not produce edible roots. Whether the roots can be efficiently utilized by the species of livestock, and the manner of harvesting will be considerations in determining which species will be best suited for a particular use.


Sheep and are more efficient at grazing roots than cattle. With the upper set of teeth, sheep can chew on most of the root and leave only the bottom part of the root.

Cattle can actually pull the entire plant out of the ground when grazing if the plant is at the right stage of growth (not too mature or immature) because most cultivars have the majority of the roots above ground.

Cattle and sheep can make good use of both the tops and roots when strip grazed. This grazing method greatly reduces the waste from trampling.

One of the advantages of brassicas is that it is a high quality, high yielding, fast growing crop that can be planted late in the growing season, especially if a deficit in winter feed is anticipated.

Both tops (stems plus leaves) and roots can be grazed and are very nutritious. Brassicas can be seeded in the early spring for summer grazing or in July or August for fall/winter grazing.

As soon as possible

Producers in the northern areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania should plant as soon as possible. All members of the brassica family — turnips, rape, kale and swedes — produce forage of exceptionally high (often 85-95 percent) digestibility.

Weight gains by stocker cattle and feeder lambs have been 0.2 to 0.4 lb./day for lambs and 1.5 to 2.0 lb./day for stockers.

Turnips and rutabagas are short-season root brassicas that provide roots, stem and leaf growth for rotational grazing or strip grazing 70 to 90 days after seeding.

The leaves can be grazed from mid-September until January depending upon critical low temperatures and snow cover. Top growth generally will survive temperatures between 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit, while bulbs will be about 5 degrees hardier.

If temperatures fall below this level, it is best to try to graze prior to temperatures going above freezing. The plants tend to become mushy and undesirable.

Notable exception

A notable exception based on research in Illinois (Ballard, 1999) has been when brassicas are planted with other annual crops such as spring oats (planted in the late summer).

Brassicas survived much colder temperatures when there was considerable protection from a tall stand of oats and a snow cover. The common purple top garden type turnip as well as other cultivars can yield over 10,000 lb./acre of dry matter.

The tops average 12-20 percent crude protein while roots contain 8-12 percent protein. Maximum quality of the plants occurs around 75 days (purple top turnips tend to mature earlier than other cultivars) and maximum quality is around 90 days as the roots mature (but the tops start to decline).

At maturity, dry matter yields average around 40 percent in the tops and 60 percent in the roots. Some forage-type turnip cultivars such as All Top produce relatively more top dry matter than roots.

Turnips are seeded from mid-July to mid-August at a rate of 2-3 lb./acre and produce maximum yields approximately 90 days after seeding.


While brassicas have been successfully used for centuries for livestock feed, the following precautions should be noted. Brassicas are very high in crude protein and energy, but extremely low in fiber.

Their low fiber content results in rumen action similar to when concentrates are fed; thus the need for proper roughage supplementation.

Brassicas therefore should never comprise more than two-thirds of the forage portion of livestock diets with the remainder provided by grass hay or stockpiled pasture.

Strip grazing where forage is rationed every day or two provides the most efficient usage. Rape, kale and mustard have regrowth potential if not grazed below six inches.

Turnips will regrow if the growing point at the top of the bulb is not removed. Two or more cycles should be possible with rotational grazing if rainfall is adequate. Rapes, kale and mustard can be green chopped for confined animals.

No-tillage seeding

No-tillage seeding in sod is recommended, but competition from the sod must generally be controlled by herbicides during the first two weeks after emergence. Broadcast spray a burndown herbicide prior to seeding.

If you have minimally acceptable fertility, the only additional nutrient needed is 50 pounds of nitrogen.

Brassicas will need moisture to get established, so if it is too dry after seeding, there is a risk of a poor crop or failure, but once established, they can grow with little additional rain, so I recommend planting just prior to a predicted rain.

Smother weeds

Once established, brassicas will smother out most weeds. They also can be seeded with cereal rye or oats which will help protect the soil after brassicas are consumed by animals and provide a more balanced diet.

Some sheep producers have broadcasted wheat or rye after grazing and the animals have tramped in the seed for good germination and a crop the next spring.

In conclusion, if feed supplies are short, there is still time to produce additional feed. Brassicas offer a means for livestock producers to produce high quality forage to extend grazing into the late fall-early winter period.

The rapid growth and yield potential make the crop an excellent option, and the cost will only be the preparation of the seed bed, 2-3 pounds of seed, and 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Can turnips save the day? They may not, but they are an option for additional inexpensive feed.

(Chris Penrose is an OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Development in Morgan County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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  1. I am a Senior in high school this year and I am doing a little project on finding an alternative to corn in livestock feeds due to rising prices. My research so far says that turnips could be a possible alternative. What are your thoughts on this?


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