by: Heather Smith Thomas

Sometimes non-traditional crops for livestock can augment forage supplies or stretch production on a piece of land. Brassicas are a good example. This is a large family of plants (mustard family, which includes turnips, radishes, rutabaga, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, rapeseed, canola and many other plants and vegetables) that have many purposes. Some of them have been selected and adapted to create varieties that work well as livestock forage. For instance there are now some new varieties of turnip that work much better than the traditional ones and can be planted earlier in the spring.

John Snider lives in Oregon and works for PGG Seed (a company based in New Zealand) and says this company has always been ahead of the game in producing cultivars that are a lot more flexible and easier to manage for grazing than the traditional bulb turnip. “There are some taproot varieties today that produce a lot of biomass above ground, which can be grazed 2 or 3 or even 4 times during the year instead of just once. A traditional turnip grows best in a cool environment, and requires 90 to 100 days of good growing weather (but not a lot of heat) to get maximum productivity. This requires a certain window of time, planting after the hottest weather but early enough to get maximum growth before winter,” he says.

“That window was part of a traditional English farming system that had mild summers. That can also work well in areas where it rains in July and August. But in hotter, drier environments farmers need plants that are more adapted to drought. There are several varieties that are easier to grow than the traditional purple top turnip (which does a great job of providing extra feed for cattle in the fall and winter), and become grazable earlier—at 40 to 60 days rather than 90 to 100 days,” says Snider.

These can be very useful in climates that utilize warm season grasses like Sudan, sorghum and millet. “Our varieties of brassicas are adapted to summer weather and can be planted early in the spring. So you basically have 2 windows of opportunity in milder climates--spring and early fall. If you live in California you could plant them any time of year, and they can fit in with whatever other crops you are growing. We've planted forage brassicas, leaf turnips and forage rape in December in California and Arizona. They grow slowly for a while and then by March are large enough to be grazed,” he says. In a colder climate you'd plant them in the spring or early summer and graze them through the growing season, and still have the turnip bulbs for winter feed.

“We now have new kinds of forage brassicas that can be grazed multiple times. They can flower, and after they are grazed will regrow as a vegetative rather than reproductive phase.” If you graze them off before they actually go to seed, they will regrow, and produce another stand of forage. You can choose a variety that fits your farm or ranch and the time frame when you need to have something available to graze.

It all depends on when you want to plant it and when you want to graze it, in your climate. You need about the same amount of moisture to start these plants as to start a new crop of alfalfa. Thus you need some rain at that time, or irrigation. “Turnips, for instance, require a lot of moisture because they have a big bulb. A turnip requires quite a bit of moisture to be a decent crop, whereas come cultivars need less. They all need moisture to germinate and become established, but some of the grazing varieties then get by with as little as 6 inches of in-crop moisture as they are growing,” says Snider.

“There are generic varieties of purple-top turnips, and also some proprietary certified varieties which are produced from foundation seed that has specific purposes for specific climates. For example, Hunter Forage Brassica is a leaf turnip—which is a cross between a turnip and a Chinese cabbage. It is bred, produced and marketed by PGG Seed. Another variety of ours is Winfred Forage Brassica, which is a cross between a kale and a turnip, and requires less water than the Hunter to be a grazable crop and is also more tolerant of colder weather, making it hardier for cool climates,” he explains.

“Graza is the only certified forage radish available, created by crossing different types of radish from various parts of the world. It grows very fast and can be grazable in 40 days, at the proper time of year,” says Snider. The “hot” taste has been bred out of it. All of these new varieties produce more leaf mass and less bulb than a turnip.

“The leaves will also grow back after grazing. Graza can be grazed multiple times during the growing season. Winfred, Graza and Hunter are examples of plant varieties that provide multiple grazing (with regrowth) during the growing season. There are more options today than just traditional turnips. There are also some proprietary purple top (tankard) turnips that can be used for winter stockpile grazing,” says Snider.

“Today there are many generic radishes and turnips as use in cover crops. There is growing popularity across the country for utilizing a cocktail mix of plants in cover crops, for soil health. These cover crops are also a great cash crop when used for grazing. You only get that added value, however, from using grazing varieties and not just generic radishes or turnips because those all become quickly less usable after they flower. It makes sense to use something that works better for grazing. Some plants are bred to grow seed, some are bred to grow leaves, or roots, so it pays to choose something that is bred to be grazed,” he says.

“All turnips are not the same, just as all wheat is not the same. You wouldn't plant spring wheat when you need to be planting winter wheat, for instance. You wouldn't plant corn in mid-December in the northern hemisphere, or plant traditional corn in a climate where you'd need a fast-maturing variety to make ears before frost. Brassicas are a huge family and you need to know which one might work best in your situation,” says Snider.

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