Mark Pettijohn holds up a radish he picked out of a field near Solomon on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Pettijohn is usinf radishes and turnips as a cover crop. (photo by Jeff Cooper/ Salina Journal) | Buy Journal Photos


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A turnip grows in one of Mark Pettijohn’s fields near Solomon on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Pettijohn is using turnips and radishes as a cover crop. (photo by Jeff Cooper/ Salina Journal)

A radish grows in one of Mark Pettijohn’s fields on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. (photo by Jeff Cooper/ Salina Journal)

Local farmer goes unconventional with cover crops

By TIM UNRUH Salina Journal
SOLOMON — Mark Pettijohn builds failure into his farming operation and expects some stinkers while experimenting with “green” and “unconventional” methods.

Sometimes he hits it big, however, and a field busts loose with gorgeous bounty.

“They show up once in awhile,” said Pettijohn, 41.

A 100-acre patch of land just a few miles southwest of Solomon is exhibiting traits worth remembering — a cover crop of “glorious radishes and turnips,” he said. “It’s a jungle out there.”

Pettijohn planted them late last summer, with no intention of harvesting, although cattle owned by his uncle, Arden Peterson, may grow fat grazing the land this fall.

Pettijohn is letting the root vegetables work some magic to improve the soil and hopes for higher returns when corn is planted there next spring.

“This is the third attempt at radishes and turnips. Now we’ve kind of nailed it,” Pettijohn said, gazing over the field adorned with lush foliage hooked to bulging turnips and long white radishes that are still growing.

The root vegetables naturally dig in, and when they are eaten by cattle or decompose quickly after dying from the frost — due here in mid-October — they leave valuable nitrogen and micro-nutrients, such as zinc and sulphur, to help future crops.

The plants are in the ground to break it up, sort of like plowing it without putting a plow in the field.

Radish and turnip roots “can create some root channels for moisture and root penetration,” said Tom Maxwell, of Salina, district agricultural Extension agent.

“That cover crop root is creating a channel to help alleviate soil compaction,” he said. “If you’re going to come back next year with corn, it’s an option for no-till (farmers).”

Five weeks after wheat was harvested from the field, on July 30, Pettijohn used an air seeder to blow 2 1/2 pounds per acre of turnip seed onto the ground. He followed Aug. 1 with a shallow planting — one-quarter inch deep “just barely in the dirt” — of radishes, at a rate of 1 1/2 pounds of seed per acre.

A good stand of both crops emerged, thanks in part to ample moisture late in the growing season.

“This is good ground. We put the crop where we knew it would work, to get good at it,” Pettijohn said. “Next year, we’ll move the process to a field that doesn’t have as good of soil.”

Turnips as a grazing crop have been around a long time, and radishes have become popular in recent years to help ease soil compaction, said Don Miller, a salesman at Kauffman Seeds, of Haven, where Pettijohn purchased his seed.

Cover crops provide more than one service, Miller said.

“In a no-till situation, you need biomass. The more residue you can have on top of the ground, that goes into the ground, it creates more fertile soil,” he said. “If you keep residue on the top, it helps suppress weeds.”

Rye, winter oats, barley, triticale and Austrian winter peas are among the most popular cover crops in these parts, Miller said.

Root crops such as radishes will penetrate the hard pan that often exists between 10 to 14 inches deep, aerating the soil and allowing moisture to penetrate.

Radishes are also called “nitrogen scavengers,” he said.

“They penetrate below that hard pan, bringing nitrogen into the foliage,” Miller said. As the plants deteriorate, he said, the nitrogen is available for the next crop.

Pettijohn also plants sunflowers after wheat.

“They will root deep and break up the soil,” he said. “We’ve been extremely successful double-cropping sunflowers.”

A no-till farmer since 1999, Pettijohn farms about 3,300 acres of land, one-third of which is owned by his family. The remainder is leased.

“We’ve created tons of organic matter,” he said.

Pettijohn admits to being a bit different. A 1992 graduate of the University of Kansas, he completed degrees in accounting and business administration.

“I consider some of what I do gardening,” Pettijohn said. “Some things are green and some are unconventional, but I enjoy it.”

n Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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