The Aroma of Cover Crops

Buckeye Farm Beat

Our local paper doesn’t write much about agriculture, but in this case they found a way.

Published on: January 7, 2011

David Brandt will do just about anything to promote no-till. One of the founding members and president of the Ohio No-till Council, he has hosted field days, conducted test plots and given talks about no-till and cover crops for more than 25 years. His farm and his work have been a source for articles in every major farm publication in the country. In fact his picture is in the January issue of Ohio Farmer presenting an award during last month’s Ohio No-till Conference.

Dave has a way of getting the media to notice what his doing. His farm is less than 10 miles north of our office here in Lancaster, so I have been there many, many times to hear him extol the virtues of Austrian peas and annual rye grass and oil seed radishes as cover crops.

Fortunately Andy Nunley, a firefighter from Bloom Township, had also heard something about cover crops. You see over the month of December Nunley and firefighters from Bloom and Greenfield townships were called out to the intersection of Carroll Northern and Pleasantville roads five times after receiving calls about a propane leak.

"We went out four times in December and Bloom went out once," Greenfield Township Fire Chief Terry Morris, told a reporter for the Lancaster Eagle Gazette this week. "You could smell the odor, but we couldn't detect the source."

They checked the one nearby house that has a propane tank, but they didn't find a leak, the Eagle Gazette reported.

"There is a gas line going through the area, and we checked it out to see if it was leaking and it wasn't," said Nunley.

Nunley recalled that the field at the intersection had been planted with radishes and thought he had also heard that when the radishes rot they tend to smell like propane gas. He checked it out on the Internet and found an article by OSU Extension describing how rotting radishes released a sulfur odor into the air.

"I thought I remembered reading something about how they smell when they rot," Nunley said. "I got on the Internet and found an OSU Extension fact sheet about the radish and articles about it causing other fire departments to be called out."

Nunley explained his finding to Morris who tracked down the farmer who planted the field. No surprise, that was Dave Brandt.


In the December 2008 issue of Ohio Farmer David Brandt, left, and Kevin Shaeffer showed a variety of giant oil seed radishes that were being tested for a cover crop. The variety that filled the air with the odor of propane last month is a smaller variety which grow 3 to 4 inches wide and 14 inches deep.

“We have 350 acres of radishes planted as cover crop around the area,” Brandt acknowledged. “That location probably gets more traffic than most of the others. We had a lot of people stop and ask us about the crop there.”

When things warmed up the last days of December, the radishes began to decay and there you have it -- the aroma of conservation.

"The radishes are a great soil conservation tool," Brandt told the local paper. "We are a no-till farming operation and we plant about 350 acres around the county, alternating rows of radishes and winter peas. It provides a lot of nutrients to the soil and we don't have to fertilize the soil, but it does have the one drawback when it rots -- it smells. But it normally only lasts a couple of weeks."

Brandt was also quick to point out that the cover combination of 1 pound per acre of radishes and 12 pounds per acre of peas reduces his fertilizer needs by 65% and cuts the herbicide bill by 25 to 30%.  He uses a special planter to position the complimentary plants 4 inches apart so the radishes can draw nitrogen from the legumes as they grow.

“You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you get to educate people about no-till and cover crops,” Brandt says.