For about $3 an acre, Roger Brandes grows a forage crop that his cows can't get enough of.
This Central City, NE, farmer spreads turnip seed on irrigated seed corn acres as he destroys the male rows in August. The turnips are ready to graze as soon as the corn is harvested.
“It's tough to say how much forage the turnips produce. But we can run 130 cows on a quarter section for 60 days, and there will still be some out there,” he says.
He ran a test on cows that averaged 1,400 lbs when put on turnips in September. Fifty days later they weighed an average of 1,500 lbs.
“When we wean calves, we put them right back on the turnips,” Brandes reports. “They fill their tummies and lay right down. We get weight gains of 2.3 lbs/day on the steers.”
His reference book puts the protein content of turnip tops at about 16% and the turnips at 12%. There's also a lot of sugar and water. He fills a 10' stock tank for 100 cows about once a week; the rest of the water comes from the crop.
It isn't hard to spot a field of turnips.
“They just get huge. The leaves grow to 2' tall,” says Brandes. “The turnips are anywhere from the size of your thumb to the size of a cowboy hat. When it freezes the cows just keep on eating them. They cup the turnips right out of the ground. They'll turn down alfalfa for turnips. That works pretty good for us with hay at $100/ton.”
Brandes and his brother Evan don't graze all their turnip fields in fall. They keep a couple of pivots of turnips for cows to calve on.
“It's our main source of feed for the winter,” says Brandes. “Basically, turnips are like feeding alfalfa and corn. We haven't seen any problems with heavy calf weights, and it has really helped with our conception rates because the cattle stay in such good shape.”
He started growing turnips in part because there isn't much forage left in a field following a seed corn harvest. He also tried rape, but was disappointed with that crop.
Neal Hentzen, Seward, NE, tried turnips for the first time last year. Like Brandes, he grows seed corn and takes advantage of the extra sunlight when the male rows are destroyed.
“We aerially applied 2-4 lbs/acre and were fortunate to have some good rains after that,” Hentzen reports. “Total cost with the aerial applicator was about $10/acre. I don't have any numbers, but I'm amazed at how the cattle have gained.”
He started with 20 cow-calf pairs of his own and 20 for a friend. But he had so much forage that he bought another 20 cow-calf pairs. He points out that turnips are a cool-weather crop, so they keep growing when other crops stop.
“When the cattle first went into the field, they weren't moving back and forth across the field looking for something to eat. They hardly moved,” Hentzen says. “They're so content, we haven't had any trouble with cattle getting out.”
He plans to plant Roundup Ready soybeans in the turnip fields this spring and figures that should take care of any remaining plants.
“I'm not sure how good it would work in commercial corn. We get our best growth in the male rows. And, to be assured of germination, you need to either water the turnips or get some good rains.”
One downside to turnips is the risk of cattle choking. A turnip occasionally becomes stuck in a cow's throat.
“We've lost a few cattle that way,” says Brandes. “If we catch a cow in time we've been able to push a tube down her throat and force the turnip into her stomach.”
One other drawback to feeding turnips is that cows tend to have really bad breath, he says. “It's sort of a cross between horseradish and propane.”