Two Canadians are finding that turnips can be a high-quality, tasty grazing option for their livestock.

Manitoba cattleman Ray Bittner says the brassica crop permits four times the stocking rate as the unfertilized native pastures common in his region. And sheep producer Randy Eros was able to finish lambs on pasture last year, instead of pulling them off early and moving them to a feedlot.

Turnips have a lot of potential for ranchers who want to break into rotational grazing, says Bittner, farm production advisor for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, Ashern.

Bittner has 120 beef cows. Starting with 12 acres, he has grown equal amounts of two turnip varieties the past three years. One type has larger bulbs; the other produces more leafy material.

A mature turnip crop is about 2' tall and has a very dense leaf structure, he says.

“When you step on it, your feet hardly touch the ground. It's like walking on a cabbage patch.”

Turnips, however, are full of energy and protein.

“They are somewhere between 85% and 92% moisture,” says Bittner. “It seems incredulously high, but our dry matter yield tests for two years came out around 11,000 lbs/acre.”

He seeded turnips in early May 2004, then rotated the full herd onto them for a week of grazing in mid-July. He put them back in September for almost 20 grazing days. He repeated the program in 2005, on 27 acres.

He seeded 40 acres of turnips in 2006, but the growing season was extremely dry. Still, grazing days exceeded those of his fertilized orchardgrass pasture by about 50%.

“The cattle would eat turnips like crazy, get themselves full of energy and protein, then they'd crave fiber,” he says. “So they went into swamps that border my fields. They'd eat bulrushes, black reeds, sedges, redtop, anything. All of a sudden, those areas that are generally wasted became a resource and got cleaned up very well.”

Tubers were attacked in the September grazing, when the forage was gone.

“The old cows really get aggressive. They roll tubers out of the ground and eat them until nothing is left. You wouldn't want to push a yearling to do that,” says Bittner.

“Turnips are very tolerant of frost,” he adds. “You could quite easily graze them into October.”

His budget for the turnip field, per acre in Canadian dollars, includes $13.50 for 4 lbs of seed, $7 for insecticide, $18 for weed control and $36.60 for fertilizer.

“With good zero-till seeding equipment and with glyphosate, I suspect you could seed turnips straight into native grassland,” he says. “You only have to do this for one year. When you put the cows on the turnips, that amount of relief will be enough to let the rest of your pastures get the rest that enables your rotational grazing to start working.”

Turnips like cool, moist growing conditions, says Bittner. They can be direct-seeded at 4-6 lbs/acre. They need early weed control and post-emerge protection from flea beetles. The basic fertility requirement is about 60 lbs of nitrogen and 30-40 lbs of phosphorus per acre.

Randy Eros, Ste. Ann, Manitoba, has a rotational grazing system for his 650 ewes and lambs. On a trial basis, Eros seeded 5 acres of turnips in early June 2006. They germinated, but conditions were dry. He gave up plans for the first grazing. On Sept. 20, he turned 350 lambs into a strip of the turnip field. The lambs had access to a free-choice barley creep ration and to grass hay.

“I gave them about two days of grazing, then added another strip,” he says. “I ran them on there for three weeks, then separated the males and left 310 females. I took them off on Oct 29.

“They had 11,760 lamb grazing days. The lambs weighed 60-80 lbs. The last couple weeks, they were eating the tubers. That's when most of the hay went, to provide fiber in the diet.”

Forage costs for 39 days of grazing worked out to 2.7¢/lamb/day.

“The finish on the market lambs was absolutely fabulous,” says Eros. “They were well muscled and had a good fat cover.” To achieve a similar finish other years, Eros has taken lambs off pasture early and fed them a special high-protein ration in the feedlot.

“This year I'm going to use about 15 acres for turnips,” he says.