Tillage radish fills empty acres

Published 1:15 pm Sunday, October 13, 2013

As the weather cools and harvest gets under way on drier crops, a lush, green type of plant remains in many fields — and that’s not a good thing for farmers. It is good for the environment, though.

It’s the tillage radish. Ask many local farmers, and they’ve never even seen it planted in the area until this year. This is no ordinary radish, either, and it’s certainly not for eating.

With a lot of rich, black fields left unplanted in exchange for insurance payouts this year, farmers needed options to keep their soils loose and to prevent their fertilizer and nutrients from escaping. Many of them turned to the tillage radish.

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Dave Lunning, owner of Grass and Sons Seed in LeRoy, has carried the tillage radish in the past. However, people have rarely bought it, he said. This year, with empty acres, that changed. Farmers opened their checkbooks to plant something they won’t even harvest. It’s not very economical. There are multiple benefits, however.

“If you planted something for a cover crop, it’s better than nothing,” Lunning said.

The tillage radish gets its name, Lunning said, because it tills the soil, or so to speak. When planted late in the season, preferably mid-August, the plant will not re-seed and grow the following season. But it will grow a long taproot, which breaks up the soil and allows corn roots to grow deeper the following season, he added. Farmers can till the leftover foliage in the fall or following spring.

Furthermore, the radish itself is a nutrient sponge. Plenty of farmers applied nitrogen to their soils in anticipation of planting but had to change their minds as weather stalled planting late into the season. Tillage radishes trap nitrogen and nutrients and release those back into the soil after they die and decompose.

Lunning said about half of his regular farming customers opted for the tillage radishes. The other opted for oats, as that is less expensive and at least offers an economic return. As Lunning said earlier, something in the soil is better than nothing.

“It keeps the bacteria active in the soil and just keeps the soil healthier,” he said.

Perhaps the most important reason to plant a cover crop is simply as a matter of principle. Keeping nutrients and fertilizers in the soil is better than letting them eventually go downstream, harming the environment.

“I think it’s just a testament to show that farmers actually do care about the soil and do not want it to wash away,” Lunning said.