Farmers tasked with feeding a growing population continually look for ways to maximize yields. At Dee River Ranch in Pickens County, it starts from the ground up.
The ranch joined other farms in the South using a giant radish, which can reach several feet in length, as a winter cover crop aimed at improving soil fertility.
“Farmers plant them in the Midwest, so it’s not a new idea,” said Seth More of Dee River Ranch. “The idea of a cover crop is to improve soil fertility and health and increase the soil’s water holding capacity.”
Radishes show promise to do both. Research by USDAs Natural Resources Conservation Service indicates tillage radishes can be beneficial in no-till operations where their large roots can help retain soil moisture and reduce erosion. The roots’ ability to break up shallow layers of compacted soils, has earned them the nickname “biodrills.”
More said Dee River Ranch used poultry compost in the past as a fertilizer but sought a new approach to improve soil health. His mother, Annie Dee, said they’ve tried several cover crops and are still determining which pair well with other crops.
“Different cover crops do different things,” Dee said. “Different species have variable moving depths and different timings when they’re beneficial, but we want to keep something constantly growing to provide good microbial activity to the soil. We want to keep the soil alive and keep it fed because the better we can keep it fed, the better it will perform for us.”
Dee and More said they haven’t planted tillage radishes long enough to determine all the possibilities the crop may offer, but so far, they’ve seen noticeably higher yields on fields where tillage radishes were used.
Planted in late summer, the radishes are not harvested but typically die in the winter; decay; and contribute nitrogen for spring planting. As they decay, the radishes leave root channels so the soil dries and warms up faster in the spring. Some farmers opt to terminate the plants’ growth to prepare for spring planting.
Macon County farmer Shep Morris said he planted radishes for the first time last year. Although the results weren’t what he wanted, he’s still eyeing them for the future.
“We didn’t get a real good stand, so it wasn’t that successful,” Morris said. “It’s a great concept, so I’m not ruling it out. There are some potential great benefits with them through improving the soil.”
Dee said while she’s seen some success with tillage radishes, there have been some surprises, too.
“In north Alabama, the radish will die on its own, so we thought it would do the same down here,” she said. “We didn’t have a good stand of corn the first year, because we didn’t know to terminate the radishes. We want to get into the field as early as we can in March, and if we don’t get some of that cover crop killed back, it will keep the soil too wet to plant and will delay our spring planting.”