Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Roots matter

By Throwback at Trapper Creek



On our Century farmstead we consider the livestock we share our lives with, an important part of our team. Keeping livestock small and large can be expensive. So began the journey and research to find crops that would allow us to be frugal, and at the same time deliver the same care in growing feed for our animals that we put forth in our own food growing endeavors. When we first started trying to grow more of our own food, we started out trying to duplicate what was in the store, and realized quickly that growing vegetables too far from their natural season, used too many resources. A move to seasonal growing and eating has become second nature to us. Root crops that require medium fertility and with minimum storage requirements fit the bill. Roots used to be looked down on as peasant fare, with a fresh green salad every day being the goal, for eaters and year-round gardeners as well. For us they have been an inexpensive way to lessen our dependency on outside sources.


I'm sure my grandfather had no inkling that I would be consulting his treasured book, The Home and Farm Cyclopedia, ca. 1890.


Nor that I would be sitting at the very same kitchen table he built for his family as soon as he arrived from Germany in 1880. These links to my past are very important to me, since his passing preceded my birth by 54 years. We are different he and I, he an immigrant having to live in a new country and learn the language, me trying to navigate and learn what has been lost.


But in some ways we are on the same page. Sounds corny, I know, but it is true. Modern agriculture is propped up with enormous amounts of fossil fuel. While I can't change what other people do, I can certainly change what I do. I do believe that is where change starts. And my husband and I also don't believe that people should pay us to change. Meaning we pay for our mistakes and learning curve - so we learn. I don't need, or want a grant to tell me if the roots I'm growing will cut my feed bill and dependence on the grocery store for my livestock. Going back and studying literature from earlier times can shed some light on pre-petroleum farming and homesteading. Agriculture books printed before 1950 have many great ideas, and can still be found for nominal cost, considering the wealth of information contained in these works.

What I found in modern books on feeding livestock were brief references to roots, but most stated that on a large scale, the growing of root crops for livestock was not economical because of labor or specialized machinery requirements. The modern concensus was that it took more pounds of roots than corn or other popular grains to put on a pound of gain. So don't bother... .

So a I set my time machine to post WW II, and found roots getting a little more mention, but petroleum farming was just gaining ground, and roots were being pushed aside somewhat in favor of grain crops that were able to uptake the heavy nitrogen fertilizers that were a by-product of the petroleum industry. It sounds so simple, no more recalcitrant horses, no manure mucking and hauling, just buy the tractor, and implements. You can go to the co-op and buy fertilizer in a bag, and apply and the crops will grow like mad. That tractor doesn't kick and bite, the fertilizer doesn't have much of an odor and the results are so consistent. It would take years before anyone noticed that maybe this wasn't the bandwagon to get on.

Going even farther back to my grandfather's favorite tome, I found what I was looking for - suggestions for root crops in conjunction with grains and legumes. It seems so simple, roots can be grown in rotation after heavy feeding crops, because of their lower fertility requirements. While not the highest for fattening (that is corn), we aren't interested in slow food, too fast. We raise grass finished beef, so no need for grains there. What we were looking for was a winter supplement for our house cow and our laying hens. Roots have filled in the gaps in that regard.

While I realize I am writing from a farm perspective, I believe that even an urban garden with a few hens or rabbits would greatly benefit from a bed or two of roots. One of the unseen or written about benefits is to our children. By growing this feed, our child has seen first hand that all food need not come from the store - you can grow many things yourself. What I have had to re-learn will be second nature to my daughter - she has planted carrots for her horse and seen that project through from seed to steed and back to the garden in the way of composted horse manure to feed her garden. She sees the cycle and it's advantages. And for me, I can feel satisfied in the knowledge that she too, is linked in a tangible way to ancestors she has only seen in photos.


It may seem early to be thinking of roots in February, but the roots we are harvesting weekly now, were planted in late May, and we will harvest the last of them just before we began the cycle again. Most of my winter garden is started at the same time as my summer garden, with the exceptions being warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers that I will be starting soon. So now is the time to begin planning space for your winter crops that require some time to mature.


Early summer garden, shelling peas on the way out, and parsnips just starting to gain some ground. It will be many months before these "snips" see the light of day and become roasted roots for us, house cow fodder, and the surprise use - dog treats. Sure beats a Nylabone any day.

We were looking for roots that would suit multiple species, namely us, the family cow, and the laying hens. All of the root crops we chose would work well for sheep, goats and rabbits too. The roots that we settled on were carrots, beets, parsnips, and rutabagas. We had grown mangels (fodder beets) before, but found that they were large and because a large portion of the root grows above ground, they did not meet our criteria for easy storage. In our zone 7 garden, we are able to hill soil over our root crops and leave them in situ. It is the perfect storage system, the roots remain alive until the time of harvest. Fresh food all winter is an enjoyable thing. We harvest weekly as needed from fall to spring. Even farther north, I know of gardeners using entire bales of straw to protect the roots from freezing. They remove the bales and harvest as needed too.

The weekly harvest. After washing, we sort, and any damaged or small roots go to the barn, and the rest are stored in plastic buckets on our north facing porch where they stay cool.

While the roots won't replace all the grain for your stock, they can play a bigger part of their winter diet, giving variety and giving you more control in what you are feeding your animals. The only references I have seen concerning problems is for feeding beets and mangels to rams and wethers. Some believe mangels and sugar beets can cause calculi in the kidneys and bladder.

For our milk cow, I chop the roots to avoid choking, and mix with her grain. She seems to enjoy her breakfast treats. The chickens just get to peck away and they relish their winter roots.

Here are the varieties we have settled on:

Carrots - Red Cored Chantenay, grows well in heavy soil, stores well, and gets sweeter with cold weather.

Parsnip - Harris Model or Andover - both grow and store well, I don't see much difference in taste or growing habits.

Beets - Lutz/Winterkeeper - can grow large if thinned to 4", exceptionally sweet and stores well.

Rutabaga - Laurentian or Joan - stores well, resists root maggot damage, gets sweeter in storage. Brassica's can cause off flavors in milk, so reserve these for non-lactating stock.

Mangels - Golden Eckendorf or Colossal Long Red - grew well, but were a pain for me to hill with soil. But would be great for gardeners who use a root cellar.
Roots we grow just for the humans are: Jerusalem Artichoke, celeriac, Daikon and salad turnips.

A note for self-suffiency: if you choose open-pollinated varieties (OP), you can save your own seed, allowing you to get one step closer to independence from industrial food production.

Growing and harvesting roots has made us feel closer to our goal of self-reliance. And we find as we eat more of these types of in-season vegetables ourselves, we rely less on labor and energy intensive food preservation methods. While I'm not giving up my canning and freezing, I find that I'm storing less food that way, and actually providing more variety in our meals.