What is that Stench – Part Two

Last fall we had farmers spreading chicken litter in the fields and the aroma wafted far and wide. Now in the heart of winter again there’s a reek in the air. Many people liken it to rotting cabbage. What’s going on? Is this the next phase of stench from the chicken litter?

It’s not, although again the farmers are to blame. What we’re smelling are radishes that are rotting as we experience this warm weather in February. Wait, radishes? The Churubusco area is not exactly a large scale vegetable growing area, how can there be enough radishes to generate that much stink?

These are radishes that were planted in the summer and fall as a cover crop. Farmers plant radishes usually on fields that had wheat on them. The wheat is harvested in late July. Planting radishes after that gives them time to get good growth before freezing weather kills them.

The radishes are beneficial in several ways. These radishes are similar to daikon radishes. They have a long white tuber that can grow a foot or more into the soil and are several inches in diameter. That long root works just like a plow, opening up the soil, making channels that water and air can use to permeate the soil.

The radishes also scavenge fertilizer from the soil. They take up nutrients from the soil and turn it into organic matter. When they die they return that organic matter to soil for next year’s corn or soybeans to use. Fertilizer that the radishes take up is fertilizer that doesn’t run off into rivers to create algae blooms and hypoxia zones. And it’s fertilizer farmers don’t need to buy next year.

Farmers who have livestock often spread manure on the wheat fields after the wheat comes off in the summer. Radishes planted in these field are especially useful, taking up the nutrients in the manure and holding it there. You can easily pick out fields that have had manure applied and then had radishes planted. They will have enormous radishes with huge bunches of dark green fronds, clear evidence the radishes are doing their job.

They are good to eat too. Like most radishes they’re best while they’re still young and small. Livestock also likes them. In many areas they’re grown for forage and grazing for cattle. Around here though they’re mainly grown just as a cover crop.

It takes a very hard frost to kill the radishes. Most years when it gets that cold, it stays cold until spring. By the time it gets warm again the radishes are mostly decomposed and the smell isn’t that bad. But this year we’re getting cold spells followed by stretches of warm weather. Each time it warms up we get another round of rotting radishes, with the accompanying odor.

While the odor isn’t pleasant, it helps to realize the cause of it is a very good thing. Farmers are enriching their soil, lessening the need for chemical fertilizers, and keeping our rivers clean. That’s worth having a ripe odor in the neighborhood for a few days, isn’t it?