After turning his cattle onto oats and turnips, Tim Nissen had to rethink some of his conventional ideas about grazing.

“You graze oats and turnips just the opposite way you do most pastures,” says Nissen, who farms 400 acres near Hartington, NE. “You want to hit them hard and stay right on top of them. Oats produce a substantial amount of forage early and can withstand tremendous grazing pressure.”

He's one of an estimated 150 Nebraska beef producers who are grazing oat and turnip mixtures.

“I was skeptical at first, but I'm glad I tried it,” says Nissen. He grazed cow-calf pairs on 40 acres of oats and turnips last year. “I'm amazed at the amount of forage the turnips provide. They'll get up to knee-high with adequate moisture and the cattle love them. The cattle eat the leaves first and then they clean up the bulbs.”

“Oats and turnips have been grazed separately all over the world, but this combination is new to us,” says Terry Gompert, Knox County, NE, extension educator. “We're still learning, but what we're seeing is very encouraging.”

Oats and turnips can provide 2 lbs or more of gain/acre/day, he adds. Nutritionally, oats are almost as good as wheat. They don't have awns, though, so they're more grazing-friendly.

“Turnip leaves are 24-25% protein and the bulbs are 16-18% protein,” says Gompert. “The energy level of turnips nearly mirrors corn. And, on top of that, most grasses and alfalfa lignify when the temperature is above 90°, but turnips don't.”

Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist, suggests planting as early as possible in spring. Oats and turnips can be planted at the same time using a grain drill with a second, small seed box for turnip seed.

“Pull the seed tubes from the turnip seed box and allow seed to drop freely on the soil surface ahead of the coulters,” Anderson advises. “Plant the oats 1-3" deep in the furrows made by the coulters. Packer wheels or a roller pulled behind the drill work very well.”

If they need to be planted separately, broadcast turnip seed first and then drill oats.

“Drilling will help give the turnip seed light soil coverage,” says Anderson. “The other way around works, too, but the turnip seed won't get packed unless a third trip is used.”

Using 120 lbs of oats and 2 lbs of turnip seed/acre, seed costs shouldn't exceed $20/acre.

“Purple Top White Globe turnip seed costs $1.45/lb in Knox County,” notes Gompert. “Improved varieties are available, but in our experiences so far, the common ones work just fine.”

Oats and turnips start fast — especially oats.

“In about four weeks, they might be 3-4" tall and ready to graze,” says Anderson.

Continuous grazing works well because cattle prefer oats until they start to head. That gives turnips a good chance to get started. “Once seed sets on the oats, the animals go back and forth in their grazing preference. So the oats re-seed and the turnips continue to grow all the way into winter,” says Anderson.

He suggests that producers start grazing about one-half animal/acre and increase the stocking rate as forage growth rate increases. On dryland, he adds, “you may get up to one cow-calf pair/acre; if irrigated, two or more pairs/acre are likely.”

Growth will slow in late summer, so you'll need to have other feed available then.

“With fall moisture, good grazing should be available through December,” says Anderson.

Nissen plans to use what he learned last year to improve his grazing practices in 2003. “I went with a rotation of 10 days on and 10 days off, but the oats got away from me, so I'm going to graze it continuously.”

He supplemented the pasture mix with minerals. Although he grazed cows and calves, he thinks stockers would be a better fit.

“Cows might actually get fat, which isn't bad, but they don't need as much high-quality forage as stockers. It certainly works for both, but I can see where stockers would have a definite advantage.”