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," says Pettijohn, 41.
A 100-acre patch of land just a few miles southwest of Solomon, Kan., 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 in the 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 says, 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 micronutrients, such as zinc and sulfur, 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," says Tom Maxwell, district agricultural Extension agent.
"That cover crop root is creating a channel to help alleviate soil compaction," he says. "If you're going to come back next year with corn, it's an option for no-till."
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 — 1/4 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 says. "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, says Don Miller, a salesman at Kauffman Seeds where Pettijohn purchased his seed.
Cover crops provide more than one service, Miller says.
"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 says. "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 says.
Root crops such as radishes will penetrate the hardpan that often exists between 10 to 14 inches deep, aerating the soil and allowing moisture to penetrate.
Radishes are also called "nitrogen scavengers," he says.
"They penetrate below that hardpan, bringing nitrogen into the foliage," Miller says. As the plants deteriorate, he says, the nitrogen is available for the next crop.
Pettijohn also plants sunflowers after wheat.
"They will root deep and break up the soil," he says. "We've been extremely successful double-cropping sunflowers."
A no-tiller 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 says.
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 says. "Some things are green and some are unconventional, but I enjoy it."