Cover crops prove to be useful

MITCHELL, S.D. -- While corn and soybeans are the dominant crops in South Dakota, Chris Nebelsick knows the importance of turnips and radishes. Although the practice isn't widespread, some local farmers like Nebelsick are praising the benefits of...

MITCHELL, S.D. -- While corn and soybeans are the dominant crops in South Dakota, Chris Nebelsick knows the importance of turnips and radishes.

Although the practice isn't widespread, some local farmers like Nebelsick are praising the benefits of adding cover crops like turnips and radishes to the traditional crop rotations of corn, soybeans and wheat. Cover crops can be anything grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil.

"Wherever we have wheat, we put cover crops into the crop rotation," Nebelsick says, looking over his field south of Mitchell.

Don Wenande -- manager for the Hanson Conservation District -- says the crops are simple to grow and they provide feed for cattle, add nutrients to the ground and help break up compacted soils. The radishes, he explains, have a tap root that reaches down and drills through hardpan soils.

Nebelsick, a co-owner in Diamond Farms with his father Bill and grandfather Ed Strand, says his family farms various locations in Davison and Hanson counties. This year, the family planted about 450 acres of radishes, turnips, lentil peas and soybean cover crops to build the land's organic matter. He expects to plant even more later this year.


Chris, 31, mixes the seeds together and spreads them on lightly harrowed soils after the wheat harvest. The plan has enriched soils wherever it's been used, he says.

"This is a natural way to make fertilizer," he said. This is his fourth year using the cover crops.

Some is also used for cattle feed.

It's a good program, he says, but moisture is needed to make it work. Many cover crops never germinated in last year's drought conditions, but emerged as volunteer crops throughout this growing season.

Farmer Gary Schoenrock, of rural Fulton, has been adding radishes, turnips and sugar beets to his crops rotations for about seven years. He says the economics of growing the simple crops make good sense. Like Nebelsick, he typically plants the cover crops after harvesting his winter wheat.

The radishes and turnips are never harvested but are only used as feed and soil amendments. While he hasn't eaten them, Schoenrock says some hunters have reported the turnips make for good eating.

Nutritious snack

Nebelsick says the radishes start out bland but gain a peppery quality as they mature.


Schoenrock says the crops are popular with deer, and while they provide scant nutrition, for pheasants they provide extra ground cover they can use for nesting.

"In the fall, we turn cattle out and they graze the fields," Schoenrock says.

The animals eat leafy green tops of the plants first and then begin working on the actual turnips and radishes. The top part of the root crops protrude from the ground and cattle either uproot them, gnaw them down to ground level or use their hooves to dig out what they can.

"The crops have a high sugar content and cattle will stand out there when it's really cold they'll work the ground. They'll come out of those fields like fat cattle, and there's so much protein in those plants," Schoenrock says.

"We place a water tank out there for the cows but when they eat turnips and radishes they don't drink much -- there's that much water in these plants."

Cattle can often graze through the fall and into February, he says. Cows that appear at first glance to be grazing empty fields, remain busy digging out the turnips and radishes.

The cattle have a menu preference and will eat the turnips first and then the radishes.

Seed is relatively inexpensive. Schoenrock says it costs about $20 an acre for seed. Nebelsick says his mix costs about $30 an acre.


The tap roots of radishes can drill down a foot or more into the ground, Schoenrock says. Remaining plants will rot by spring, but the holes they leave provide a natural pathway for moisture.

Schoenrock says the plants helped provide drainage in one field that traditionally flooded and was a poor producer.

"Spots that usually held off water took in the water instead," he says. "They produced some of the best corn we had that year."

Additionally, the cover also holds soil so it doesn't blow off during the winter, Schoenrock says.

The only minor downside is that if the crops are not grazed, the smell of rotting crops could be temporarily offensive to some, he says.

Chris Nebelsick believes cover crops return what's taken from the land and that's part of what good farming is about.

"It pays to be a good steward of the land," he says.

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