This versatile, but often overlooked, heirloom root crop produces bountiful harvests to be relished by people and livestock alike.
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While new scientific findings influence changes in farming and gardening every day, some traditional wisdom is just as useful as ever – especially when it comes to resurrecting a heritage plant with a dozen uses. Consider the mangel-wurzel, or “mangel,” one of our favorite crops.
This vegetable makes great salads, pickles, and cooked roots; is excellent feed for practically every kind of livestock on the farmstead; is easy to grow and produces huge harvests; and stores well all winter.
Not long ago, mangels were a common crop on small farms across the United States. Also known as the “fodder beet,” “mangel beet,” or “mangold,” the mangel-wurzel belongs to the Beta vulgaris species, along with chard, table beets, and sugar beets. Agricultural historians believe that humans domesticated beetroot many centuries ago; mangel-wurzels were documented in European fields by the mid-16th century. Many cultivars were being grown in the United States by the late 19th century. But their popularity declined in the 20th century, when mechanization made harvesting grains easier than harvesting roots.
Unlike the standard table beet, mangel roots get really big! Planted in spring, they’ll be huge by autumn – 20 pounds or larger per root, when grown under favorable conditions. A 100-foot-long row of mangels can produce 1,000 pounds of vegetables!
You can use this bumper crop in lots of ways. To eat mangel-wurzels, prepare them as you would any other beet. Harvest tender leaves for salads and cooked greens; the plants don’t seem to mind. The root – round or tapered, usually red- or orange-skinned, with crisp, white flesh – can be eaten raw, roasted, or boiled, and is best consumed when young.
But livestock feed is the most common use of mangels historically. This high-sugar, high-energy food is appropriate for nearly every animal, and is usually fed chopped or shredded to cows and sheep, and whole or chopped to pigs and poultry. High in calcium and magnesium, mangel-wurzels have also traditionally been fed to lactating animals, such as sows with piglets.
Mangels are easy to grow, and can fit into your farming calendar without much trouble. They thrive in moist, cool climates, but are also drought-tolerant.
About the time of your area’s average final frost date, cultivate to a depth of 2 to 3 inches to loosen the soil and kill any weeds. Sow mangel seeds every 6 inches in rows about 2 feet apart. We walk down the furrow to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
Weed control is important during the first weeks to give the seedlings an advantage, as they can be slow to germinate. When weeds begin to sprout, we cultivate between the rows. A single pass with a wheel hoe on a sunny day wipes out 90 percent of weed competition in our mangel patch.
Image Matauw – stock.adobe.com
After the mangel plants appear, we thin them to one seedling for every 12 to 18 inches. All root crops resent crowding, but especially monster roots like mangels. The more space you give them, the larger each root will grow.
As summer progresses, we cultivate twice more with a wheel hoe to kill weeds between the rows, and we hoe the weeds coming up within the rows. We irrigate at a rate of 1 inch of water per week during long dry spells. Unwatered mangels will still grow, albeit more slowly.
Mangels have few pests. While the roots appreciate good soil fertility, they’re able to grow under adverse conditions, and ours produce despite our clay soil. Small rodents, rabbits, and deer enjoy snacking on mangels, but the local fauna have never eaten enough to be a real problem for us.
As the plants grow, their leaves shade the space between the rows, discouraging weeds and keeping the soil cool and moist.
Image Shawn and Beth Dougherty
Mangel-wurzel roots will be ready to harvest before your area’s first killing frost. You might think an enormous root would be a chore to harvest, but most of the plant grows above the soil surface. Just grasp the upper part of the plant, rock it side to side, and pull.
Immediately cut off the tops, leaving an inch or two of stem on top of the root. Feed the leaves to livestock, or scatter them in the garden as a winter mulch. Pile the mangel roots in the garden to cure for a few days or up to a couple of weeks. Be sure to cover the curing roots if frost threatens, because below-freezing temperatures will turn them to mush. Cured mangels store well in a root cellar, or mounded on the ground and covered with a protective layer of straw and earth.
Image Arseniy – stock.adobe.com
By mid-January, mangels are an important part of our pigs’ diet. Chopped mangel roots are a late-winter treat for our sheep and cows. We’re usually feeding mangels until the new grass appears in spring. Overfeeding mangels can cause scours in livestock, though, so supplement the roots with hay, clover, or bran.
Kvass is a traditional Eastern European fermented beverage made with beets – just one of the ways our forebears enjoyed drinking their roots. To make kvass, grate or slice mangels, place them in a jar, and cover them with brine. Then, set them aside at room temperature for a couple of weeks. The beets will ferment to make a tangy, slightly alcoholic beverage full of probiotics, a cross between kimchi juice and kombucha.
Other mangel beverage traditions include beer- and winemaking. You can try using chopped and boiled mangel roots in your favorite alcoholic drink recipes.
Mangel hurling has been a sport in England since the 18th century. First, a target mangel is placed by a two-handed overhead heave. Called the “Norman,” this is the only mangel from which leaves have been removed. All subsequent mangels are held by their leafy tops and hurled with a straight-armed overhand swing. The goal is to land the hurled mangel as near as possible to the Norman. The hurler must remain stationary, and stand in a basket or barrel that’s sized to prevent movement of the feet.
Shawn and Beth Dougherty have farmed together for more than 30 years. Their book The Independent Farmstead details the intensive farming techniques they use on their land at Sow’s Ear Farm. You can find the Doughertys online at One Cow Revolution.
Growing soil, biodiversity, nutrient-dense food, and more!
Shawn and Beth Dougherty purchased land the state of Ohio designated as unsuitable for agriculture. Some 20 years later, they raise 90 percent of their food on this property. The Independent Farmstead is their story, and covers everything from choosing ruminants to establishing a grass-based system.
This title is available at the Grit store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #7979.
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