By JO ANN HUSTIS
NEWTON, Ill. — People, as well as cattle, take to Joe Bergbower’s annual cover crops program of radishes and turnips.
Hard to believe? No, not really. Look across his fields on a nice, crisp fall day as friends and neighbors gather teacup-size radishes and softball-size turnips by the bucketful for the dinner table. Then go beyond the glare of winter sunlight reflecting off his snow-covered land and watch his Angus cows scrape their hooves through the drifts to reach the succulent turnips underneath.
After the green tops are consumed, the cattle work on the turnip bulbs, or roots. “They’ll eat the tops off the radishes and turnips, but they won’t eat the turnip itself until they’ve got everything else eaten,” said Bergbower, who began farming in 1956.
Cover crops are grown to help manage soil fertility and quality, water, weeds and plant pests and diseases in an ecological system that produces food, feed and fiber. Cover adds organic matter to the soil and reduces its compaction, increases microbial populations and improves soil structure and moisture retention.
Cover crops – an old practice now undergoing a comeback in Illinois and the Midwest – include oats, oilseed, radishes, crimson clover and ryegrass. They are planted after cash crops such as corn and soybeans are harvested.
Bergbower and his son, Eric, farm approximately 1,200 acres in Jasper County east of Effingham, in southern Illinois. Five years ago, they began planting turnips and ryegrass as a soil conservation practice. A neighbor used his backhoe to dig into the soil where a cover crop was growing and found radish roots that extended 42-48 inches below the surface.
The father-son team have enthused about the virtues of cover crops ever since, saying they help deter the armyworms which devour succulent foliage, and improve soil tillage.
“Ryegrass seems to loosen the soil quite a bit and puts nitrates back into the ground. We had trouble at first in getting the seeds started. We found we couldn’t mix the seeds together to plant, so the last couple of years we’ve been sowing the ryegrass alone. Then we mixed four kinds of seeds together with 100 pounds each of nitrate and potash, and double-spread it,” Bergbower said.
“First we tried sowing the seed in the cornstalks and got a bit of a stand. Then we found we could run a tiller to break up the ground slightly, broadcast the seed and go over the soil with a roller to roll them in. The last couple of years, we’ve gotten a really good stand of radishes, some that go down 12 to 18 inches into the ground. Most the radishes and turnips are baseball- and softball-size.”
Bergbower has one strand of electric wire at shoulder-height in his fields. He turns the beef cattle out to graze until they begin calving in early to mid-February. Keeping them in the fields after the calving season would mean securing another strand of electric wire on the fence posts.
“The cows love the turnips, but they don’t like the radishes too well. They’ll eat the radish and turnip tops, but not the root until everything else is eaten. Also, the radishes and turnips cut down the amount of hay used for their feed,” he said.
“We have about 40 head of cattle in each of three different places. The cattle in each will eat one large round bale of hay a day. When we turn them out into the turnips, they cut down on the hay to one bale about every five to six days.
“We also keep 200-pound protein blocks out for the cattle all the time. On the hay diet alone, they eat about one protein block each week. With the turnips, they eat one protein block every two to three weeks, as they get all the protein they need from the turnips. They’re digging in the snow now,” he said on Jan. 5. “I look out my window and see them getting their forage crop.”
People love the turnips and radishes, Bergbower found. “I tell them to come into the fields and fill their buckets,” he said. “They say these are the biggest and best they’ve eaten.
“We eat them all the time at home, boiled or fried, just like potatoes. Many people also make kraut from the turnips.”
Bergbower does his cover crops program without financial aid from the USDA’s incentive payments plan. “Just by myself,” he said. “I looked it up a couple years ago, checked on it, talked to several guys and started by trial and error. The earlier you get the cover crops in the ground, the better.
“This year it was real good because our corn crop was zero, at two and three bushels per acre. Most the corn went for silage. We sowed the cover crop the middle of August, and then it rained – the reason why we got this big, big crop of turnips and radishes.”
His nearby neighbors do not plant cover crops, but some farmers more distantly located do, Bergbower said. Many sow just ryegrass – no turnips or radishes. He sees nothing wrong there.
“About three years ago, we cut our ryegrass for hay, then no-tilled soybeans into the field afterward,” he said. “They were the best beans that year.”
Ryegrass is an excellent hay for cattle feed. Cows eat it before other varieties. “For 40 head of cattle, I used to put out four bales of other varieties twice a week. Now I can go two to three weeks on four bales of hay,” he said.
“But the reason I started doing cover crops was for tillage – to improve the soil, which it definitely does.”
Farmers can also check on growing cover crops under the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which includes payments at $25-$38 per acre. Applications are being accepted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service throughout fiscal 2013.
Specific dates for evaluating, ranking and approving eligible applications are Jan. 18, March 15 and May 17. Details are available at county USDA Service Centers.